Inside the ingenious soccer hoax that fooled the British sports press.

The stadium scene.
Jan. 23 2009 12:18 PM

Fictional Moldovan Soccer Phenom Tells All

Inside the ingenious hoax that fooled the British sports press.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

On a typical weekday, the English soccer press devotes itself to unsubstantiated rumors, manufactured scandals, and bikini pictures of players' girlfriends (who seem to roam the earth together in a giant conjugal yacht, like the Beatles in Yellow Submarine). This week, however, thanks to an ingenious hoax that took in the Times of London, the soccer press has been engrossed by Moldova. Specifically by one Moldovan teenager, who is not, as it happens, a real person.

Earlier this month, the Times ran a feature called "Football's Top 50 Rising Stars," which featured at No. 30 a 16-year-old attacker named Masal Bugduv, whom the paper, never one to fear irony, described as "Moldova's finest." A bright future seemed to fill Bugduv's windscreen. The young player had been "strongly linked," the Times said, with a transfer to the London club Arsenal, had already earned a mention on the popular soccer news site Goal.com, spawned excitement in online forums, and been portrayed as something of a savior by the magazine When Saturday Comes, which introduced him as "one bright spot" amid Moldova's nationalist strife.

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But as the old scout's adage says, even the most talented young striker will struggle if he has no corporeal being. Blogger Neil McDonnell, who writes about sports under the name Fredorrarci, suspected something might be amiss after picking up a hint from a Russian blog commenter about a "fanny misteak" in the Times feature—the spelling presumably the result of complex transliteration from the Cyrillic for "dude, what?" After a bit of rifling through Wikipedia history pages and an exchange of e-mails with the editor of Soviet Sport magazine, McDonnell discovered that not only was there no such player as Masal Bugduv, Masal Bugduv wasn't even a Moldovan name.

McDonnell kept poking around. He found that the player had originated in a series of fake AP stories posted to forums and blog comment sections, as if they'd been copied and pasted there. Taken together, these formed the droll chronicle of a temperamental young talent, already a regular for the Moldovan national team as a teen, who was convinced of his own greatness—"I Will Destroy Luxembourg and Join Arsenal Says Bugduv" raged one headline—and frustrated by the unending delays, attributed to unspecified "diplomatic issues," that kept him from completing a move to his favorite club. The stories were just excessive enough to carry a faint Wodehousian aroma if read in sequence, but not quite excessive enough to arouse suspicion in a newspaper writer on a jag of pre-deadline speed-Googling.

The hoaxer, it seemed, had exploited the trickle-up nature of online information flow. The blog comments fooled the blogs, the blogs fooled the news sites, and the news sites fooled the magazines. When the Times came to Bugduv, his story was resting on a pedestal of widespread acceptance. In the end, the hoax laid bare what we had all dimly suspected: Sometimes, sportswriters do not know what they are talking about.

After McDonnell published the account of his investigation on the blog SoccerLens, Masal Bugduv speedily attained, in the soccer-y parts of world, the kind of Internet cult-king status normally reserved for the likes of Chuck Norris. Blogs bloomed, comments quivered. The media outlets that had fallen for the hoax apologized, Goal.com and When Saturday Comes relatively quickly, the Times only after attempting a cover-up—slotting in a new, nonfictional player in Bugduv's 30th-place position—that might have worked in 1785, the year the paper was founded. Other media outlets—the Guardian, the New York Times' Goal blog, radio shows, even ESPN—leapt in to cover the story, some to comfort their old-media brethren, some to taunt them, some to explicate the Sidd Finch parallels.

What no one seemed to remark on, however, was exactly what made the hoax so clever, which was the way it managed to beat the media at their own game. Unlike the major American sports leagues, the world's top soccer leagues have little in the way of salary caps or transfer restrictions. If Manchester City wants to acquire Brazilian superstar Kaká from AC Milan, as they tried to do last week, they don't concoct an ornate trade scenario involving expiring contracts and draft picks, they just offer Milan a cash payment—in this case, more than $130 million—during one of the designated transfer windows. And unlike the American sports media, most of the world's soccer press is delightfully unburdened by retrograde ethical standards regarding "the need to attribute quotations to a person" and "the need to report information that has features in common with the truth."

As a result, the sports pages in English newspapers—not just the gaudy tabloids but mutton-chopped old hussars like the Times—tend to be marbled, a little grotesquely, with fantasies about which star player is bound for which famous club for the GDP of which landlocked principality. They're full of hoaxes already, in other words, tales planted by manipulative club representatives, prehensile agents, and the nannies of David Beckham. The only difference with Masal Bugduv was that it was the papers that fell for the hoax and the readers, vengeful victims, who saw through it.

So, who was this clever hoaxer? Whoever engineered the prank left behind a calling card in the form of the fictional Moldovan newspaper Diario Mo Thon, described in one of the concocted AP stories as "the top sports daily in Balti." Diario means diary in several Romance languages, and mo thón is Irish for my ass—just the kind of nested, polyglot ass pun that every good imaginary-Moldovan prank requires.

It got better. After SoccerLens blogger McDonnell broke the story, Bugduv fans in Ireland noticed that the player's name was a phonetic twin for m'asal beag dubh, which is Irish for "my little black donkey." A second Irish ass pun, sure. But "My Little Black Donkey" is also the name of an Irish-language short story by early 20th-century writer Pádraic Ó Conaire. And the story, about a man tricked into overpaying for a lazy donkey based on some vivid village gossip, can be read anachronistically as a parody of the culture of soccer transfers, in which the flaming rings of hype around a player—about how good he is, where he might go, how much a club might pay for him—often seem to overwhelm the minor matter of what he does on the pitch.

Our hoaxer, then, was likely an allegorically inclined Irishman. This theory gained steam when, not long after the hoax was revealed, I got an e-mail via my Bugduv-obsessed blog from someone claiming to be the instigator of Bugduv mania. He said he was a newspaperman in Galway. Some of the fake AP stories had, indeed, been posted under the pseudonym "GalwayGooner," and the e-mailer's IP address did, indeed, match Galway. Now writing under a different pseudonym, he confirmed the prank's "Little Black Donkey" origin and passed along some entertaining anecdotes, including one about hearing Bugduv's name in a pub conversation before the Times piece went to press. He said he dreamed up Bugduv as a "social experiment."

What was strange, though, was that while I worked to confirm his identity—the more brilliant the hoax, the less you trust the person who takes credit for it—my quarry kept sidestepping every request for evidence. He knew the details of the hoax inside out and even sent me a rollicking narrative account of the work he'd done to create it. (You can read the alleged hoaxer's lengthy explanation of the Bugduv-creation process—and whether the fictional footballer is more like Borat or Forrest Gump—in this sidebar.) But whenever I pressed him for more definitive proof, he'd get skittish and threaten to cut off contact. Either this was another hoax—a counterfeit hoaxer trying to become the real thing—or else the actual hoaxer, like all good magicians, preferred to maintain an element of doubt.

What he sent me, instead of proof, was more about our imaginary player. I learned his nickname ("Massi") and the personality of his agent ("like the fat bloke who accompanied Borat around America"). I even got a new fake AP story, in which Bugduv claimed that he was real and the exposure of the hoax was a hoax. It became clear that while I was worrying over the unreality of my pseudonymous correspondent, he, whoever he was, was delighting in the reality of Masal Bugduv. The Moldovan phantom had taken on a life of his own.

Update, Jan. 28: Blogger Neil McDonnell has confirmed that our alleged hoaxer is indeed the man behind Masal Bugduv. Read all about it here.

Brian Phillips writes regularly about soccer for Slate. He blogs at The Run of Play.

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