Masal Bugduv: The Man Who Fooled Football

In 2008, Moldovan starlet Masal Bugduv was named by The Times as one of the world’s most exciting young talents. But there’s a good reason you’ve never seen him play.

Masal Bugduv's infamous Arsenal shirt.

During transfer windows, every media outlet’s rumour mill goes into overdrive. Tall tales and errant snippets of unverified – and routinely unverifiable – gossip is printed, posted and tweeted with abandon. All in a bid to grab the attentions of their audience and, on the odd occasion a speculative punt comes to fruition, be seen to be getting one over on rival publications.

All those reading this piece undoubtedly concluded many years ago that the majority of transfer-related stories must be digested alongside a healthy pinch of salt. Yet we must all admit that we are not immune, and often find ourselves drawn in by conjecture and whispers. Such rumours have the capacity to give us hope that maybe, just maybe, the club you’ve supported for decades is about to make that one signing that will change everything for the better.

Declan Varley, an Arsenal fan and senior journalist based in Galway, Ireland, is no stranger to football gossip. He is a diehard Gooner, contributing to a number of Arsenal-centric publications, and readily admits that he has been suckered in – and subsequently been left disappointed – by a number of unfounded transfer stories over the years.

There is one particular transfer rumour, however, that Varley is especially attached to – that of Masal Bugduv, a teenage Moldovan forward who in 2008 was linked with Tottenham, Manchester City and Arsenal, and was tipped to be the man who would kickstart a Moldovan footballing revolution.

A decade ago, every media outlet knew his name and was fully aware of his potential. He was, it was said, a once-in-a-generation superstar, an icon in his homeland and, quite possibly, a prodigy gifted enough to singlehandedly be able to fire teams to title success.

There was just one minor hang-up. Masal Budguv existed only in the mind of Declan Varley.

Bugduv might still be Moldova's most famous footballing export

“It was just a harmless experiment,” says Varley. “It didn’t upset anybody, and it didn’t set out to bring down any government – it’s just a great story of the small guys getting one over on the big guys. And who doesn’t enjoy that?”

Let’s venture back to the summer of 2008. Flo Rida sat atop the charts with his seminal release Low, Spain were on the cusp of winning Euro 2008, the global financial crisis was in full swing, and on Ireland’s west coast, an audacious ploy was being devised.

“As a journalist I see football gossip all the time, particularly during the transfer windows, and even though I know most of it is nonsense, I can’t help but be drawn in, especially if it’s related to Arsenal. This sparked an idea; I wondered whether I would be able to completely invent a player and get his name mentioned in the general transfer rumour discourse.”

This is where our story begins in earnest.

Varley named his creation Masal Bugduv, a reference to an Irish short story titled M'asal Beag Dubh (My Little Black Donkey) written by Pádraic Ó Conaire, in which a salesman attempts to trade a lazy – and essentially useless – donkey for an exorbitant fee to an unwitting buyer.

“The transfer window is basically a lot of donkeys being built-up by journalists and agents, so this seemed like the perfect name,” says Varley. “Masal Bugduv sounds vaguely Eastern European, so I plumped for Moldova as his nationality, and then simply inserted him into the Moldovan squad’s Wikipedia page. It all escalated from there.”

Varley then set about creating the Bugduv myth.

At age 16, Bugduv gained his first Moldovan cap, failing to score but grabbing an assist as he wowed the onlooking crowd, and such was the furore around his performance that, according to a number of Varley-created news releases, a number of big clubs were sniffing around.

“I decided that Bugduv would be built like Rooney, would play like Gheorghe Hagi, and would draw comparisons with Hristo Stoichkov. I also concluded that he should only speak through his agent. I invented a Moldovan newspaper and gave it the title Diario Mo Thon – which in Irish means ‘Diary of My Ass’ – and it was through this ‘publication’ that quotes and stories related to Bugduv were disseminated to sporting outlets around Europe.

“I also started to drop these stories into football forums and chat boards. My ambition was to try and get 1,000 mentions of his name on Google, but then when his name started being mentioned on Sky Sports, the whole dynamic of the story shifted slightly.”

Sky Sports, as well as a number of other football publications, started to mention Bugduv with increasing frequency. He was being tipped for a move to one of the European giants, and with every mention, his legend grew. But this gave Varley something of a dilemma.

He realised that, with the summer transfer window on the verge of coming to an end, he needed to come up with a reason why Bugduv would be unable to secure a dream move to a big club. He settled on the rather vague, but totally believable, issue of him being unable to obtain a valid work permit – meaning that, for another year at least, he would have to continue plying his trade in the Moldova for Olimpia Bălți.

“This kept the rumour alive and meant that I could continue to build Bugduv up, especially on the international stage. I remember writing a press release stating that it was his dream to ‘smash’ Luxembourg, and even this, which really has no right being of interest to anyone outside of Moldova or Luxembourg, gained a fair but of traction online.”

Bugduv’s name was even mentioned during a press conference prior to a Manchester City game, with then-manager Mark Hughes saying he would ‘rule nothing out’ with regard to a potential bid for the player.

Such was the hype around Bugduv that he was placed at number 30 in The Times’ ‘Football's top 50 rising stars’ feature in 2009, positioning him ahead of both Mesut Özil and Robert Lewandowski. The piece was syndicated to an array of newspapers around the world, so almost overnight Bugduv’s name was being mentioned far and wide.

Number 30 in The Times' 50 Rising Stars feature

While this level of Bugduv attention was beyond Varley’s wildest dreams, it would also lead to the hoax finally being rumbled. A Russian journalist who was au fait with the Moldovan league and the international side contacted The Times and informed them that Bugduv did not exist, which ultimately led to him being removed from the list and replaced by Arsenal graduate Jay Simpson.

Simpson, in case you’re wondering, had a relatively successfully career. He turned out for Millwall, West Brom, QPR and Hull, and in 2020 was released by Cypriot side Nea Salamina. He is currently without a club.

“After The Times article Bugduv’s name was everywhere. I remember typing Masal Bugduv into Google just after the top 50 players feature came out and there were 106 million mentions of his name – it just exploded. Of course, I knew that the greater the level of exposure, the more chance there was of the truth coming out, so when it happened it wasn’t really surprising.”

So impactful was the Masal Bugduv saga that his name has been cited in over 800 academic papers, many of them related to the role of truth in digital media. Bugduv was also one referred to as ‘the first post-truth footballer’ by Rory Smith in an article for The New York Times.

Though he was the sole inventor of Bugduv, Varley admits that his creation ended up taking on a life of its own, and even today he still finds himself surprised by not only how far the story managed to spread, but the cultural impact it continues to have.

In 2019 Moldova and France played each other twice as part of the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign. A friend of Varley’s went over for the game in Paris, and was stunned to see that outside the stadium, alongside the replica France shirts being sold with the name Pogba emblazoned on the back, were Moldova shirts baring the name Bugduv.

Unofficial Moldovan memorabilia sporting Bugduv's name

“Everyone is fully aware that he isn’t real,” says Varley, “yet he’s still the biggest footballing name to come out of Moldova. I’m now the proud owner of both a Moldova shirt and an Arsenal shirt with the name Bugduv on the back.”

In many ways, Varley’s creation of Masal Bugduv harks back to a more innocent period of internet culture, when terms such as ‘fake news’ did not exist, and when the idea of inventing something under the guise of a social experiment could be regarded by all as playful and could exist without harbouring any degree of malice.

The story of Bugduv does, however, serve as a rather prescient example of the fact that with a little bit of concerted effort, thousands – if not millions – of people can quite easily be fooled into believing something that is altogether false.

“I really enjoy producing spoof pieces – the more outrageous and outlandish the better. I remember once writing a fake court report for a satirical section in an Irish newspaper that centred on the fictitious case of a man being found in a hotel room with a donkey. I didn’t mention any details, didn’t suggest that there was anything salacious or scandalous, I just stated that the man was handcuffed and that the donkey had swallowed the key.

“The story went up on the website and I didn’t give it much thought until I got a call from the IT department a few hours later. The story was spotted by a few news outlets in America and had been reported as being completely factual, which led to our website receiving around 10 million hits, which not only caused the entire site to crash, but also every single website associated with the hosting company, including the official site of The Cranberries.

“It just goes to show that with the right ingredients, and if everything’s written in a certain way, people are liable to believe whatever is presented to them.

“I don’t think anyone quite appreciated back then – I certainly didn’t – that fabricated news would eventually have the capacity to be quite dangerous, especially if such content is created by people with a particularly sinister or disturbing motive.”

Declan Varley: the man behind the myth

But does this mean that Varley has retired from the satirical news game? Not a chance.

“You have to be a bit more careful, a bit more woke, but there’s definitely still a huge appetite for banter and light-heartedness. It’s never been my intention to upset anyone or make someone appear foolish, and I suppose it’s all about having a solid understanding of what’s satire and what isn’t.

“I have a few sleeper projects floating around online right now, so who knows what’s going to happen with them?”

Story by Joseph Phelan for STILES.