A FEW days ago, I wrote on here about Rajko Purovic, the Serbian teenager linked with a move to Middlesbrough by the Teesside Evening Gazette, the Daily Mirror, the Press Association, Sky Sports News and Setanta Sports News – despite not existing.
Well, I’ve now made contact with the chap who created him, to find out how and why he did it.
(At least, I think he’s the chap who created him. If he isn’t, then either I’m a victim of a practical joke so elaborate that even Chris Morris would think twice about going through with it, or we’ve just entered The Twilight Zone. In either case, I’m bagsying the film rights.)
The chap in question is a 23-year-old electrician from Middlesbrough called Leon. (I’ve withheld his surname at his request.) He’s been a Boro season-ticket holder for 15 years, through two relegations and a promotion; the first major trophy in the club’s history; a UEFA Cup final; and the arrivals and departures of Ravanelli, Juninho (twice), Gazza, Merson, McClaren and Michael Ricketts.
Purovic’s story starts, improbably enough, with the death of Omar Bongo, the president of Gabon. Bongo died on June 8, aged 73, after 42 years as his country’s leader.
And on the same day, with an eye for the topical, Leon managed to convince his girlfriend that a player called Omar Bongo was about to sign for Boro. (It was, of course, a joke. Gareth Southgate may have spent nearly £13million on Afonso Alves, but even he wouldn’t try to sign a dead West African president.)
That set Leon wondering if he might be able to fool a few more people with another transfer rumour surrounding a made-up player. And so Purovic was born.
“The name doesn’t actually mean anything,” he wrote in an e-mail to me. “I sat and thought of a name, put it into Google and checked it wasn’t already an existing footballer. Rajko Purovic didn’t bring up any results, so I went with that.”
Leon gave Purovic a club – the genuine Banat Zrenjanin, who finished bottom of last season’s Serbian Superliga – and also invented an agent called Dejan Maric. Then he set about some serious rumour-mongering.
He wrote: “I started a thread on a popular Boro message board (Fly Me To The Moon) under the user name: euro_agent. I just said that I was a working partner of Purovic’s agent (Dejan Maric – who also doesn’t exist) and that Boro were linked with an up-and-coming 18-year-old Serbian striker.”
Leon also e-mailed the Evening Gazette, claiming to be a freelance scout in Eastern Europe who had recommended Purovic to Boro. That was enough to get a couple of sentences about the made-up player into the next day’s paper.
And that convinced Leon that he might be able to take the joke further. He invented Mirko Rajkovic, a spokesman for Purovic, and e-mailed the Gazette again, complete with a picture of the fictional Serbian teenager – using a randomly-chosen photo of some chap who plays for Espanyol.
This was what he sent to the Gazette, in all its broken English glory:
I am Mirko Rajkovic, I am involved on a transfer of MFC and Rajko Purovic. As you maybe know contact has been made between 2 clubs and player, Purovic.
My friend, Purovic’s agent, Dejan Maric has informed me talks will take place in Serbia for the transfer of Purovic to MFC maybe this week. Deals may be signed the week after. The deal could be worth around £2M for Purovic.
Rajko Purovic is an exciting young player and hopes are high for him. Banat think he has a bright future in football. My friend and Purovic’s agent informed me that many clubs in Europe are looking to sign Purovic, with interest in Spain and Netherlands. Purovic is a clinical goal scorer for Banat youth team. He is strong and powerful for a player of his age, which is why he is so popular at Banat.
Banat is the club which produced Zoran Tosic from Manchester United, so they have good experience in making players of high standards. I think Purovic is the same as Tosic and will be excellent if MFC sign him, which I believe is likely.
I hope this happens and I wish you good luck.
The next day, Purovic was the Evening Gazette’s back-page lead – and the story quickly spread to the national media. Not bad for someone who had only been created two days earlier.
There are echoes here of Masal Bugduv, the fictional Moldovan teenager who managed to get on to a list of The Times’ top 50 rising stars in January.
“I hadn’t heard of Bugduv until I read about him in last month’s FourFourTwo magazine,” Leon wrote. “Until then, I’d been totally oblivious to him.”
Indeed, while Bugduv’s (still anonymous) creator in Galway went to the trouble of creating mocked-up press agency reports and posting them on message boards to make the fictional Moldovan seem more real, Leon didn’t need to go anything like that far – and yet got a result much, much quicker.
And once Purovic was released into the world (and Banat Zrenjanin’s Wikipedia page was amended to include him), the publicity surrounding him took on a life of its own.
“I didn’t actually dub him a ‘wonderkid’ myself,” Leon wrote. “That came with all the press publicity. To be honest, I don’t have the knowledge and means to post and mock-up stuff. I just went for the basic approach and, amazingly, it worked.”
Leon was genuinely astonished that he managed to get Purovic into print.
“I was very surprised the joke took off,” he wrote. “Especially when you consider 90 per cent of the people on the message board I posted it on thought I was lying. I tried my best to pass it off as true, though.”
And the whole affair hasn’t done much for the reputation of sports journalists in Leon’s view.
As he told me: “To be perfectly honest, I’ve always thought that most journalists are lazy and make things up just to fill a newspaper. The whole Purovic carry-on has only cemented what I thought!”