Were the fake football agent's transfer rumours any more flaky than the usual ones?

FootballAgent49 claims to have fooled the Mail, Guardian and the Mirror.

Did you ever wonder where they came from, that constant stream of transfer rumours? Were the top journalists snooping around the training grounds, listening to gossip? Did members of the public really see Footballer X’s wife shopping in the Arndale Centre, concluding he was bound to be making a big move?

Or – and let’s try and put this as delicately as possible – was it all made up?

Today, the antics of tweeter ‘@footballagent49’ have shone a light into a murky world. Footballagent49 amassed 40,000 followers in a short space of time, delivering plausible enough stories and claiming retrospective credit for big scoops. But today the tweeter said:

“I am not a 'Football Agent' or 'ITK. [in the know]' I am infact an 18 year old and I have been fooling all of you gullible idiots with my fake stories for the past 2 months. 

“I'm proud to say that I haven't had even one transfer scoop in my time yet people still say im [sic] more reliable than Sky Sports News and the BBC. Laughable. Some of my personal highlights were the Kaka and Falcao stories which were completely made up.”

Footballagent49 added: “The Daily Mail even wrote an article based on my Kaka tweets and the 2 journalists who wrote it were following me.”

Did that happen? Let's look at the evidence. On the evening of August 18, Footballagent49 tweeted: “Manchester United asked Madrid on Friday about taking Kaka on loan. Club officials are confident a deal can be done but its [sic] early stages”.

The next day, the Daily Mail published this story, saying: “Kaka has been offered to Manchester United on a season-long loan as Real Madrid prepare for the arrival of Luka Modric.”

As is always the case with these rumours, they were kicked around by most of the rest of the sportsdesks, hungry for the latest news on the biggest clubs. The Guardian wrote: “Real Madrid are hoping to free up a dressing-room peg for [Luka Modric] by offering Kaka to Manchester United on loan.” The story also appeared in other papers’ round-ups.  

Except, was there any truth in it at all? When you think about it, why would a football agent bother to tweet his secret deals to Twitter when it could jeopardise his earnings? Does it matter if we can’t believe what we read in a ‘trivial’ subject like football, or does that tarnish the reputation of the rest of the paper?

Neil Ashton, one of the two Mail journalists mentioned in the @footballagent49 post (and who was still following the account at the time of writing), said in response to one reader asking if he’d regurgitated a made-up story: “Ha, no, not quite... Kaka being offered around was common knowledge.” Maybe the ‘fake’ account had accidentally landed on a genuine possible deal? Maybe it came from another source? You can’t rule it out.

As far as the source’s more recent ‘Falcao to Chelsea’ tale is concerned, that is a re-heating of an earlier rumour. Again, there is a grain of truth making it plausible – but not a great deal.

So, does it matter? Football transfer rumours have been going for years, and are a useful source of stories when nothing else is happening – especially during the summer break and during the transfer window. There are a huge amount of movements that are possible, and can be made to sound believable. If you know a manager who’s looking for a player, and you know a player who’s looking for a move, why not link them, even if they aren’t really linked? What harm does it do? Fans treat most rumours with the contempt they deserve, and (rightly or wrongly) are even more sceptical about those sections than they are about the others.

Every now and then, of course, one of the so-called ‘fliers’ actually takes off, and is proven right. You’ll see ragouts and ‘We told you first!’ triumphant headlines when that does happen; what you won’t see are the dozens and dozens more times when the rumours turned out to be, well, not quite as concrete as they were made to seem at the time. Those failed fliers get quietly forgotten about.

It’s hard to disprove a negative. How can you show there was no truth in a story when a ‘want-away striker’ issues a ‘come and get me plea’ and another club are looking ‘to bolster their frontline’, to use that delightful dialect of the back pages? Probably not. Maybe @footballagent49 is a real agent, and this is just an elaborate double bluff to take the heat away. If by some miracle that implausible guess is correct, remember you heard it here first. 

Kaka was the subject of one of a flaky transfer rumour. Photo: Getty
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit