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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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.