Silly season: How a figment of an Irish journalist's imagination made it on to 'The Times' Top 50 most-wanted young players
He was placed ahead of Mesut Ozil and Robert Lewandowski
Let’s start with the curious case of Masal Bugduv.
Back in 2008, Irish journalist Declan Varley tested the journalistic waters by throwing a large rock into the football pool and with the intention of seeing where the ripples ended up.
To his astonishment, his online blogs about an entirely fictional Moldovan player he dreamed up to test the theory that some football fans will believe anything they read in the transfer gossip columns became a worldwide global phenomenon.
Never mind that teenager Masal didn’t have a pulse, as Varley’s fantasy footballer was transformed from being a figment of his imagination into a player whose name was being linked with moves to the world’s top clubs.
Manchester City manager Mark Hughes and Spurs boss Harry Redknapp even faced questions at press conferences about their interest in Bugduv, with the viral spread of excitement over a player who didn’t even exist directing a glaring spotlight on a curious football obsession that has grown to epidemic proportions the last decade.
“It was in the days before Twitter, when we had internet blogs that fuelled rumours of transfers,” Declan told Independent.ie.
“I could see how these stories were developing on blogs and ending up in the mainstream media, so I decided to invent a player and see how far it would go.
“I went onto Wikipedia, added Masal Bugduv to the Moldovan national team and wrote a few stories that were made to look like they had come from respected news agencies.
“The idea was to present Bugduv as the next big thing in Eastern European football after Romanian great Gheorghe Hagi and to present an image of a player who was the best young player in the game.
“Amazingly, this little idea exploded to levels I could never have imagined and it highlighted how fake news can become reality if presented in the right way.
“I always said that football was the first post truth environment where anything that was said might be believed by those who wanted to believe it.
“All these years later, that idea has been taken to even more incredible levels with the help of Twitter and with so many crazy transfer stories out there, it’s not wonder people don’t believe so much of what they read now.”
The presence of Bugduv in their list of The Times top 50 most wanted young players in European football ahead of Mesut Ozil and Robert Lewandowski cemented the legend of a player the world needed to see in action, yet Varley’s brilliant vision of how football journalism could develop has reached dangerous levels in a week when the first €200m transfer has been confirmed.
Here is your Independent.ie guide to how football journalism has been transformed in the last decade - and why a credibility crisis is looming large in the final month of this summer’s transfer window.
BELIEVE IT OR NOT
"We are in talks with Fellaini. We have made an approach. Fellaini will leave Manchester United and he is now in our radar.”
The comments of Galatasaray Sporting Director Cenk Ergun last weekend appeared to be reliable enough to suggest the Turkish club were, at the very least, in talks to sign United’s Belgian midfielder.
Yet the comments from this most senior Galatasaray official appear to have been some kind of media tease, as just 24 hours later, United manager Jose Mourinho confirmed his club would not sell Fellaini this summer.
When club officials are part of the fake news agenda, reporters have little or no chance of writing stories that are believable, yet this kind of incident is one part of the reason why the credibility of football journalism is at stake.
TWITTER TRANSFER EXPERTS
An alarmingly large collection of fans have become devoted to worshiping Twitter journalists who claim to have the inside track on all the world’s biggest transfers.
Even though a vast majority are clearly accounts throwing transfer darts in every direction and hoping to land the odd bullseye on stories that are already in the mainstream media, thousands of young fans around the world hang on the every tweet of these so-called transfer experts.
Get lucky with a few transfer ‘predictions’ and you are instantly hailed as a genius, with deals that fall through leading to hasty deletion of tweets before any of the fanbase defects.
It is a curious world that has very little basis in reality, yet stories that appear on these accounts gather enough momentum on line to ensure that they get into the mainstream press several days later.
‘SERIOUS’ JOURNALISTS JOIN THE FRAY
Social media’s exploding popularity on recent years has not extended to Twitter, where user numbers have slowed to a point to ensure that major website editors have, belatedly, stopped hiring ‘journalists’ based on how many followers that have built up.
The fact that you can purchase followers and retweets on the Twitter for a relatively modest fee meant that hiring novice reporters on their alleged social media fanbase was a flawed plan and yet nearly everyone in the media has been seduced by the charms of building a Twitter following.
However, any reporter throwing up five world exclusives a day relating the world’s biggest transfers would not be promoting them on Twitter if his sources were genuine, as you don’t get paid for breaking stories on a social media platform.
Yet that does not stop a stream of nonsense being poured into the rumour mill on a daily basis, with too many people struggling to spot the reality from the fiction.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
Football journalism has been transformed in the last two decades, with top Premier League clubs no longer needing the input of the mainstream media to promote their agenda.
With each club employing expanding communications teams that produce viral videos every time a player is signed, the old fashioned method of staging a press conference to introduce a new signing is a relic of a bygone age.
Fine reporters with realiable contacts at top clubs in English football are still thriving in the business, but their relevance is being diluted by those who have invaded their playing field.
It should never be forgotten that credibility as a journalist should always be put before a quick website hit, even if the desire to report on the next Masal Bugduv is becoming more tempting than ever.