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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle