One of the first rules of journalism is “cover the story, don’t become the story,” but this weekend a story that should have been – and might yet be – the biggest of the season, quite possibly the biggest in the entire history of the game, lays in the gutter with most speculation about it now centred upon the newspaper that ran it so publicly earlier this week. On Wednesday, we reported on the curious story of the Dream Football League, which was run by The Times overnight on Tuesday night – a full transcript of the original story can be seen here – and claimed that twenty-four of the world’s best clubs were, in return for enough money to make most grown men weep, to be invited to play in a summer tournament every two years in the Middle East. Here was a story that could that could blow football apart in a way in which it hadn’t been in its entire history, challenging the very authority of FIFA and continental confederations have held since they came into existence.
Except there was one small problem. A practically identical story had appeared as a reasonably obvious piece of satire on the French website Cahiers du Foot around twenty-four hours earlier (note the date that Google indexed the story) and its editors, on Wednesday morning, were enjoying the reaction of the world’s press – and in particular, being the shrillest of all, that of the British press – to a story that they stated with absolute confidence they had written themselves as a joke. So what on earth had been going on? The Times’ story had been written by Oliver Kay, one of the most esteemed journalists in British football and not a man prone to making mistakes, and Kay was being bullishly backed by his immediate superior, the newspaper’s football editor Tony Evans. Kay, we were all told, had multiple sources and “anyone who doubts @OliverKayTimes will look foolish.”
At this point, perhaps, the story might have reached an impasse, but the story about a story has turned out to be a story that has kept on giving. The Qatar Football Association issued a statement denying any knowledge of it but, to paraphrase Mandy Rice-Davies at the time of the Prufomo scandal, “they would say that, wouldn’t they?” People continuing to scotch rumours that this was far from all it seemed could easily respond that a national association with an enormous amount to lose from being seen within a thousand miles of a story that could easily be seen as a threat – at an unprecedented level – to the authority of the very people that had given them the 2022 World Cup finals would be keen to distance themselves from it. Meanwhile, Cahiers du Foot put their side of the story on their website in English.
Still, though, the nagging suspicion suspected that this wasn’t right, and our friend at the Canadian website Counter Attack, Richard Whittall, was the man to take up the mantle of trying to find out what exactly had been going on over the previous couple of days. He has established a whole wealth of truth about the man that was by now identified as being one of the main sources of the story, one Robert Beal. Beal, it was suggested, was not all that he seemed. It has been suggested that he is a man who claims to work for an Paris-based media organisation in France, in spite of eye-witness accounts he is permanently based in Sheffield, and that he had a reputation for trying to push fake news stories to the press. This afternoon, meanwhile, Whittall contacted Nasser Al Khelaifi of the Qatar Sports Investment group, owners of Paris St Germain, who confirmed that no one had been in any contact with anyone from the club regarding this story until the day after The Times ran it, whilst Manchester United, when contacted about it, stated that, “We were contacted by The Times on Tuesday afternoon and responded by telling them that their call was the first we had heard of it.”
If Beal had a facade of respectability in the eyes of some gentlemen of the fourth estate, by the end of last night this had all but evaporated.Last night, an exchange between Beal and Nick Harris, of Sporting Intelligence and The Independent, ended with an exasperated Harris saying of Beal, “If a drunken conman is going to ring you up and tell more lies, you’d think he wouldn’t be stupid enough to leave voicemail,” whilst Ian Prior, the sports editor of the Guardian, chipped in by asking Beal, “Hi Rob, I’d love to chat about the sponsorship deal you once tried to foist on the Guardian. £50k, wasn’t it?” Many of Beal’s tweets from last night have subsequently been deleted. Meanwhile, this afternoon it came to light that Qatar Sport Investments – a group, let us not forget, described by Kay in his Times article as “being prime movers behind the [Dream Football League] project” – had been forced to issue a cease and desist letter to Beal in 2011 after he falsely claimed to be a spokesmen for the club in an attempt to sell information related to rumours that David Beckham would be joining the club.
If The Times has made a mistake, it will surely soon have to acknowledge this, and there is little evidence at the moment short of people saying “Oliver Kay doesn’t make this sort of mistake” to suggest otherwise. None of this means that we believe that he did so deliberately. On a balance of probabilities, it seems most likely that he has had the wool pulled over his eyes by somebody with previous for – at the very least – attempting this sort of thing before. And the original point remains that if, somehow, Kay’s story is accurate and the evidence of our own eyes is deceiving us, then he will indeed have broken a story that will have ramifications across the entirety of this planet’s most popular sport. At this precise moment in time, though, the names of both Kay and The Times is being dragged through the mud – consider, for example, this report on the subject by Jason Davis on Kckrs, which describes the episode as “a stunning journalistic failure” and accuses Kay of having written “a story based on little more than the word of a known liar.” If the reputation of any concerned is to be salvaged, they need to prove this story beyond reasonable doubt, and they will need to prove it soon. At the time of writing, however, been more than two and a half days since Oliver Kay last said anything at all on Twitter, the journalist who became the story has fallen silent, and we all await the next chapter in this extraordinary story – and it will be extraordinary, no matter what its outcome turns out to be – with bated breath.
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