That little buildup to a new Football Manager game…it’s a bit Christmassy, isn’t it? Waiting next to the tree (…Steam library), ready for the big fat man to drop down the chimney (…beta release to drop).
Alright, fine, that’s not the perfect metaphor but it’s not like anyone reads intros, is it? You know what this is all about because you’ve read the title. Get into it.
1. GK: Carlos Kameni
Want a good, cheap goalkeeper any time in about a 10-year span on Football Manager? Idriss Carlos Kameni.
The man won the Copa del Rey (in real life) at 21 after a move to Espanyol, broke the club’s record for minutes without conceding a goal, then went to Malaga to become the bane of Barcelona.
He never became the Champions League winner he turned into on Football Manager – those reflex stats! – but hundreds of appearances in La Liga and an Africa Cup of Nations winner’s medal before his move to Fenerbahce last summer will give him more than enough to look back on when he hangs up his boots.
2. RB: Michael Duff
An absolute favourite here – not necessarily for his CM prowess, although he was great, but for his own slightly geeky love of the game. It got to the point that when playing for Burnley against Nottingham Forest in 2012, he took advantage of a break in play to go over and tell Forest’s Ishmael Miller about the five years of goals Miller had scored for him in the game.
Once called ‘Gary Neville without the bumfluff moustache’, Duff was a phenomenally reliable right-back, available for just £50k in CM 97/98. A long career in the real world saw him pick up more than 20 caps for Northern Ireland, and he spent more than a decade at Burnley before retiring in 2016.
Duff took up his first real-life managerial job this season, taking over the reins at Cheltenham Town after Gary Johnson was fired.
At the time of writing, he’s finding real-life management a little harder than the virtual version – winless after five matches, with two draws and three defeats. Ishmael Miller’s in League Two with Oxford, and hasn’t specifically ruled out a move…
3. CB: Anthony Vanden Borre
It takes something special to be a cult hero for two completely different reasons – and Anthony Vanden Borre was something special. Breaking into the Belgium national team at just 16, the versatile (SO versatile!) defender had the world at his feet.
Even better, he played for Anderlecht, so he was pretty much a steal for anybody starting up on Football Manager 2005, breaking into the post-CM world and anchoring countless teams to Champions League glory.
In reality, his career is another story of monstrous potential gone to waste. Now 30 years old, not once did he ever play 30 league games in a season, and his most famous moment came when Chris Kamara failed to notice that he’d been sent off while playing for Portsmouth. Fitting, really.
He retired in 2017, only to come out of retirement for a brief spell of club football in DR Congo. It didn’t last long.
4. CB: Taribo West
Some are born great. Some achieve greatness. Some have greatness thrust upon them. Others are available for free at the start of a popular video game, and sometimes that’s enough.
Unlike so many cult heroes of the game, West was in his prime when CM01/02 rolled around, at the age of 27. No need to wait for him to develop, no need to think about using the game’s relatively rudimentary training routines to bring out his best, just plug and play. And win, and win, and win.
5. CB: Cristian Chivu
An unsung hero of many Championship Manager players – former Ajax defender Cristian Chivu ticked all the boxes required if you needed a reliable defender without breaking the bank.
Starring in the 01/02 edition, Chivu could be found plying his trade at Ajax in the Eredivisie, where he could be snapped up at the tender age of 20. The Romanian defender had bags of potential, and after a year or two of first-team exposure, could be guaranteed to lead you through to both domestic and European glory.
Back in the real world, Chivu’s career also flourished – with a four-year spell at Ajax followed by stints with Roma and Inter. Unfortunately, injuries disrupted the majority of his career and he never fully reached his potential, though he earned quite the collection of trophies during his time in the fashion capital of the world.
He went on to retire from the game aged 33 – announcing his decision on the same day that his contract was mutually terminated with the Nerazzurri.
6. CDM: Kennedy Bakircioglu
A success! An actual success! Kennedy Bakircioglu may not have signed for Manchester United, where he once went on trial, but 14 caps for Sweden and reasonably successful spells at Ajax and Racing Santander mean that he avoids the ‘failure’ tag.
All the way back in Championship Manager 3, Bakircioglu was a dream. In the infinitely mineable Swedish league, he could be picked up cheaply and played pretty much anywhere in the attacking half of the pitch.
Now at 37, he’s gone back to Sweden to play for his old club Hammarby, scoring a handful of goals but – far more importantly – scoring a free kick against Goteborg at the start of the month and celebrating by catching and drinking a pint of beer thrown at him from the stands.
Miles, if you’re reading this…it’s not too late to add some new celebration animations to FM19, right?
7. CM: Mark Kerr
Another of the legendary CM class of 01/02, Mark Kerr was – and still is – possibly the only argument for the continuation of Scottish football as an institution.
The one-time cyber-legend carved out a successful career north of the border, with long spells at Falkirk, Dundee United and Aberdeen.
He did have a brief spell abroad – playing in Greece for Asteras Tripolis – and found that his small amount of fame helped him out, as some of his new teammates had heard of him from playing the game!
Other notable moments include scoring the winning goal in the Champions League final…for comedian Kevin Bridges’ Borussia Dortmund side.
8. CM: Freddy Adu
It almost feels cruel to bring up Freddy Adu – as if he doesn’t get enough attention every time he signs for a new club (and once again when he leaves that club a few months later).
Adu was the youngest professional athlete in US sporting history when he was playing for DC United at the age of 14, and the next few years were a whirlwind, as he became the youngest player for the USA national team, was selected to the MLS All-Star team, and then moved to Benfica (via Real Salt Lake).
Things fell apart quickly after that. A lack of game time in Portugal – combined with the step up in quality – saw his career stall, and it never really recovered.
After more than a year out of the game, Adu signed for Las Vegas Lights in the USL this season. In 13 appearances, he has one goal and one assist (and is only 29, somehow).
9. CAM: Tonton Zola Moukoko
Possibly the first person in history to think it’d be a good idea to turn down AC Milan and Juventus to sign for Derby County. The perfect player on CM 00/01, scoring 50-odd goals a season from just behind the strikers and setting up his fair share too, Moukoko was a star on the screen.
The death of his brother, and the family turmoil that ensued, meant that he left Derby without playing the game, and ended up bumbling around the leagues in Scandinavia.
Last time he surfaced, the former wonderkid was managing Swedish non-league side Kongo United, and told the BBC : “I am happy the way things are now, with my family and we have a baby – but at the time I wish things didn’t turn out the way they did at Derby.”
10. FC: Khouma Babacar
A little bit more contemporary, Senegal international (spoilers!) Khouma Babacar is still only 25 – having come to prominence as a ludicrously talented 16-year-old at Fiorentina in FM10.
Played in a one-two punch with John Fleck (27, now at Sheffield United, 0 top flight appearances outside Scotland), Babacar was as deadly as he was creative, the absolute fullest of packages.
He never really broke through as expected though, hanging around the fringes of La Viola’s squad for a decade and falling just one short of 100 Serie A appearances for them before moving to Sassuolo permanently this past summer.
In true Football Manager Youngster-Who-Isn’t-Quite-Doing-It style, Babacar racked up four loan spells, with an entire… one of them successful (20 goals in a Serie B season at Modena).
11. FC: Cherno Samba
The man. The legend. Perhaps the greatest of them all. The mere mention of Samba’s name brings back memories for almost all veteran CM players.
Easy to pluck from Millwall’s academy at just 16 in CM 01/02, he’d happily slot into your first team straight away. Lightning fast, great in the air, a brilliant finisher with either foot, Cherno had it all.
In real life? Somewhat less spectacular. While it’s hard to say that the CM scouts misread his potential – 132 goals in 32 games for his Academy team at the age of 13 show a hell of a talent waiting to be unearthed – he never really made the grade.
Spells at Plymouth and Wrexham, as well as time spent in Norway, Greece and Spain, never bore much fruit – although he did score one international goal for Gambia – and he retired aged 29.
That wasn’t quite the end though. Samba has carved out a little niche as a Football Manager personality since his retirement, appearing in an advert for the 2017 edition of the game and popping up as a guest at a few events.
12. Sub: Tó Madeira
Oh, Tó Madeira. An all-time great – one of the only players genuinely capable of a 100-goal season, if you treated him right.
Also? Completely made up.
While rushing to meet a deadline, the Portuguese researcher didn’t realise that one of his scouts had snuck in, erm, himself, and made himself an absolutely, balls-to-the-wall brilliant striker.
Tó was, of course, patched out of the game within weeks of release when the mistake was noticed, but it was far too late to stop him from becoming one of the great legends of the Championship/Football Manager mythos.
13. Sub: Joao Paiva
Available on a free back in the 01/02 version of the game, the then 17-year-old Portuguese striker was basically unstoppable. Goals all over the shop (mostly, it must be said, in the goal). In real life though?
Paiva made it all the way to the Champions League! Okay, only the first qualifying round in 2006/07, where his Apollon Limassol side were beaten by Cork City. But hey, Champions League!
It’s fairly tricky to find details of matches from 10-year-old qualifying games, but a couple of lineups confirm he did play both legs – albeit claiming that he played in midfield for the first and at left-back in the second.
He slid down the divisions of Swiss football in the latter years of his career, retiring this summer after hitting 16 in 28 for FC Dietikon. Still pretty handy that, if you ignore that Dietikon play in the fifth tier and Paiva is 35.