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
Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.