A willful deception: the fairytales of transfer reporting 0

Even in a World Cup year, the start of the new Premier League season cannot come soon enough.  Like many others, I don’t long for the start of domestic football because of any particular yearning for the sport itself, but because it will diversify the narrative that exists around the game and move us away from pure, daily transfer reporting.

Fans have a love/hate relationship with gossip and rumours.  On the one hand, most know that a lot of the articles that they read at this time of year are very low-percentage and are little more than a collection of suggestive verbs, but on the other that doesn’t stop them from being completely enthralled by that kind of reporting.

The internet changed sports reporting and journalism forever and, more importantly, it changed the way the average person consumes information.  We don’t really walk past newspaper stands anymore and we don’t look at the headline sheet inside the metal wiring.  Instead, what we read is determined by social media trends and what flashes most prominently on our screens.

Football transfer reporting isn’t something new and, even before the internet turned sports news into a 24-hour cycle, tabloids and broadsheets would trade off bold promises made on their backpages.  The difference now, though, is that the online world allows even the flimsiest stories to gain prominence.  A generic transfer story no longer has to have much credibility to be published and, in a world of insatiable football appetites and increasingly important digital revenues, believability has been deprioritised and usurped by analytical requirements.

Twenty or thirty years ago, a newspaper might actually pay the price for printing a tenuous, poorly-sourced transfer story, but now that really isn’t the case - almost everyone does it and subsequently the fog of deception is thick that it’s impossible to tell one con-man from another.  Nobody feels ‘let down’ anymore and credibility is so low that it can’t really fall any further - reading an erroneous tall-tale about Marco Reus on The Mirror’s website, for example, probably won’t stop someone from going back to the same place tomorrow.

When demand for something exists in large supply, someone will always end up getting short-changed.

This website is very small within its category, but it still provides some degree of insight into how alluring transfer stories really are - and, like almost all others, its revenue streams largely rely on the number of visitors it attracts each day.  An article about a small tactical detail that occurred during a weekend game - a piece of work which might take an hour or so - might be read by 500 to 1000 people depending on which team it involves.  But, with the same consistency as gravity, change that article into a ten-minute, ‘this player might be signing for that team and so here’s a YouTube video’ effort, and you can pretty much treble that number - and, not incidentally, the revenue too.

It’s a very cynical approach, but if bottom-line is a website’s only concern then so be it.  The rumour aggregator Caught Offside is very successful off that mentality and the owners evidently care not one little bit about credibility or outside perceptions.  Goal.com, although not in the same league of cynicism as Caught Offside, appear to rely very heavily on what Wayne Veysey is able to report - they may have features and stories about matches and individual players, but every twenty-fours they publish a new transfer story and their marquee reporters all seem far more focused on the peripheries of football rather than the game itself.

You can’t blame them, because it clearly works.

A word that gets thrown around a lot in the rumour business is ‘fabrication'; a lot of the transfers speculated upon never get completed and so it’s natural for most fans to assume that they’ve been completely deceived.  There is some creativity used and a lot of these articles are clearly published without any kind of sourcing, but not in the way most assume.

As an example, a typical transfer narrative is being played out at the moment with Tottenham and Antoine Griezmann.

A couple of days ago, Matt Law broke the story that Spurs had made an initial bid for the French winger and that Real Sociedad had declined it.  Law is a good journalist and has a good record for accuracy, so there’s little reason to doubt him - his information is almost certainly sourced and presented in good faith.

Transfers are complex and, generally, they involve a lot of different people and rely on a dozen different factors.  If Tottenham don’t end up signing Antoine Griezmann, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they didn’t have the intention to and it doesn’t mean that Matt Law’s reporting was inaccurate.

What fans object to, rightly, is what happens once news of a potential deal has entered the public domain.  Have a Google of “Griezmann” and “Tottenham” and you’ll see this: dozens of different articles claiming a myriad of different possibilities, none of them pre-dating that original piece.

“Tottenham are going to meet the buy-out clause.”

“Tottenham are going to up their bid.”

“Franco Baldini is flying to Spain to meet with such-and-such”

“Tottenham have moved on from Antoine Griezmann.”

And so on.

That happens time and again and, in a lot of instances, it’s a product of guesswork and opportunism.  Tottenham are a well-supported club and Antoine Griezmann is a relatively well-known player - there is revenue to be made by getting aboard that bandwagon.  If a website or newspaper tweaks the odd fact or puts a slightly different slant on the nature of proceedings, they can justifiably re-print the same story and know that thousands and thousands of Spurs fans will descend upon the article.

Sometimes new information is sourced and sometimes little details do emerge, but in a lot of cases new stories seem to be created by the addition of high-percentage assumptions or with superfluous details that can never be disproved - and, as and when the deal is actually done, who really cares about its mechanics anyway?  A lot of these columnists owe their jobs to the ability to break stories, so it’s completely understandable that they frequently blur the lines between credible information and false narrative to appease their editors.

Two years ago, Robin van Persie moved between Arsenal and Manchester United after a Summer full of such stories.  At one point, the Dutchman was erroneously reported to be close to joining Manchester City and one opportunistic reporter - apologies, I forget who - claimed that the deal was only being delayed while van Persie picked his shirt number at The Etihad.  The wages were supposedly agreed, the fee was apparently set, and the contract was ready to be signed.

More than likely - and without trying to accuse anybody of anything - that was a gamble: had van Persie joined City, that would have seemed like a believable step on the way to the transfer and the journalist in question would have moved up a rung on the credibility ladder.  He was unlucky; it came out later that City were never really interested in the player and had never made anything like the progress that was being reported, and as a result the fanciful shirt-number stories were exposed for what they really were.

As long as we still go online every day and suspend our disbelief to the point where we can actually picture that superstar holding up our club’s shirt on Sky Sports News, this mini-industry will continue to thrive and to entertain us.  For the most part, though, it’s just a fairytale that we choose to believe in.

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