Who starts the transfer rumours and why are they inventing more and more?

By Tony Attwood

A major police investigation has uncovered evidence that suggests legal disputes in football and other sports may have been corrupted by the submission of misleading documents.

The Times – 21 January 2021


I have often commented on how journalists talk up fantasy transfer rumours.   But where do these stories start – and why are they increasing? 

A very large number – probably the large majority – of tales about players leaving and arriving are created by players’ agents who feed them to journalists who in turn are known not to do their own research.  

As for the motive, having a player talked up as being of interest to other clubs enhances  the player’s agent’s position in terms of negotiating a pay rise part way through a contract.

In terms of proof – that is not hard to find.   Something like 95% of transfer tales that appear in the English media openly claim that the original story appeared somewhere else.  Such stories suggest the journalist has a network of researchers keeping an eye on papers around the world to see what stories are breaking.

This process is based on the awareness that when another publication is quoted as the source virtually no one checks the story, especially when the source is beyond the UK, and not written in English.

However if one does, one usually finds that the original source either has never run this story, or if it has it, in turn, quotes another outlet as the origin.  Check that and one finds it quotes another source, and on and on.

It is a tedious business searching back, since most of the tales don’t quote an exact reference but instead simply cite a newspaper or website.  

However what can also be found are sources in which A says the tale it comes from B, B says it comes from A.  There is no origin; it is all circular.

So the agents play their game in order to keep their players in the limelight.  If a club spokesperson says the story is not true, this is disbelieved because the club wants to keep the tale quiet, or if the club really denies it a lot, journalists report that fans are up in arms over the club’s lack of ambition.

This effectively stops clubs denying stories in order to avoid the lack of ambition accusation.  So we now have an invented story with an invented source, not denied by the club in order to avoid negative publicity.

But now however, for the first time, the nonsense is being challenged, as none other than Britain’s tax collector – Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), is focusing on collecting more tax from dastardly players, clubs and agents who are known to be using various devious methods to avoid tax.  (See here for example)

Although HMRC cannot tax a rumour, a rumour can be used as a reason for HMRC to investigate in depth what is happening in a club.  To undertake a full investigation HMRC don’t need evidence of wrong doing.  They just march in and ask to see the accounts and demand an office in which to work. (HMRC have far more powers in the UK than the police – they really can just walk in and take over, without a warrant).

Given that broadcasting, tourism, promotion, hospitality appearances, image rights and the like all add to player income, these claims can cover a huge range of activities.   And because the deals range across many countries and through various sources, it has been seen by some agents (and players) as a source of tax-free revenue.

Interestingly when players are caught, little is revealed in public as no one wants the story revealed. HMRC don’t want to reveal how they caught the culprit, the agent doesn’t want to let on that one of his men has been found guilty and paid a mega-fine, the player doesn’t want to reveal he is a tax cheat, and the club doesn’t want to let anyone know in case it makes it harder to sell the fraudster.

So the arrival of a fake transfer story is very much welcomed by the club if it deflects from an HMRC investigation.  Fake stories mislead HMRC and cause them to spend time tracking down something that never happened, while agents, players and clubs cover their tracks.

Thus the clubs welcome the media making up fantasy transfers.   Nevertheless it is true that in 2019-20, the number of players prosecuted for tax fraud almost tripled.  The year before it merely doubled.  Currently over half of the 92 league clubs are being investigated for at least one tax fraud case.  

To fight the criticism that HMRC makes use of the fantasy world of transfer rumours that blogs, broadcasters and journalists propagate, last month HMRC published a new guidance programme for agents, particularly covering where an agent works for both club and player at the same time.

But there is yet another issue going on here and that is money laundering – taking money that has been gained through illicit means and using it to pay players, agents and clubs.  That is the next round of the battle.  HMRC has hardly started that one yet.

Of course the media don’t care about any of this – they just get free news and keep peddling it each day even though they know 97% of it is fake.  Which says something about the football media.

97% of transfer rumours don’t result in a transfer.  Have you ever wondered how any form of journalism could be this grossly incompetent?

The corruption files

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