Down the road from Declan Varley’s office in Galway, Ireland, is a statue of Pádraic Ó Conaire, a prolific Irish essayist and author. He is regarded as the first great fiction writer in the Irish language. Among his most noted works is the short story “M’asal Beag Dubh,” or “My Little Black Donkey.” It was that story which gave Varley his idea.
Though he lives on Ireland’s picturesque, windswept west coast, Varley describes himself as an “avid” fan of Arsenal Football Club in London. A few years ago, Varley, long since accustomed to spending his summers “grasping at every little snippet” of transfer speculation about his team, was scouring the internet for whispers as to which player Arsenal’s manager, Arsène Wenger, would bring to the club.
As a journalist — Varley is now group editor at The Galway Advertiser — he found the entire experience frustrating. During the two months of the transfer window, he would spend hours sifting through articles laced with anonymous sources and stripped of verification, all purporting to reveal the identity of Arsenal’s next big signing. “It was all Messi to Arsenal, that sort of thing,” he said. “Based on sand.” Only a handful of the reported moves ever came to pass.
The miasma of misinformation prompted Varley to indulge in what he calls “a social experiment,” though others might identify it more accurately as a hoax. He decided he wanted “to see how far a phantom could travel.”
So in the summer of 2008, he invented a player. He would be a promising 16-year-old from Moldova, a country distant enough that his fictional roots might not easily be exposed. And his name would come straight from the statue of Ó Conaire. After all, the plot of his short story centers on a character who “knows his donkey is useless, but tries to sell it to the highest bidder,” Varley said. “So there is a correlation with the transfer market.”
His player would be a phonetic rendering of Ó Conaire’s title: Masal Bugduv.
Long before the ascension of President Donald Trump made the phrase unavoidable, soccer provided the most fertile ground imaginable for what we have come to call “fake news.”
Now, Trump tweets and speaks about “fake news” relentlessly, often whenever he reads or sees something he does not like. Politicians across the world use it as a pithy put-down to dismiss any accusation they find uncomfortable. Sports stars and celebrities increasingly reach for it as a defense mechanism. (When Arsenal’s Mesut Özil had his Instagram account hacked this month, he pleaded with people to stop spreading “fake news.”)
The phrase has been used so often, an argument can be made that because it means almost everything, it no longer means anything at all. To most, though, it signifies a story where the facts are so disputed or distorted that truth itself becomes fluid. It is a story designed to take root in an explicitly partisan environment: Whether it is true or not does not matter so much as whether its intended audience wants it to be true. It is a phenomenon soccer has exploited for some time.
In a sporting context, the most basic building block of a post-truth environment can be witnessed almost every week: A refereeing decision that costs one team victory is supported by the manager who benefited, and condemned by the one who suffered. Players and fans cling to the interpretation that suits them, and the news media dutifully reports the ensuing controversy.
But it is during the long, frenzied days of the summer transfer window, when soccer itself becomes a sidebar to the business of player trading, that this tendency reaches its purest form. This is when fact and fiction are blurred, when clubs and managers and agents all offer clandestine briefings of their own versions of events, when truth itself becomes elusive.
This month, in the space of a single day, unidentified sources close to Manchester United confirmed to reporters that the club had agreed to pay Everton 75 million pounds (nearly $97 million) for star striker Romelu Lukaku. Sources at Everton denied it. Sources at Chelsea, another of the forward’s suitors, insisted the club still retained hope of completing a deal with Lukaku.
Not all of those things could be true. It’s possible that none of them were. The truth you accepted depended largely on which one suited you best.
It was for this reason that, in 2008, Varley built his hoax slowly, carefully, using all of his professional expertise. He based Bugduv’s characteristics on Wayne Rooney — “strong, so he could fit into a team straightaway” — but he did not “make him a superhero.” Realism, he realized, was key. At his invented Moldovan team, Bugduv would play a supporting role, initially, rather than scoring buckets of goals every game.
Varley first spread the word about Bugduv on various message boards. Each post was written in the style of The Associated Press: stripped of rhetorical flourish, straightforward, just the simple facts. He created a fictional Moldovan newspaper, titled with a vulgar Irish word play, and assigned Bugduv a caricature of an agent.
When he was ready to have Bugduv graduate to the Moldovan national team — helping to beat Luxembourg — Varley wrote a story linking him to Arsenal and posted it online. The hoax started to spread. Most of the early posts about Bugduv came from Varley’s accounts. But soon, Bugduv’s name was being mentioned elsewhere, unprompted.
“People will believe what they want to believe,” Varley said. “And there is a desire to be seen as though you are in the know, not to want to admit you aren’t on top of the game.”
Eventually, of course, the hoax was exposed. But by then, Varley felt his point had been proved. His phantom had traveled all the way into respected mainstream publications, even making one list of the top 50 young players in Europe (placing 30th).
“It was not meant to be malicious,” Varley said. He had demonstrated, though, that soccer was the perfect environment for fake news to thrive. Looking back now, he regards Bugduv as “the first post-truth footballer.”
One day this month, the independent soccer website Football365, which had its launch in 1997, received more unique visits than on any other day in its history. It was early in July. The Confederations Cup had finished, and so had the European under-21 championships. The start of the Premier League season was still weeks away. The visits, most likely, came from people searching for updates on transfer rumors.
That demand is met by an inexhaustible supply. Wenger regularly complains that Arsenal is linked to hundreds of players every summer. By one estimate, Manchester United had been linked to more than 50 before the transfer window even opened, but had signed only one, the young Swedish defender Victor Lindelof, before finally adding Lukaku this week. (At least one of those early July reports, it seems, was true.)
That the vast majority of rumors never come to fruition does not seem to dull the appetite. Quite the opposite. As Varley found with Bugduv, what matters is not the cold, hard fact, but the version of truth that is most appealing. In the gap between seasons, hearing that your club could sign a player is the best substitute for actual matches.
In the rumor-thirsty world of social media and team forums, anyone who provides that fix can gain traction. Every year, a handful of social accounts from supposed agents or insiders appear, looking to benefit by offering to reveal those stories that established journalists cannot or will not report. Some, as in the memorable case of Duncan Jenkins — described by his creator, a copywriter named Sean Cummins, as possibly the “first post-truth journalist” — are jokes that spin out of control. Others are designed to be a little more mean-spirited.
But others have been able to find a way to survive and thrive, learning how to function in an environment where facts are fluid and the mainstream news media is not trusted as comprehensive, if it is trusted at all.
Indy Kaila — the founder of IndyKaila, a social media brand devoted to transfers — started tweeting rumors in 2012.
“I had a couple of friends who worked in the media,” he said. “They used to tell me things, and I’d put a bit of money on it. I noticed that when I tweeted it — ‘I’ve heard this, put some money on it’ — I started gaining followers.”
Five years later, Indy Kaila has more than a quarter-million followers on his Twitter account, and almost 5,000 more on Facebook. He claims — though it cannot be verified — that he now employs people to help run his social media accounts. Quite who he is, though, remains something of a mystery: He demurs when asked where he is from, what he does for a living, or what his full name is.
Regardless, Indy Kaila now has agreements with a number of sponsors, though he will not confirm if transfer gossip provides his main source of income. Briefly, he even had a slot on a local radio station in Leicester.
He has become a sort of news feed in his own right. “I always put ‘breaking’ in front of things if it is stuff that is being reported elsewhere,” he said. “If I put ‘exclusive,’ it means it is my own information. I make that clear to my followers.”
Right from the start, every time he posted a rumor, someone would respond that he is a nobody, a chancer, a fake. It still happens, though it has not stopped him from gaining a following, or dissuaded him from posting. That is because how reliable his information was at the start is essentially irrelevant: He says he now receives tips from credible sources — “lower-level people who work at clubs” — and claims to have been contacted, on several occasions, by players themselves, asking about the source of his information. The fake can be real, and the real fake.
Like more established news outlets, he knows that no matter where the information has come from, most of the stories he posts will not come to pass. And like them, he knows that it does not matter. In soccer, as in politics, what now matters is whether people want this story to be true. People will believe what, and whom, they want to believe.
So just as he is about to hang up the phone, having recounted his experiences, Indy Kaila pauses, then asks a question. “Now,” he said. “have you got any news for me?”