Whole new ball game

19th May 2000 at 01:00
Could your pupils manage the finances of a top-class soccer team? Gary Pettecrew says Schools Fantasy Football League is full of real maths

The great Dutch footballer Johann Cruyff once said: "Football is a game you play with your brain." Across the country at least 24,000 school students and teachers are finding out just how true that is.

The Fantasy Football phenomenon, born in the early 1990s, has arrived in British schools. Nationally, some 270 schools are taking part in the game but what makes it such a potential asset is the educational spin-off. The game relies heavily on statistical information and also has just the right amount of out-and-out luck to make it an activity at which even the weakest academic pupils can excel.

First of all, let me clear up what Fantasy Football is not. It is not, as one Year 8 pupil confidently told me, "where you dress up in clown outfits and kick a beach ball around"; in fact, for anyone still not in the know, participants do not kick balls around at all. Nor, contrary to popular belief, is it difficult to understand. Put simply, your fantasy is that you are a team manager, and you choose 11 players from a list of Premiership footballers. How well they perform from week to week determines how many points your team gets. Points are awarded by the Fantasy League, a commercial enterprise based in London. It was the first to run the game, in the Daily Telegraph some years ago. The game is now in The Times. Lots of similar versions are run by other newspapers and magazines. There is a postal version and you can play over the Internet. Even Fantasy Formula 1, Fantasy Cricket and Fantasy Golf exist now.

Points are scored for any player who scores a goal, for passing the ball to a player who then scores and, in the case of goalkeepers and defenders, for not conceding any goals. There are three points for a goal, two points for an "assist", and three points for keeping a clean sheet for defenders and goalies. Sounds easy, but your choice of player is limited by the fact that no more than two can be chosen from any one team and you must pay for each player out of a pound;50m budget. David Beckham is pound;6m, Michael Owen pound;10m - and Watford's striker costs less than either of them.

Given such criteria, choosing your team can be the work of three minutes or, in my own sad case, three days depending on how much thought you want to put into it. I have spent many hours agonising over which players will be most worth buying, only to see them spectacularly underachieve when the season starts. Fortunately, there are two points during the season when players can be sold and replaced. Information is at a premium and that makes certain pupils popular barometers of opinion. Indeed, often a child's level of ignorance about the significance of Magna Carta is inversely proportional to their assessment of the Leeds' back four.

When I started working at Offerton High school, I saw a computer article on how to set up your own "fantasy football league", and decided to give it a go myself. The head checked out the copyright with The Times, which suggested we ring the Fantasy League. It turned out the company was starting a pilot Schools Fantasy League, and so far only one other school had signed up. I jumped at the chance to join, especially since it would save me spending half-term entering data (their data entry staff take care of all the number-crunching). I would just have to send Fantasy League the completed entry forms at the start of the schools' season in October.

All I had to do was co-ordinate the entries, issue team slips and post the results up. Almost a quarter of the school signed up and interest remained high throughout the season. A crowd of Year 7 and 8 students would surround me while I posted up the results each wek. It quickly became clear that any managers placed below one's own team were obviously inferior while those above were somehow "luckier".

About half way through the season it was equally apparent that some of us "unlucky" managers were never going to catch the leaders and so we introduced a knockout-Cup competition based on a random pairing of everyone in the League. This saw a number of classic "head to head" ties that enhanced the whole-school nature of the game and gave "also rans" like myself a straw to grasp. For this, we simply use the weekly scores to determine who will go through. Each round is announced in advance so that the entrants know their opponent and which week's scores will be the ones used for the competition.

Fantasy Football has been used in a few classes in our school where it fitted in with the current unit of study. Lorna Smith, maths teacher, says:

"The data generated by the game was very useful for decimals, ordering numbers, averages and all kinds of graph work." Some students regularly spend lunch times working out what player is the best buy.

The most fruitful time for maths teachers to make use of the statistics is probably at the beginning of the year when interest is highest. To begin with, the previous season's player scores can be used to plot a graph of player costs against points scored. This is important in order to buy wisely and squeeze as much value out of the selections as possible. Then, from simple adding (which team's forwards scored mostleast points and so on), students could move on to consider which positions (other than forwards) tend to be the most productive by using averages. Even the act of choosing a team involves totalling decimals correctly and it is surprising how many get this wrong. Plotting an individual player's performance week by week is unlikely to be a very good exercise as they can have some very long "dry spells". The students' team performance offers much more scope for average points per weekmonth.

When the transfer period comes round (in December and March) a lot of entrants are very keen to get a handle on who is hot and who is not. This kind of information might best be worked out by graphs that show player performance and a summary of results, conveyed in a newsletter for appropriate noticeboards. Last year some of our Year 8 pupils took it on themselves to produce a newsletter in the IT department. Such lesson's aims and objectives make immediate sense to children struggling to make decisions they know are crucial to success in the competition. Students are highly motivated to learn any new skill which might help give them an edge in the competition and raise their own profile in the class. Even those not taking part can see the relevance of the exercise to their friends. Inevitably, for the moment at least, more boys are entering than girls. Yet with the educational spotlight on boys' underachievement, perhaps that is no bad thing. Far from being a gimmick, the notion of using football as an educational hook for disenchanted young people has been well documented (witness the Government's championing of links between schools and local football clubs in targeting persistent truants and underachievers).

The Department for Education and Employment is keen to see Fantasy Football take off as part of Maths Year 2000. Even if only a small portion of football's glamour and appeal can be used to spice up the odd lesson, it must be worthwhile. If you are interested in taking part in next season's game, visit www.fantasyleague.com schools or e-mail your name and school details to schools2000@fantasyleague.com or fax your name and school details to: 020 7383 0808.

Gary Pettecrew teaches history at Offerton high school, Cheshire E-mail: gpettecrew@freeuk.com

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