On April 1, 1985, a now-iconic article by George Plimpton appeared in Sports Illustrated, profiling a Mets pitching prospect named Hayden "Sidd" Finch. A "28-year-old, somewhat eccentric mystic," Finch wore hiking boots on the mound, had learned a special technique from a yogi in Tibet and could throw a 168-mile-per-hour fastball. Finch was incredible. Really incredible. Like, if you believe this, I have a bridge to sell you. It was April Fools Day after all.
Last week, the London Times listed the "top 50 rising stars" in soccer. At No. 30 was a 16-year-old Moldovan player, Masal Bugduv. The youngster had been mentioned on a number of soccer websites, on goal.com and in some supposed AP stories. (Like all teenage prodigies, Bugduv was linked to Arsenal.) But the confederation of online soccer fans quickly began to doubt his existence. Did he have a nose for the goal reminiscent of a certain Siddharta Guatama? Could he play in hiking boots?
Following up on the suspicions, a blogger soon poked holes in all known information about the Moldovan and suggested that he had been invented by some Irish pranksters. Comments about Bugduv had cited a fake newspaper, called Diario Mo Thon, and "Mo Thon" is Irish for "my arse." Another blogger pointed out that Bugduv's name sounded like the Irish for "my little black donkey." Fittingly enough, "My Little Black Donkey" is an Irish children's story about a donkey that gets a lot of hype, is sold for a bunch of money and turns out to be a dud. (It was surely written to prepare young soccer fans for a life of transfer speculation).
The Sidd Finch and Masal Bugduv tales are, of course, two entries in a long line of sports hoaxes. There was the woman who faked swimming the English Channel, the runner who faked winning the Boston Marathon (She had taken the subway during the NYC race) and the journalist who faked the sport of monkey fishing. All of these stories intrigue us because, on the one hand, we want them to be true—we want an unknown, unsweaty nobody to win the Boston Marathon—and, on the other hand, we love proving them wrong and mocking those who got fooled.
This is especially true when it comes to prospects. Everyone wants to discover—or at least delight in the early knowledge of—a diamond in the rough. It's all the better if he's a Tibetan lama who keeps a flock of rare sheep and speaks a forgotten dialect. A few years ago, Joe Berton, the guy who was photographed as Sidd Finch in SI, said that people still come up to him asking for autographs. "It's like they really wanted Sidd to be real," he said.
At the same time, there is so much hype (and cash) spent on revealing the next, next Maradona that there's nothing more pleasurable than seeing it all go up in smoke. (Unless, of course, we've opined about said prospect in our annual NEXT issue.) The tale of the prospect holds our greatest desires and our greatest foibles.
When reading about Bugduv, we also got to thinking about another soccer fiction: the Philadelphia MLS team. It was a fiction at least a few years ago, when the Sons of Ben fan club was founded. Even though there was no Philly soccer team, the SOBs acted like they had a real club with real rivalries. They went to opposing stadiums to boo the Red Bulls and New England; they made up chants; and they spent a whole lot of energy on a team that didn't exist.
Now it does. This weekend, Delaware County, P.A. voted in favor of a $30-milllion bond for construction of the new stadium. The team is supposed to begin playing there in 2010.
Knowing that he was a man who could believe in something fantastic, we called Bryan James, one of the founders of the Sons of Ben, to find out if the Philadelphia team would like to sign Masal Bugduv.
"We have enough players that are fictionally good around here," he said. "We need the real thing."