Early Wednesday morning UK time, venerable London paper The Times released a bombshell exclusive about a proposed biennial summer super tournament meant to attract Europe’s biggest clubs to the Arabian desert by means of a massive payday. The author of the story was Oliver Kay, a man with a sterling reputation as a football writer, giving the “exclusive” added credibility despite its fantastic claims. Since, through the work of Canadian football writer Richard Whittall at the Counter Attack blog, the truth of a stunning journalistic failure has emerged.
This all launched into the public eye with Kay’s piece in The Times, but the story actually begins before that. Cahiers du Football, a French football magazine sometimes compared to When Saturday Comes, posted a satirical piece outlining a Qatari plans for a massive summer tournament featuring all of Europe’s top teams. The item included an image, the rendering of one of Qatar’s proposed 2022 World Cup venues (which is, itself, fantastical), with the word “Dream Football League” superimposed.
That same image appeared as part of Kay’s piece. It was the link between wholly imagined satire and what The Times was passing off as a very possible reality. Other UK outlets noted the link. Kay denied it, publicly, via Twitter.
— Oliver Kay (@OliverKayTimes) March 13, 2013
Then things got weird. Weirder, we should say. After Kay’s back-and-forth with Cahiers du Football, one of Kay’s possible sources revealed himself. His name is Rob Beal, and he’s got himself a bit of a reputation. This is what truly prompted Whittall to go digging.
The story in this mornings Times, ‘partly’ came from me and colleagues. Stop attacking the journalist that wrote a factual story.
— Rob Beal (@robbealparis) March 13, 2013
First, the initial background on Beal and the Paris-based company he claimed to represent.
If you read the links, his company purports to be operating out of Paris, just like this Beal’s supposed company ESM, and it’s been accused of various forms of alleged fraud. Moreover, another forum link puts the actual location of this supposedly Parisian security firm in…Sheffield. Hmmmmm.
My first instinct was to assume Rob Beal was just making up stuff on Twitter about his links to Oliver Kay. But then I checked his ‘followers’ list. And Oliver Kay, Dan Roan, and other premier journalists are on it. So…what the hell is going on here?
Thursday, Whittall paints a more specific picture of Beal’s habit of pitching bogus stories, with the added fun of Beal’s (supposed) history of issuing physical threats.
After I published my findings yesterday, a number of UK journalists with leading newspapers reached out anonymously to report Beal had been in contact with them in the past with story information that in many cases could not be independently verified and so was rejected. So we know he has a history of doing this sort of thing. Several others recounted to me allegations that Beal had personally threatened them on occasion. He may have also been involved in several possibly fraudulent schemes to purchase various football clubs. I’m awaiting further information on this front.
Beal’s appearance on the scene set off alarm bells for many; per Whittall, there was no lack of parties willing to paint Beal as a complete fraud with a history of trying to feed fake stories to British journos. If the “coincidence” of the Cahiers du Football post wasn’t enough to bring Kay’s reporting into question, Beal’s involvement was.
So what was going on here? The Times claimed the story wasn’t cribbed from Cahiers du Football, yet too many details (and the image) matched for that possibly to be true. Was Beal the link? Did he pass the Dream Football League story as the truth, feeding it to Kay, who then bought it hook, line and sinker? Wouldn’t a story on the scope of the DFL require multiple sources and multiple confirmations before it could ever make its way to the pages of The Times?
Been busy on day off. But anyone who doubts @oliverkaytimes will look foolish. Simple as that
— Tony Evans (@TonyEvansTimes) March 13, 2013
At this point, Kay and his editors had to have understood the gravity of the situation. Whether because Whittall’s been digging or because they recognized they’d been sold a bill of goods stolen directly from the fictional piece posted by Cahiers du Football, it would be impossible for them not know they’d sold fantasy as fact.
Nevertheless, the British press refused to bury Kay (who had gone quiet) and The Times continued to maintain the story’s veracity. According to at least one journalist who spoke to Whittall off the record, situations like this are not an uncommon occurrence.
One journalist I spoke with did mention that this thing “happens more often than you might think.” This isn’t news to those of us who follow the rumour cycle closely, but this one is different. It clearly feeds into a concrete fear in Europe of Qatar ‘buying’ European football as their own play thing. This sort of story has consequences.
I need to stress that most involved have repeatedly backed up Kay as a trustworthy, thorough journalist. I have no reason to doubt them, but the closing of the ranks despite all that has emerged in the past 24 hours is more than a little depressing. We’re not covering the war here—it’s just football, really—but a mistake—probably an honest one, but I don’t know—was likely made, and it will soon get buried.
For the most part, Kay was no longer the focus. Others in British football media circles turned their attention to Beal, the inveterate liar whose list of whoppers would shame Richard Nixon. Twitter bubbled with the hostility of a press core (mostly) protecting one of their own. Everywhere else, silence.
@robbealparis Get some kip. Big day tomorrow. You’ve got that seminar: how to remain in the shadows as representative of Qatari billionaires
— sportingintelligence (@sportingintel) March 14, 2013
— sportingintelligence (@sportingintel) March 15, 2013
Maybe it’s fair to view Kay as something of a victim in this situation, though he obligation as a journalist should preclude him from writing a story based on little more than the word of a known liar. But again, The Times claims additional sources, as The Times football editor Tony Evans reiterated in Whittall’s latest item on the saga.
He didn’t name specific sources on the story but he did mention that there was not a single source, that Kay “spoke to several high up chief executives” from major football clubs in England several weeks ago when Kay purportedly began work on the exclusive. They apparently confirmed the primary details of Kay’s account, including the 175 million pound asking price (Man Utd told me this morning “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 and that the Club fully supports the existing competition structure in club football” (italics mine)).
Evans went on to invoke the possibility of “subterfuge” surrounding the story, which makes one wonder if The Times hopes to paint this as “international intrigue” beyond the work of one conman living in his parents’ house in Sheffield. This despite the Qataris issuing a vehement denial that anything resembling the idea for the “Dream Football League” ever existed.
“With regard to the story published in today’s edition of The Times newspaper concerning a ‘Dream Football League,’ the Qatar Football Association and other Qatari football entities can categorically confirm that we have no involvement in any such initiative and has heard nothing to suggest such a concept is genuine.”
Whittall then teased Evans out on the issue of the “cone of silence” surrounding the story. No other British outlet followed up on the possible journalistic failure of Kay and The Times, something Evans attributed to reporters being loathe to check up on each others’ work. Despite the likelihood that all of this is nonsense, that Kay allowed himself to be conned, and that The Times published a piece without any real basis in fact in a most basic failure of the standards of journalism, Evans refused to budge.
Finally, he said he said the reporting was strong “…despite the involvement of Beal.” Italics mine. So we can infer Beal was at least one source on the DFL report. Evans reiterated his belief we would know more about this story soon, and when the truth emerges it’s real, there will be a giant “I-told-you-so.”
The wall of denial on the part of The Times and the lack of institutional accountability is what is most troubling. No one is looking to bury Oliver Kay, but if he was taken in by a fake story because it seemed to fit the prevailing “bogeyman” narrative of Middle Eastern oil money in football, it’s incumbent upon him and his paper to admit to their failures.
Instead, Kay says nothing while his bosses at the The Times cover and make petulant statements to Canadian soccer blogs, all in the hopes that the whole thing blows over.
Richard Whittall’s conclusion is the only logical conclusion.
There is no story. There is no DFL. A good reporter made a mistake.
Read all of Richard Whittall’s digging on the DFL non-story here. And stay tuned: There’s a good chance this isn’t the end of this.
And look, an update. This doesn’t sound good for Kay and The Times.
First, Whittall discovers that PSG was never contacted by Kay or The Times in relation to the story.
And then this..
Whittall’s most recent salvo is this bombshell: Rob Beal, implicitly acknowledged by Evans as a source on the Kay Dream Football League story, was issued a cease and desist by PSG after repeatedly trying to sell “inside” information on David Beckham joining the French giants. (This was back in 2011, and not related to Beckham’s recent move to Paris.)
The source has a copy of the letter which Beal attempted to sell to various journalists in 2011. In it, he details how PSG was pleased to welcome Beckham and his family, and asked that quotes “only be used by media groups in France and the UK” and be attributed only to Beal’s group at the time. The source told me the letter looked flimsy, but that she says it’s possible it ended up reported on by more than one outlet as hard news.