THE best April Fool of 2009, rather like this blog post, didn’t happen on April 1 at all. It came to fruition sometime in early January, and stands as a warning of the dangers of over-relying on the internet to research football stories. I give you the curious case of Masal Bugduv, the player who didn’t exist.
Bugduv, despite being a figment of a Cork City supporter’s imagination, has his own Wikipedia entry. If you look it up, you discover the whole story of just how a non-existant Moldovan managed to get to No 30 in The Times’ list of football’s top 50 rising stars.
It’s a long story, told best by the writer Brian Phillips in an article for online magazine Slate. This is the short version: A chap from Galway decided to create a fictional player and see if, via the internet effluent torrent of rumour, hearsay and dribble, he could get said non-existant star mentioned by a reputable news outlet in the transfer merry go round.
And it worked somewhere between 100,000 and three million times better than the (remarkably still anonymous) hoaxer could have dreamed of. In January, on the back of a series of message board posts, breathless blog entries and faked press agency reports, Bugduv hit the big time.
The Times ranked the not-even-slightly-real teenager among its top 50 players to watch out for in 2009. Other media outlets also found themselves taken in. It was only when blogger Neil McDonnell started to smell a rat and did some investigating that the truth emerged: Not only did the player not exist, but Masal Bugduv wasn’t even a Moldovan name.
Masal Bugduv, as Phillips discovered, was an phonetic approximation of M’Asal Beag Dubh (Gaelic for ‘My little black ass’), a short story written by Irish author Padraic O Conaire about a dishonest salesman who seeks an exaggerated price for a lazy donkey. (Do you see where the hoaxer was going with this now?)
That the hoax worked so well says an awful lot about the hysteria surrounding the football transfer market. As the hoaxer himself wrote in an e-mail to Phillips, explaining how the idea for the prank came about:
“I came up with the thought during the summer transfer window. Each window is filled with endless rubbish to the point that your granny could be linked with Barcelona if only she could get a work permit. So that got me thinking. What if I created a virtual player who was full of promise. I would drop him into the feeding frenzy that is summer transfer window time and see if he would be noticed on the radar.”
Of course, when you’re not the one who falls for such a prank, it’s easy to sit there and be smug. Easy and so, so wrong.
Every working football newspaper journalist (including me) has, in their time, written speculative transfer stories which have turned out to be wrong.
And every fan and aspiring sports journalist who laughs and jeers at them for this does so with little understanding as to just how difficult it can be for reporters to get information out of the average football club in advance of a transfer taking place, and how much pressure there is to get such stories – and get them first.
In the age of Newsnow, the rumour mill never stops. And there’s always the chance that the latest rumour might be the one that turns to reality. But on that front, I’m always reminded of a piece of advice I was given years ago by a journalist at Radio Lancashire.
He told me that, while the ideal scenario for any journalist is to be both first and accurate, it’s always more important to be right than to be quick.
“When people hear a rumour, I want them to think: ‘I’ll put Radio Lancashire on to find out if it’s true,'” he said. It’s hard to argue with that kind of logic, although it’s not always easy to follow it.
I was thinking about this while at a Manchester City press conference this morning. Since being taken over by Sheikh Mansour in September, City have been linked with somewhere in the region of 200 players. I would suggest about one in 10 of those rumours have had any foundation in fact.
At the press conference, I asked manager Mark Hughes if he might comment on the likelihood of signing a couple of players who have been linked with the club in the past week.
“We are linked every day of the week with players right across Europe and the world,” he said, with the air of a man who has dealt with more than his fair share of transfer speculation this season. “Good players will always be linked with us.”
He’s right. Good players will continue to be linked with City, for as long as they have Sheikh Mansour’s cash to spend. In fact, one of the few players you can guarantee won’t be linked with the Blues in the future is Masal Bugduv.
Mind you, he might have a twin brother…