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Ivica Strok: how Football Manager helped me cope with loss

Ivica Strok steps out onto the Celtic pitch for the final time before he hangs up his boots for good, a testimonial match against his boyhood club NK Zagreb following his 22 years in green and white hoops. He departs a hero, a legend. There’s just one small detail; this is the year 2042, and Ivica Strok isn’t real.

You may not be familiar with the name Ivica Strok, despite his four Champions League winners’ medals, but you may well have seen his face; his pixelated, vacant stare has popped up across social media. Since his virtual retirement, Ivica has become a figurehead for CALM; and built a 4000 strong following on Twitter.

The story of Ivica Strok begins on Football Manager 2013 and in the fictional year 2020 when I, as Celtic’s manager, paid £5 million for the 18-year-old striker with the aim of his talent delivering the goals to take the Scottish club to European glory. His goals, all 836 of them, translated into four Champions’ League victories, one Europa League win, and countless domestic trophies. A fine haul for a fine player, albeit one consigned to life in an alternative reality.

That was until 21st December 2014; when my older brother, Simon, took his own life. He was 36 years old.

Simon, in his teenage years, was the person that took the time to sit beside me and show me how to play Football Manager. He showed me how a series of statistics, algorithms and flashing text could lead you to become the greatest manager in the world. Now, nearly two decades later, it was time to use those lessons of the virtual world to try and make a difference in the real world.

Simon, in his teenage years, was the person that took the time to sit beside me and show me how to play Football Manager. He showed me how a series of statistics, algorithms and flashing text could lead you to become the greatest manager in the world.

YouGov estimates that the typical Football Manager fan is a male aged between 25 and 39, closely resembling the main demographic most at risk from suicide; men under the age of 50. With that in mind, Ivica Strok became a self-appointed supporter of CALM with the aim of getting men talking about their mental health; men that play Football Manager, men that don’t, and men that just stumble across the story of a fictional footballer that broke out from a hard drive and made his way into the real world. Just as Football Manager had helped me through the aftermath of Simon’s death in offering an outlet and a distraction for my grief, it could just so easily help other men through their struggle.

So we return to that summer day in 2042, when Celtic took on NK Zagreb for Ivica Strok’s testimonial. It is traditional for a player to give the proceeds of their testimonial to charity, and Strok’s chosen charity was CALM. Without ticket sales or fundraising buckets outside the stadium, how was money going to be raised?

Just as Football Manager had helped me through the aftermath of Simon’s death in offering an outlet and a distraction for my grief, it could just so easily help other men through their struggle.

A testimonial programme was produced, featuring stories from Strok’s time at Celtic and infographics covering aspects of his career – it even featured an advert for CALM, and one for Football Manager 2043. The programme sold out quickly, and with 100% of the money going straight to help CALM carry on their important and valuable work, Ivica had truly made his mark in the real world. That fact was cemented when a copy of Ivica’s programme went on show at the National Football Museum in Manchester, alongside exhibits such as the ball used in the 1966 World Cup final and the shirt Diego Maradona wore when outjumping Peter Shilton for his infamous Hand of God.

Football Manager is just a game, and Ivica Strok is just a collection of randomly assigned statistics and pixels, but the lines between fiction and reality are becoming blurred – what Strok now represents, more than anything else, is a hugely worthwhile cause.

By the time he retires in 2042, we hope that the stigma around male mental health and suicide will have reduced, and those who need help are able to seek it and access it. Until then, Ivica Strok will continue to support CALM.

Follow Jonny Sharples @JonnyGabriel and Ivica Strok @IvicaStrok

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