Around midnight on Tuesday, the Barcelona-based newspaper El Mundo Deportivo tweeted the front-page cover of their edition for Wednesday morning. The lead story covered the imminent transfer of Jean Michael Seri from Nice to Barcelona. It was a done deal the paper announced with all the fanfare of a military victory: "Seri Day."
The Ivory Coast international midfielder, the paper reported, "said goodbye to Nice and its fans against Napoli [in a Champions League qualifying tie] and today he can be a Barcelona player."
The newspaper changed its mind minutes later, tweeting a different front-page story with the same photo, same layout but with a U-turn headline: "No to Seri."
The deal was off. The 26-year-old's dream move was not going to happen because some of Barcelona's technical directors "advised against his signature."
"Clearly, in that 10 minutes," says Sid Lowe, The Guardian's football correspondent in Spain, "the newspaper got a call from [Barcelona's board] saying, 'Hang on a minute, whoa, don't put that out!' So they changed it. In fairness, it's not so much the media being manipulated—it's the media being told: 'You've got a story wrong.' You could argue that's a good thing."
The midweek gaffe by the editorial board at El Mundo Deportivo illustrates how closely aligned the newspaper is with FC Barcelona, as is the case with the city's other main sports newspaper, El Diario Sport. In Madrid, the capital city's two leading sports papers, Marca and Diario AS have close ties—particularly the former—with the fortunes of Real Madrid.
How much these newspapers and the sports media in Spain, including its television and radio stations, influence the transfer windows and help (or hinder) the likes of Real Madrid and Barca in getting deals done is an intriguing topic, given the zany summer of La Liga transfer stories. In inimical style, Lowe draws a comparison with a theory by the historian Ian Kershaw about how Nazism carried out its work during the Third Reich.
Kershaw argues that Adolf Hitler was a "lazy dictator" who wasn't interested in policy; he never micro-managed, but his minions carried out what they reckoned to be his wishes with zeal. Kershaw coined the term "Working Towards the Fuhrer" to explain this concept, which was based on a phrase first uttered by a Prussian civil servant in 1934, believing, "it was the duty of everybody to work towards the Fuhrer along the lines he would wish."
"Sometimes we fall into the trap of believing that every news story has been placed by a club," says Lowe. "An immense majority of what the papers do isn't driven directly by the clubs, not least because they've a lot of pages to fill. But it's also true that there is a conditioning element.
"The reason I bring up the theory of 'Working Towards the Fuhrer' with the media manipulation in Spain is because there are certainly elements of the media that work towards their clubs. It's not to say they're phoning up the clubs saying, 'Can I write this?' It's not to say they're being told to write things. Although there is no doubt that on occasion they are. It's to say the contexts in which they write in some cases are triggered by certain positioning."
Lowe cites the relationship between El Mundo Deportivo and the current Barcelona board as being the clearest example. Last week, the paper ran a story from Roger Torello in which it said that Liverpool's No. 10 Philippe Coutinho was prepared to go on strike in order to force some movement on his stalled transfer to Barcelona.
The story came on the back of a television interview by Pep Segura, Barcelona's general director, on the Catalan station TV3, as per Diario Sport, in which he said both Coutinho and Borussia Dortmund's Ousmane Dembele were "close" to signing for Barca. A week later, and there are still no deals announced. It seemed a rash statement to make.
"That's something you wouldn't get in England—somebody talking about transfers like that, particularly when it doesn't seem to be as close as he's making it out to be," says Dean Jones, who investigates football transfers for Bleacher Report in the English Premier League.
"From what I can read between the lines, it's him buying time and winning fans over. If he puts out that message, the fans think, 'OK, let's give him the benefit of the doubt and see if these deals get done.' In the case of Coutinho, it forces him into pushing his move to get out of Liverpool—whether to go on strike or not."
The airwaves in Spain have been awash this summer with stories of transfers that never materialised. On Sunday, the podcast La Libreta de Van Gaal released the first in a series of podcasts lampooning the journalists who spread the most outrageous of them over the last few months, including moves by Sandro to Real Madrid (he went to Everton); Theo Hernandez to Barcelona (he went to Real Madrid) and with "total and absolute" certainty that Diego Costa was going to a club in China to earn €30 million a year.
The fault doesn't necessarily lie with shoddy reporters, says Juanma Trueba, a Spanish football writer and a former editor with Diario AS:
"My experience is you will never find a creditable journalist who invents a story that there is a player coming. Generally, the journalist has contacts inside the club, and the information they impart is information given to them.
"Most of the time, the lack of rigour that people accuse the journalist of is actually a lack of rigour by the clubs. The journalist writes about what he is told from inside the club—maybe not coming from the president, but from a director or adviser. For example, Barcelona will say that 'Coutinho is close' so that's what the journalist will say. It's nonsense for the journalist to risk his reputation by inventing a story. I am convinced Barca has thought—although I'm not sure if they still think it—they could sign Coutinho and Dembele."
Trueba believes that Barcelona and Real Madrid don't feel they need the media to do their business—not to the same degree they used to lean on the press in bygone years—although, he adds that it doesn't stop them complaining if press stories destabilise the negotiations of certain transfers.
There is a chasm now between the press and Spain's two biggest clubs that wasn't there before. "There used to be greater collaboration," he says. "Before clubs used to suffer a lot when the media was against them, but now I find that they don't really care."
He says there is a growing antagonism between the two groups, which plumbed new depths during Jose Mourinho's three-year stint as Real Madrid manager when, for instance, Real Madrid's disgruntled Ultras Sur fans used to chant at the Bernabeu Stadium: "Marca y AS, camara de gas" (Marca and AS, gas chamber).
"There was a feeling amongst fans," says Trueba, "that journalists were bad and they wanted to dominate the club and, for example, [manipulate] the transfer of players. It got to the point that Real Madrid fans had a total disdain for journalists."
Trueba says a lot of stories now come pre-packaged in press release format: "It's so bunkerizada (pre-cooked). A lot of the time the newspapers just reprint clubs' communication departments' information. It is really hard to access any other information."
Having covered La Liga for 17 years, Lowe is struck by the speed and the volume of football transfer stories. When he first began covering the transfer beat in 2000, at the dawn of Florentino Perez's first Galactico project as Real Madrid president, newspapers and radio dominated. Now TV and social media are key players. He has also noticed the rise in prominence that football stars have in shaping events on the transfer market and the potential signing of a new team-mate.
"Increasingly players have a voice of their own with things like social media," says Lowe. "The Neymar case was very interesting. At one point, it looked like Barcelona's Gerard Pique had blown the media apart, saying, 'I want to have the players saying something; I want to have a Players' Tribune' because of all this fake news out there'—all these stories that turn out not to be true. Then Pique does his famous 'se queda' (he stays) tweet with Neymar and it's not true. To be honest, Pique looks like a bit of a rogue."
It is a trend that Trueba sees also. "When Pique says something, it is actually a message to the club. That has influence in this world where players like Pique have more power than even the clubs' presidents. If, say, Pique says he likes Mbappe, and he floats the idea, it is very significant—more than any messages between the media and the clubs."
All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.
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