Masal Bugduv: Alison Healy on the trail of the mysterious Moldovan soccer ace

Eagle-eyed readers will have spotted the clue is in the name

There is a football jersey displayed in a glass case on the wall of a pub in Connemara. Nothing remarkable about that, you might think, except it’s not a Galway jersey. It’s not even an Ireland jersey. Coyne’s Gastropub in Kilkieran is displaying the jersey of a 16-year-old Moldovan player called Masal Bugduv.

And the most remarkable thing about it is that the footballer never existed. It’s a story that delights publican Michael Coyne because it involves his ancestor, Pádraic Ó Conaire, a key figure in the development of modern Irish literature.

Eagle-eyed readers will have spotted that Masal Bugduv is the phonetic spelling of M’asal Beag Dubh, the famous short story by the Galway writer. It tells the story of a man who pays more than he intends for a little black donkey after his owner’s family oversell his virtues.

About a century after that story was written, journalist Declan Varley was getting fed up with the rumour mill surrounding the football transfer market. He marvelled at how greedy agents spent so much time trying to flog “donkey” players for inflated prices and how fans were whipped into a frenzy over footballers they had never heard of. He decided to invent a fake player and see how high he could soar.


He wondered if a baseless story could be accepted without any evidence. We should remember that this was 2008, Twitter was in its infancy, and we knew nothing of fake news. The Galway man decided that the phonetic spelling of M’asal Beag Dubh would provide a perfect name for his new player. And so, in July 2008 Masal Bugduv was brought into the world, a fully formed teenage footballing prodigy from Moldova.

Varley quietly slipped Bugduv’s name into Moldova’s national squad on its Wikipedia page. Then he generously gave the young player an assist in his debut with the national team.

His next invention was an agent, Sergei Yulikov, who issued press statements on behalf of the teenager. Varley converted them into news stories in the style of Associated Press reports. They reported that he was the new bright hope from Moldova and Arsenal was interested in buying him. Then Liverpool was interested.

Varley dropped the stories into chat boards and message forums and watched Bugduv’s stature grow. Soon he added Bugduv’s name into the Moldovan squad for a World Cup qualifier against Luxembourg. Full of bravado, the young player was quoted as saying he would destroy Luxembourg and then join Arsenal.

He was mentioned on Sky Sports news in a discussion about the transfer market. Manchester City’s then manager Mark Hughes was asked if he would buy him and said wouldn’t rule anything in or out.

Harry Redknapp was drawn into a spat with the non-existent player when Bugduv took issue with his off-the-cuff remark about Spurs not signing unknown players from Moldova and other places.

In January 2009, the story reached its glorious climax when the Times of London placed Bugduv 30th in its list of the top 50 promising young players. A meteoric rise for someone who didn’t exist six months earlier. He was “Moldova’s finest” who had been “strongly linked with a move to Arsenal”.

Varley’s point was proven. This also signalled the moment the whistle was blown on the imaginary player. At this stage, Varley recalled that Bugduv was getting 106 million hits on Google. He had created such a realistic character that he had difficulty convincing some people that he was behind the story.

Back to the pub in Connemara, where Michael Coyne says linking the player with the Pádraic Ó Conaire story was a stroke of genius. His ancestor was anti-money and a socialist so his involvement in the story was a masterstroke. The publican bought a Moldovan jersey, had Bugduv’s name inscribed on it and put it on display in his bar.

Tourists do a double-take when they see the jersey and ask about it all the time. This gives him the chance to tell them about Pádraic Ó Conaire, whom he believes doesn’t get the acclaim he deserves. Generations of Irish school children studied M’asal Beag Dubh, but Michael Coyne says Ó Conaire leaves a far richer legacy, and he is happy to tell everyone about it.

Bugduv would have turned 30 in April. Some say he’s living his best life in Paris with the runner-up to Miss Moldova 2012. He frequently appears in lists of the biggest sports hoaxes of all time and Varley says several US universities use the story in modules on the role of truth in digital journalism.

Not bad, for a young footballer who never existed.