Forget Trump and CNN: Football Transfer Rumors are the Real Fake News

6 months ago Ricardo Hylton 0

Morning all. It’s a beautiful day. The sun is shining, the sky is blue, the tumbleweeds are tumbling … and oh, someone somewhere calling himself or herself a journalist is peddling a false story about a football transfer.

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 Manchester Shopping Centre, concluding he was on the verge of a big money move?

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


Football – the opium of the masses?

The invisible aliens love football and despite what that elderly Nigerian man advised us in that school basement in 2006 (something about football being the modern opium of the masses) we support the bestest team in London (which means it is not Tottenham, Arsenal, West Ham, Crystal Palace, Fulham and definitely not you Milwall). So you can imagine how excited we were when during the summer of 2015 as Lionel Messi, wrangled over his new Barcelona contract when he was linked to a move to Chelsea. Alas, as the Donald would say, it was fake news.

The same can be said of all those Cristiano Ronaldo back to Manchester United, Alexis Sanchez to Chelsea or Neymar to PSG rumours.


Perfect Conditions

One day earlier this month, the independent football website which had its launch in 1997, received more unique visits than on any other day in its history. It was early in July. The Confederations Cup had finished, and so had the European under-21 championships. The start of the Premier League season was still weeks away. There was not no European football to keep the palettes wet. The visits, most likely, came from people searching for updates on transfer rumors.

That demand is met by an inexhaustible supply. Arsene Wenger regularly complains that Arsenal is linked to hundreds of players every summer. By one estimate, Manchester United had been linked to more than 50 before the transfer window even opened, but had signed only one, the young Swedish defender Victor Lindelof, before finally adding Romelu Lukaku last week.

That the vast majority of rumors never come to fruition does not seem to dull the appetite. Quite the opposite. Like we argued here with politicians, what matters is not the cold, hard fact, but the version of truth that is most appealing. In the gap between seasons, hearing that your club could sign a player is the best substitute for actual matches.

In the rumor-thirsty world of social media and team forums, anyone who provides that fix can gain traction. Every year, a handful of social accounts from supposed agents or insiders appear, looking to benefit by offering to reveal those stories that established journalists can’t or won’t report. Some, as in the memorable case of Duncan Jenkins — described by his creator, a copywriter named Sean Cummins, as possibly the “first post-truth journalist” — are jokes that spin out of control. Others are designed to be a little more mean spirited.

But others have been able to find a way to survive and thrive, learning how to function in an environment where facts are fluid and the mainstream news media is not trusted as comprehensive, if it is trusted at all.


If a schoolboy can do it…

In 2014, a schoolboy he fooled the world with football transfer rumors he invented, while posing as an established journalist on Twitter. Sam Gardiner, then 17, set up an account using a stock photograph and the name Samuel Rhodes. He claimed to be a freelance writer for the Daily Telegraph and Financial Times, while posting football rumors designed to raise his profile among ‘gullible’ fans.

His Twitter account was eventually suspended after genuine journalists uncovered his ploy, but thanks to lucky guesses, which seemed to confirm his insider status, he was able to rack up 25,000 followers on the site.


Lies, damned lies and transfer rumours

Real agents are guilty of propagating such rumours, too. Both Victor Moses and James McCarthy were reportedly wanted by Real Madrid and Barcelona a couple of years ago. Both ended up playing for Wigan (before Moses was signed a few years later by Chelsea). And wasn’t Antoine Griezmann nailed on to join Manchester United? What happened there?

On top of that there doesn’t tend to be a lot of middle ground when it comes to how people view these stories. On the one hand you’ve got the people who say “I’m not believing a word of this until I see him with an Arsenal shirt in his hand, lying on an Arsenal bed with an Arsenal duvet on it while Arsene Wenger tattoos a cannon to his right breast singing Come On You Gunners with Ivan Gazidis accompanying him on the Pitch”; and on the other there are those who are so eager and desperate for things to happen that they’ll believe any old shite.

It’s why so many of the sites that peddle complete fiction continue to exist and, in some cases, thrive. Any scrap of objective analysis will tell you that they don’t have any sources or inside information. They have little or no journalistic pedigree. Often they have language and writing skills so rudimentary it would make you weep for humanity itself. Yet they put together a headline with the name of a player you covet with a price tag so ludicrous it can’t possibly be real, then slap a few paragraphs underneath with lazy phrases like ‘It is believed’ or ‘thought to be’ and people lap it up like thirsty dogs.

They do not know anything. They quite literally just make things up or spin some vaguely credible info from elsewhere into something it’s not. You all know where these sites are, who the writers with their oddly shaped heads are, and what they’re all about. Clicks, hits, page views, ad impressions – those are the drivers of the transfer nonsense outlets and there are enough people out there desperate for any news at all that it allows them to continue doing it.

The thing is though, the precarious nature of transfers that I referred to earlier is what allows them to not be written off as the complete shysters they are. Imagine another section of the media that got things so consistently wrong or simply invented their own stories. They’d be ridiculed beyond belief but the vagaries of the transfer industry allow this lot the kind of leeway they need to keep lying to people day in, day out, and people still come back for more.

“It’s not our fault the deal didn’t happen, that’s just the way it works.”

So, what is a reliable source? You’d like to think the big newspapers would have the most credibility, but sadly the good work done by the journalists is being undermined by digital demands. We all know that physical circulation of newspapers is diminishing and there are ever-increasing pressures to make inroads into the online space.


Click bait

A few months ago, Real Madrid’s creative midfielder Isco could not get into the first team. As it happens, Arsenal’s midfield maestro Santi Carzola had a significant injury that ruled him out for the season. What were the odds that some “creative journalist” would not only recognise this situation, but also spot the opportunity to not merely suggest a transfer, but to go as far as claim that one was in the works? A £64 million one at that. Arsenal do not, and did not, plan an incredible £64m Isco move, but the headline meant people would click. It’s simply completely wrong information, the people publishing it knew that at the time, but went ahead with it anyway. The need to drive traffic to a website now far outweighs the need for accuracy in a story. Such is the modern sports world we live in.


It’s All Manipulation

Transfer window is the busiest period for all Sports Newspapers, websites, agents. And for English media, it’s one of the most productive months in the year. They’ll link up all possible/impossible transfer rumors, click bait articles with fancy rumor headlines just to create more traffic to the site, sell papers, etc.,

Rumours work only when there’s a little bit of truth or logic applied in it. You simply can’t make a rumour that AS Roma looking to sign Cristiano Ronaldo’, because there’s no way Roma (current situation) can afford his transfer fee and wages.

But, ‘Cash rich PSG looking to dominate Europe – Preparing a record bid for Cristiano Ronaldo’. This makes little sense, but it won’t create much impact, as PSG has less fan base around the world. So to sell rumours, stories you’ve to target large fan-base with little possibility of that transfer,  and foremost the target club has to be out in market for new signings – Manchester United fits that bill correctly.

After a disastrous campaign under David Moses in 2013/14, they returned back to Champions League the following season. They had an inexperienced squad and besides Wayne Rooney, they lacked a Top Class player in the front.

With massive sponsorship deals with Adidas, Chevrolet, Money was/is/will never a concern for United. Add that with proud history and experienced Manager like Louis Van Gaal, some astonishing big money moves for Angel Di Maria, Radamel Falcao(weekly wages), they took the spotlight in that transfer window. That paved the way for football agents to start linking their players with Manchester United, to gain a new improved contract for them in their current club and for media to create sensational crap stories.


Does it even matter?

Dubiously sourced rumours about football transfers spread wildly on social media, and while experts say they don’t usually affect where players end up, they can put pressure on clubs and move betting markets.

It’s a type of story that long pre-dates the current mania about “fake news”. Transfer rumours have long dominated the back pages of newspapers during the summer transfer window, and many commentators view such stories as pure speculation. Take, for instance, Match of the Day presenter and former England player Gary Lineker who tweeted: “90% of transfer stories are guesswork in the hope of getting lucky.”

But just like in many other areas of the media and entertainment industries, social media is changing the game when it comes to transfer rumours – in this case allowing fake stories to spread wider and faster than ever before.

To take one example, as speculation surged recently around the impending transfer of Wayne Rooney, a satirical story was posted on a popular Facebook group, “Manchester United Dream Team Forever”, which has more than 550,000 members.

The story was created by a humour website, “Soccer on Saturday”. Most who clicked on it would have picked up on the satire right away – the story was packed with jokes about Chinese politics, Rooney’s hairline, his recent form and much else besides.

However, when viewed on Facebook, the article could easily be mistake for a legitimate news headline. It features a Photoshopped image of Rooney standing with a club official, holding a Shanghai shirt with his name and number printed on the back and the headline “Rooney Signs for Shanghai in £700,000 per week Deal”.

It’s unclear how many people clicked beyond the headline and noticed the jokes and fictitious quotes in the actual story, and of course any misapprehension was quashed when Rooney signed for Everton, his boyhood team. But can fake headlines impact the transfer market while negotiations between clubs are ongoing?

Raffaele Pilo, Head of CIES Football Observatory based in Switzerland, investigates the value of football players. He told BBC Trending radio that individuals involved in transfer negotiations have an incentive to encourage rumours, regardless of whether they’re accurate or not.

“Sometimes, spreading rumours gives an indication that a player is on the market… or if there is a negotiation, it puts pressure on the buying club,” Pilo says.

In this vein, players themselves often fuel speculation by posting subtle – or not-so-subtle – hints on social media, possibly in an effort to increase their value.

Using their big social media following, they are able to influence transfers. One example from this summer has been Kylian Mbappe, the young Monaco striker who’s been linked with moves to Real Madrid, Arsenal and Liverpool. Mbappe recently changed his Twitter header to a photo showing him celebrating a goal in front of an advertising hoarding with the word “Priceless” written on it:

It was a change that, perhaps predictably, fuelled tremendous speculation online. The striker’s name has been mentioned more than 800,000 times on Twitter in the last month.

“Even if there had not been any bids, that level of [online] interest would have pushed the hand of the club to have to do something,” Farry says. “You either sell and grant the player his move, or you increase his contract.”

Rumours also have an impact beyond contracts and transfer fees. Farry says the whispers can have a big effect on betting markets, where punters can gamble on which club a player or manager moves to next.


Elusive Truths

Long before the ascension of President Trump made the phrase unavoidable, football provided the most fertile ground imaginable for what we have come to call “fake news.”

Now, Trump tweets and speaks about “fake news” relentlessly, often whenever he reads or sees something he does not like. Politicians across the world use it as a pithy put-down to dismiss any accusation they find uncomfortable. Sports stars and celebrities increasingly reach for it as a defense mechanism. (When Arsenal’s Mesut Özil had his Instagram account hacked this month, he pleaded with people to stop spreading “fake news.”)

The phrase has been used so often, an argument can be made that because it means almost everything, it no longer means anything at all. To most, though, it signifies a story where the facts are so disputed or distorted that truth itself becomes fluid. It is a story designed to take root in an explicitly partisan environment: Whether it is true or not does not matter so much as whether its intended audience wants it to be true. It is a phenomenon football has exploited for some time.

In a sporting context, the most basic building block of a post-truth environment can be witnessed almost every week: A refereeing decision that costs one team victory is supported by the manager who benefited, and condemned by the one who suffered. Players and fans cling to the interpretation that suits them, and the news media dutifully reports the ensuing controversy.

But it is during the long, frenzied days of the summer transfer window, when football itself becomes a sidebar to the business of player trading, that this tendency reaches its purest form. This is when fact and fiction are blurred, when clubs and managers and agents all offer clandestine briefings of their own versions of events, when truth itself becomes elusive.

This month, in the space of a single day, unidentified sources close to Manchester United confirmed to reporters that the club had agreed to pay Everton 75 million pounds (nearly $97 million) for the star striker Romelu Lukaku. Sources at Everton denied it. Sources at Chelsea, another of the forward’s suitors, insisted the club still retained hope of completing a deal with Lukaku.

Not all of those things could be true. It’s possible that none of them were. The truth you accepted depended largely on which one suited you best. For every completed Bakayoko deal, there are hundreds of fake rumours that remain unfulfilled. this is a true indictment on the football journalism in Britain and across Europe.