x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Why the hoax of Qatar Football League and teams such as Barcelona sounded real

In the wacky world of football, anything seems possible. Will Batchelor defends those, including himself, who fell for the Dream Football League hoax.

Qatar Foundation is a shirt sponsor of the Barcelona team and the idea looked plausible that they may take the concept forward. Gustau Nacarino / Reuters
Qatar Foundation is a shirt sponsor of the Barcelona team and the idea looked plausible that they may take the concept forward. Gustau Nacarino / Reuters

OK, hands up if you fell for the Dream Football League (DFL) hoax.

Come on, step into the circle of trust. We are all friends here, nobody is going to judge you - apart from quietly noting that you are a typically xenophobic European whose arrogant sense of ownership over "your" game is the perfect breeding ground for scantily founded delusions that "the Arabs are coming" to snaffle up football and transfer it lock, stock and barrel to the middle of a scorching desert, you daft racist.

That was the damning assertion of a comment piece in The National earlier this week, written by my colleague, Osman Samiuddin, after the British newspaper, The Times, apologised for running the DFL story - Qatar's plans to launch a big-money Champions League-style football tournament involving Europe's best teams - as a back-page exclusive.

It was an excellent piece about an uncomfortable truth, one that will not be repeated in many occidental media outlets.

It certainly made uncomfortable reading for me because, erm, (raises hand sheepishly) I fell for the DFL story, too.

Does that make me a daft racist? I'd hate to think so, but the ease with which I swallowed this hokum, albeit from a usually reputable source, suggests otherwise.

In a desperate scramble for mitigation, the best I can offer is this: stranger things have happened.

It is not much of a defence, I know, but let me flesh it out a little. The world of professional sport in general, and football in particular, has become a parallel universe in which normal rules do not apply.

Football has become like a fairground hall of mirrors, so distorted by cash, hyperbole and a success-for-sale mentality that many of us no longer know what is real.

Financially speaking, the sums of money flying around are so astronomical as to have long ceased to have much meaning at all.

With hindsight, of course, it may seem ridiculous to think the Qataris would pay each team a reported Dh970m for participation in the DFL.

But is it so much more ridiculous than Qatar paying Dh19m for a half a season of bench-warming and occasional crossing duties from David Beckham, 37, who has not played regular football in a serious league since 2007?

Likewise, if Qatar is willing to pay a reported Dh711m for a piece of the Barcelona shirt, is it so absurd to think they might cough up a fraction more to get the whole shirt, with Lionel Messi actually inside it?

This is not to single out Qatar, by the way.

Chelsea paying Dh279m for Torres and Liverpool paying Dh196m for Andy Carroll are equally valid as evidence of a world in which vast sums spent on vanity projects are the norm.

Nor is this solely a financial matter.

Football's moral compass has been haywire for well over a decade, creating a wobbly world of stories which would have been unthinkable a generation ago. One does not have to look far for such tales. The last seven days is enough.

Imagine turning the clock back to 1995 and telling a fan of the Blackburn Rovers that their Premier League-topping club, nurtured lovingly to greatness by the Walker family, would by March 2013 be a subsidiary of an Indian poultry firm, scrabbling about in the second tier of English football and seeking a new manager for the fourth time that season.

Imagine telling Bobby Moore, before his death in 1993, that Rio Ferdinand - the young West Ham defender viewed as his natural successor - would play for England only if it did not interfere with his yoga class.

Then imagine telling any of Moore's world-beating peers that Ferdinand's resulting absence was a concern as England prepared to take on the might of Montenegro (population 625,000).

Imagine visiting the Anfield Kop of the 1980s - that seething mass of footballing humanity and respect - and telling them that, in March 2013, Liverpool fans would greet the retirement of Michael Owen with the usual, studied indifference.

"Who is Michael Owen?" they would ask.

Oh, nobody really.

Just your leading goal-scorer for seven seasons, just the Ballon d'Or recipient who single-handedly won you an FA Cup final in 2001 (part of a League and Uefa Cup treble, by the way). But ... meh, you never really liked him.

In such a topsy-turvy world, anything can happen. And it frequently does.

So, please, let us not judge too harshly those who fell for the DFL hoax. It was a fiction, yes, and seems quite unbelievable in the cold light of day. But not half as unbelievable as the truth.


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