For many, the international friendly between Italy and Sweden on November 18, 2009 was a forgettable one. Type 'Italy vs Sweden 2009 friendly' into Google and you're met with a 350-word match report that has been viewed 82 times [and counting].
On what turned out to be a far-from-eventful evening at the Stadio Dino Manuzzi, a fresh-faced Giorgio Chiellini would score Italy's only goal as they floundered to a 1-0 win against a team still licking their wounds after failing to qualify for the World Cup. All in all, it was a meaningless result.
But unlike the majority of players and fans who turned up that night, former Sunderland forward Tobias Hysen was brimming with excitement when Slovenian referee Damir Skomina blew his full-time whistle.
After sharing the same pitch as him for over an hour, the Swede quickly scanned the area to find one of Italy’s biggest names, Antonio Di Natale. Did he want to congratulate the striker on his performance? Or wish him all the best for the season ahead? Not quite.
Hysen soon approached the diminutive striker with a special request.
"I actually swapped shirts with Antonio Di Natale!" Hysen tells SPORTbible with a noticeable amount of excitement in his voice. "The only reason I did that was because I had a very successful Udinese save on Football Manager 2006 and he banged in so many goals for me, so I had to have his shirt. I had to have it.”
It may have been three years since he last played that particular version of the game, but Di Natale's god-like status in the virtual world had clearly made an impact on Hysen's life — a strange thought if you don’t fully understand what Football Manager can do to a person.
But if you are a die-hard fan of the series, then you'll almost certainly relate to those feelings. And nodding his head in agreement as Hysen reminisces about that special evening in Cesena is another former Sweden international, Pontus Wernbloom – the ex-CSKA Moscow midfielder who continues to pour hundreds of hours into the game each year.
Wernbloom soon recalls coming up against Argentine midfielder Javier Pastore during a pre-season friendly with the Russian outfit. "He was incredible on my save when he played with Palermo," he says. "I was starstruck by him, even though he wasn't the biggest name there. But he was always so good in my teams on FM.”
It's an obsession that began in the late 90's and early 00's, when the great Martin Palermo was bagging goals for fun on Championship Manager 00/01. "That's when I really got into it and then, the best game ever made – CM 01/02 – came out and I really caught the bug," Wernbloom says. "I've played the game every day since."
Hysen, who played alongside Wernbloom on numerous occasions at international level, says he would spend "more or less" four or five hours playing Football Manager in the early days. It was a hobby that would spill into both of their professional careers.
“I'd always play the game on away trips," Hysen says. "Whether it be on a bus, a train, a flight or in a hotel room. People don’t realise the amount of waiting that you do as a footballer, so every time you had to wait in an airport or at a hotel, the laptop would save so many boring trips.
"For me, sitting on a bus for two and a half hours was bliss. It's been a lifesaver.”
Wernbloom nods again. The 36-year-old was somewhat of an international jetsetter during a 20-year career in football. He spent six trophy-laden years in Russia with CSKA Moscow and enjoyed spells in the Netherlands and Greece with AZ Alkmaar and PAOK respectively.
The language barrier must have been tough, at times, and travelling thousands of miles with CSKA on away trips across the country was difficult for some. But not Wernbloom, who says he would spend an average of three or four hours a day playing the game to pass time.
“Most of my teammates thought I was a little bit nerdy," Pontus laughs. "But I think they saw me having more fun that they were playing cards or whatever. They used to laugh but I reckon they were also a little bit jealous.”
You can really sense how passionate these guys are about the game as we chat over a Zoom call. Hysen goes on to describe a typical day during a playing career that consisted of spells at Djurgårdens IF, IFK Göteborg and Chinese Super League side Shanghai SIPG.
"I mean, from January to March, when it was pre-season in Sweden, you had two training sessions a day,” he explains. “You train at ten, you have lunch and then there's like two hours before the next practice. You’d go into the Players Lounge, put the laptop down, put your feet up and then just play Football Manager for two hours.
"It was the same thing when I came home from a game," Hysen says. "Let's say I arrived home after a game at 11pm. I was all pumped up with adrenaline, so I'd go and spend three or four hours on the game to just calm down. They said we should spend around an hour relaxing when we arrived home, but then you get into your Football Manager save and the next thing you know it's 2am. And you ask, 'where did the time go?'."
Last year, after dedicating a combined total of 43 years into professional football, both Hysen and Wernbloom decided to hang up their boots and retire, although one thing has remained in their lives. Come rain or shine, they will always find time in their day to sit down and play some Football Manager.
In fact, the pair have recently helped build FM Sweden – a community where people can come together and talk about all things Football Manager.
"I would say almost every single one of them are interacting one way or the other," Pontus says about the FM Sweden Twitter page. "We are just a couple of nerds and it seems we attract a huge amount of nerds in the process. It's fun to interact with people.”
The pair also host a podcast called FM Podden – a show that deals with "everything about our beloved game, featuring tips, interesting tactics, briefings and exciting guests to brighten up our episodes." And they continue to dedicate hours into both playing and talking about FM.
So why do they do it?
“It's what I do when I relax, when I want to take it easy," Wernbloom says. "Before it was to get away from the pressures of professional football. Now, it's a great place to get away from things. I can sit down for an hour and just focus on FM. I have two kids and it can be hard work, so it's nice to just sit down for an hour and gain back some much needed energy.”
Ultimately, the game continues to bring so much joy to their lives. Whether it be Pontus' famous save with Gateshead this year, where he followed the National League side’s progress in real life as a result – or Tobias' mission to lead his beloved IFK Göteborg to Allsvenskan glory. They just want to share the joys of Football Manager with others and hopefully, they catch the bug doing so.
“We really want to try and introduce the game to new people," Tobias says. "The biggest concern is that FIFA will take over, so the more people who find Football Manager, the better. I mean, I'm trying to get my son to play but he still wants to play FIFA.”
Away from the computer screen and Hysen has been inspired to take up coaching in the real world.
Like fellow Football Manager fan William Still – a self-confessed FM addict who went on to become the youngest head coach in Belgian first division history – the recently-retired Swede has leant on his previous experiences playing the much-loved game.
"FM has played a huge part in my life," he says. "Not only have you played the game, but you've learned so much about different footballers, different teams and different leagues. And as time goes on, you learn about different aspects of the game more and more.
"For me, as a coach at semi-professional level, I can say I've learned so much from Football Manager. I often test different tactics in-game, watch the highlights and write notes down on a piece of paper to see if it's actually accessible on a real pitch. From that perspective, I think you can learn a lot."
As we wrap up our chat, the story is about to come full circle. Hysen looks back at meeting former Italy international Antonio Di Natale on that day in 2009 with great fondness, but a relatively unknown player going by the name of Albin Broberg sums up why we – and millions of others – love this game.
“There's a lot of different stories," he begins. "I mean, we had a journeyman save on the podcast. We always started off in a small place like Northern Ireland or Iceland. But at one point in that journeyman save, we were in a little Swedish town called Vanersborg and I had a player called Albin Broberg.
"He was so good for me. He got us promoted to the Swedish Superettan and we almost got promoted to the Allsvenskan. Not long after, when I was coaching at semi professional level, our team actually came up against Vanersborg and Broberg was playing for them.
"Let me remind you that this was a player that had played in the lower leagues – in Sweden's third and fourth divisions – and here's me, an ex-international for the Sweden national team, starstruck at just meeting him in real life. It took a lot of explaining."
Featured Image Credit: Alamy/Twitter