x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Hoax around Dream Football League story a sign of the times

Deception behind supposed project in Qatar damages the game's standing in the Arabian Gulf.

Europe's biggest football clubs, such as Barcelona, who have sponsorship ties with Qatar, could have been contenders for the 'Dream Football League', according to a report in The Times. The story, which was published last week and attracted plenty of attention, turned out to be false. Albert Gea / Reuters
Europe's biggest football clubs, such as Barcelona, who have sponsorship ties with Qatar, could have been contenders for the 'Dream Football League', according to a report in The Times. The story, which was published last week and attracted plenty of attention, turned out to be false. Albert Gea / Reuters

A week ago the British newspaper The Times, published what it thought was a game-changing football exclusive.

The story was about Qatari plans to set up a biennial summer Dream Football League where the world's biggest clubs would be paid crazy amounts of money to play, perhaps £175 million (Dh969.8m) just to show up.

The impact on football's existing world order, it was thought, would be immense: what would happen, in the first place, to the Uefa Champions League? What, too, of Fifa tournaments held in the summer, with which there might be clashes?

Answers began to emerge later in the day, when it appeared that the story may not be true after all. A French website had run a spoof story (with many of the same details, and logo, The Times had used) two days earlier. Despite initially standing by the story, the newspaper finally admitted on Monday that it had been duped, mostly, it would appear, by a man who claimed to be a media relations adviser in Europe.

Two things were striking. The first was the current of xenophobia that underpinned the entire story, the doom of some impending Arabian Gulf takeover of football (much like when Lalit Modi brought the Indian Premier League to cricket, or Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket).

It was probably the reason the newspaper thought the story so big, because it not only fits this eminently topical and sellable narrative, it expanded it. That it was the subject of a spoof story is itself revealing for what it says about the Arabian Gulf in the imagination of western Europe.

The problem with this narrative is not simply that it is not yet true: if ownership of a few clubs, big sponsorship deals and one World Cup still nine years away – the first in the region, remember – constitutes a takeover, then no country is left in the world to be taken over.

Worse, such stories reduce the region's relationship with football to a commercial or transactional one. It is as if the Arabian Gulf can only buy football, not actually, you know, play it, or even get it. There is no idea in this of just how deeply embedded the game is in the region.

It may not manifest itself in the ways that it does in Europe or South America, but football is a way of being and it is not ever reported outside the region.

The other point is a more personal one, a reminder of how easy it is to be duped in journalism. A few years ago, I interviewed a man who was not who I thought he was; I thought I was meeting a figure who played a key role in the commercialisation of Pakistan cricket in the late 1970s.

This man, the interviewee that day, was even accompanied by a former cricketer of the time (and introduced to me by another). We spoke for nearly 45 minutes.

Naturally, as he was not really the subject, he was vague and uncertain.

I happened to tell two senior journalists about the interview, men who had known the man I had intended to meet. It was only when they told me that the man should have been short, plump and balding (there were no pictures readily available) that I realised I had the wrong man: the person I had met was unusually tall, lean and with plenty of hair.

Not so long ago, I interviewed a prominent Pakistan cricketer, over the telephone. The voice seemed wrong, the answers vague again but with just enough knowledge to suggest it could really be him. I wrote up the feature, even mentioning that he sounded strangely evasive.

Through no skill on my part, I came to know I had not spoken to the cricketer but to a person pretending to be him (for what reasons I still do not know) and managed to have the story pulled from the publication two days before it went to press.

The only difference (other than that my errors would barely have registered in the way that it did for The Times, given the subject and their stature) is that The Times got duped and published. I just got lucky twice, not published, which is not really as big a difference as it seems.

I am not really sure what this means, other than highlighting again the existence of an invisible industry of faceless, anonymous men around professional sport doing what, nobody really knows.

Also, that the modern treatment of caution as a trait to be scoffed at in journalism is dangerous.

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

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