Football Manager is, for me, the most addicting game ever conceived. Naturally, we all have our preferences, but for a person who is obsessed with the sport such as myself, the buck stops here. I would be lying if I did not fully admit to dodging previously made plans in order to continue a save. To spare my utter embarrassment, I can only at least hope one of you out there would claim the same.
FM makes it possible to do what so many wishes we could; coach, scout, or run operations for a professional football club. But there are those select few who do not just have to play the game, they live it.
In my experiences blogging and podcasting, I have been privileged to meet some incredibly interesting people. From interviewing professional footballers to speaking to world renown journalists, any greater glimpse into the beautiful game is an immeasurable experience.
Through these avenues I had the pleasure of meeting, interviewing, and having general discussions with Olivier Zesiger; Switzerland Co-Head Researcher for Football Manager. He was kind enough to agree to sit down and answer questions about the highly popular title, being a researcher for Sports Interactive, and his overall passion for the game.
Olivier; great to speak with you again. To begin, tell us a little bit about what you credit as the reason you fell in love with football.
Thanks for having me. My first memory of football is the 1990 World Cup when Argentina lost to Cameroon in the opener. I was mad because Maradona and Caniggia were among the only players I knew, so naturally, I supported Argentina. I was furious when Cameroon won, much to the enjoyment of my family. Another great memory is the Swiss national team’s 3-2 in Sofia against a then strong Bulgaria team. But I credit the whole USA 1994 qualification campaign by our national team as the real reason I fell in love with the game. The 2-2 draw in Italy and then the 1-0 win at home against the Italian national team are among my fondest memories.
It was around that time when I went to a stadium for the first time. It was either a friendly against the Czech Republic or an FC Basel vs FC Zürich game, visited by over 40,000 fans. Funnily enough, no one in my family even has a slight interest in sports, let alone in football. So I was pretty much on my own. But that whole early-to-mid 90’s period formed my love and passion for the game.
You have crafted that love into a successful career; where did that all begin?
I was a fan with a keen interest on more than just the happenings on the pitch for a long time. I followed football as close as possible, even during personally rough periods. So it also was a way out for me at times; a way to keep me distracted. The internet and the upswing in deeper knowledge through it lead me to believe that there is a chance for me to one day work in football. In the summer of 2009, I posted some improvements on a German Football Manger board. At that time, the Swiss research team went through major changes and lost many members. So Gino, the other Swiss Head Researcher, asked me if I wanted to join in. I was an avid player of Championship and Football Manager. I think Championship Manager ’97 was my first game of the series that I played. It was only logical that I would join.
At first, I only researched FC Basel, but soon I was in charge of the whole Swiss Super League. The game helped me understand more about how clubs work. Although it is not perfect, it gave me a good idea on tactics, training, and transfers. And I learned that I had an eye for talent.
Working for SI on Football Manager opened many doors for me. But what really made me believe I could have a role in real football was when René Maric joined RB Salzburg U19 as a coach. Football was always a bubble, where outsiders had a tougher way into it than former professionals. When Maric, who was known as a tactical blogger for Spielverlagerung.de, joined RBS and had success by winning the UEFA Youth League, I think many realized that there were talented people outside of said bubble. I credit him for lighting a spark in me.
Working for Sports Interactive and Football Manager is something that countless fans of the game would jump at the chance for. How would you class your experience with them?
First of, if someone is interested, there are always openings in the research teams. Visit community.sigames.com to see if a team you would love to research has an opening. Or a league you watch frequently. You don’t even have to be from the country the league is in. In our current research team, we have an Englishman and a Scotsman. There’s always a way into research team if you have the knowledge and the willingness to put in the hours. For example, the Swiss research team is always looking for new assistants.
As far as my experience with SI goes, I have been a Head Researcher for only two years. Before that, as an assistant, my main contact was the other HR. I can work pretty independently though. So my contact with the office is limited. But in general, it has been enjoyable. What I do enjoy the most is to talk to fellow head researchers from around the world. Views of football differ from continent to continent, even from country to country. And being able to talk to many other football addicts around the globe helped me greatly to broaden my horizon of football.
What goes into research and scouting for FM? What would you class as a typical day for you?
There is no normal day. But a few times a week I check the news and read through various media. If I see someone mentioning that his idol is Messi, it goes into his profile. If his favorite club is Arsenal, it goes into his profile. There are many little details that I find out just by reading or watching articles or interviews.
During the season, it’s mostly watching games to accurately rate the players. I watch 4-5 games on Swiss soil per week. At the end of the season, we have to fill in the player and club stats, which is a major part and takes a lot of time. Then we can rate the players, do transfers, put in contract extensions and every single little detail we find out.
Creating youth players is also a major part during the summer research. My database, which consists of the Swiss Super League clubs and their respective youth teams, has over 500 players to keep track of. That keeps you busy most of the year.
If you had to pick one or two players you personally had the privilege to research for the game as favorites, who would you select?
It has to be the ones I judged correctly haha. I had many good players in “my hands” in my time as a researcher. But the ones that stand out are Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri. I watched Shaqiri in one of his first games with the first-team. He only played 45 minutes but I was blown away by that little whirlwind. He oozed confidence and had a fantastic combination of speed and technique. I gave him a very high potential. Even though he did not reach it completely, I am still pleased with it. Granit Xhaka was a member of the Swiss U17 team who won the 2009 World Cup. It took place just weeks after I started working for Football Manager. He was a leader in this team and I also rated him highly in terms of potential. I loved how calm he was on the ball.
Of course, for every player I rated correctly, especially regarding potential, there are some who I rated incorrectly. Some by me misjudging their abilities, some of them by injuries or other factors that influence a players development. But there is no shame in it. It happens to the best scouts in the world from time to time.
Naturally, I must ask; in the latest installment of the game, what are some players from the Super League or the Challenge League that players should be focusing their attention on?
Right now, there are some very talented players who are not quite ready to make the jump to the bigger leagues yet. I highly rate Jan Kronig, a center-back for Young Boys U21, who has had a great Youth League campaign. Noah Okafor, a winger for FC Basel, was rated highly for two editions now. He’s slowly becoming a starter in the first team. Felix Mambimbi scored 3 goals for the Swiss U17 team back in May of last year in the EUROs in England. Those three are among the most talented at the moment. I’ll leave it up to you – the reader – to discover other gems. It always is a good idea to scout Switzerland due to the many young players who get their first team chances.
Outside of FC Basel, who have given us the likes of Mohamed Salah, Ivan Rakitić, Granit Xhaka, and Xherdan Shaqiri, can you tell us some other clubs who can supply bigger leagues consistently?
Basel has the best track record, but you will also pay a lot if you want one of their starlets. In the game and in real life. FC Zurich’s academy is excellent as well, so is Grasshoppers’. The latter is a favorite among Football Manager players due to their name. My hint to the FM player is to go to western Switzerland. There is a club who is not currently in the first tier but has brought up some really talented football players. The likes of Kevin Mbabu or Denis Zakaria all went through their ranks. They also have the highest rate of talents per football player in the whole country. Their academy is in the top 4-5 in Switzerland. I won’t name the club as I made it easy enough to find out. And me spoiling all the secrets isn’t much fun, is it?
Do you have any humorous or, hmm, interesting experiences you are able to share with us during your time there?
I have been contacted by agents and players about ratings. It does not happen often, but it happens. Some were right and then others just tried to boost themselves or their client. I have an open ear for everyone, but in the end, if I disagree I do not change a player. I know of players who keep track of their profiles. It makes me proud when I hear that real players play Football Manager on the bus to an away game. Due to my other job, I travel a lot and when I have finished work on the train, I start Football Manager. Sometimes people recognize the game and ask me about it. The usual stuff.
I think the funniest thing that happened was back when I played Football Manager 14 with Bradford. I was on a good run and could not stop playing, even if it was late at night. The League Cup final came up. Bradford, in the Championship, against Chelsea. I won after penalties. When Ashley Cole missed the final penalty, I screamed so loud that a few minutes later, my neighbor knocked on my door to ask if everything was alright. I then had to explain the situation to him and I do not think he understood. He then gave the “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed” look. I did not care. It’s just a game, they say…
Oliver, thank you once again for your time and I wish you all the best moving forward!
You can find Oliver on Twitter @aulit_z