It's interesting to see how even the most spectacular of sporting festivals can be boiled down to nothing but a few spreadsheets full of financial details and a couple of random number generators. Take the UEFA Champions League final, for instance: all the glitz and glamour of 22 of the richest, most talented footballers in the world, kicking ten bells out of each other for the benefit of an audience of millions. But peer through the grimy, text-based spectacles of Championship Manager 5 and the same event becomes a head-scratching whirlwind of stats, rapidly moving dots on a crudely animated football pitch, and desperate decision-making over whether the 1-1-8 formation really could be a viable alternative to the flat back four.
Both totally different to look at and experience, but the feelings of joy and jubilation and utter, suicidal despair are exactly the same.
And therein lies the mystic charm of the football management sim. Picking your way through a game that's only marginally more attractive than
a three-week stay in spreadsheet hell might seem like an abstract way of recreating the sheepskin jacket-wearing thrill of bellowing at overpaid, sexually charged young men as they kick an inflated pig's bladder around the park, but somehow it works. And in the case of the Championship Manager series, rarely has it been done better.
Yeah, right. If you happen to be talking about the PC football management game, maybe, but on the Xbox, Codemasters' LMA Manager series (Issue 35, 8.5) has always been king - and the real trouble here is that Championship Manager 5 knows it. On the one hand you have this massively in-depth, ultra-detailed football management sim, overflowing with every kind of stat your average football fan could ever dream of knowing, but on the other, you have a game that's been designed specifically for play on a high-resolution PC monitor, and therefore features screen after screen of tiny, awkward-to-read text and menus that can only be properly navigated with a mouse. For a console footy management sim that, if you'll forgive the vernacular, is something of an own goal.
On the positive side, Championship Manager 5 manages to pack a hell of a lot of data onto your Xbox. Talking purely stats for a moment (imagine this next bit in a John Motson voice, if you like), Championship Manager 5 features 25 playable national leagues, which equates to nearly 60 playable divisions. Taking into account how many teams that is - plus the hundreds of other non-selectable foreign and non-league teams on offer - with between 20 to 60 players per team (because you've got your reserves and youth academy players to take into consideration as well), and it's clear that Championship Manager 5 reads like a virtual telephone directory of planet Earth's footballing talent.
Equally, CM5 gives you wide-ranging control of almost every important aspect of a fledgling soccer manager's career. And because we're talking FOOTBALL manager here, as opposed to FINANCIAL, or MARKETING manager, that means a game that concentrates purely on tactics and training. Money's still a concern, naturally - transfers don't grow on trees, you know - but CM5 tends to steer clear of areas such as advertising or stadium development (both of which feature in LMA Manager), instead leaving everything but transfer and contract negotiations to the suits.
To this end, you're able to set up detailed training regimes for your whole team as well as each individual; scout out every player in the world to look for that ideal man to bolster your suspect back line (with a articular eye on promising youth talent); promote reserve team players to the first squad and vice versa; renegotiate contracts; swoop for the Bosman's; praise and discipline your squad - via the national press if need be - and tailor your on-pitch tactics down to the smallest details, setting everything from who plays left-footed free kicks to specifying exactly how close the ball has to be to your goal line before your defenders start pressing aggressively.