The world of imaginary football is a complex and ancient one, almost as complex and ancient as the sport from which it takes inspiration. Back in 1912, Stiffy the Goalkeeper (real name Harry Weldon) entertained stage audiences, while in 1930, cinemagoers watched young aspirant Dicky Brown’s struggles with Manningford FC in The Great Game. Following in this proud tradition have come comic book heroes and television stars, comedies and tragedies, parodies and satires, as football has expanded to fill every corner of the imagination. Here are five of our favourite made up footballers. In some cases, they’ve even managed to surpass the real thing in their ridiculousness.
For a few months in 2009, out there on the fringes of football knowledge, among those people who pride themselves on knowing who the next big thing is before the next big thing may even know themselves, Masal Bugduv was big news. The hype spread through online forums, on to websites of varying reputations, and reached a crescendo when the 16 year old was named at No. 30 in The Times’ “Football’s Top 50 Rising Stars”. “Moldova’s finest,” apparently. “Strongly linked” with Arsenal, it says here.
Arsenal have had a few players go missing in their time, but have never yet managed to sign somebody who straightforwardly didn’t exist. Thanks to detective work from various corners of the internet, including blogger Fredorraci on Soccerlens and Brian Phillips on Slate, it emerged that Masal Bugduv was an elaborate hoax perpetrated by an Irish newspaperman, who had seeded forums and comments section with false news stories and comments. One cited Moldovan newspaper was named Diario Mo Thon, Irish for “Diary, My Arse”. And the lad’s name? A soundalike for m’asal beag dubh, Irish for “my little black donkey,” which Phillips notes just so happens to be the title of an Irish short story about a man who is tricked by gossip into overpaying for a lazy donkey.
A gorgeous, glorious, generous hoax, littered with clues and jokes, that made it all the way the to the pages of England’s paper of record and, in the process, exposed the inner workings of football coverage and the modern transfers market. Today Bugduv lives on as a punchline and a weapon for sceptical readers, and a terrible warning for writers. He even made it into academia; a paper in New Media & Society suggests that he presents “a unique lens through which the reformulation of journalistic authority in blogs can be viewed and evaluated”. Once the authors had stopped giggling, presumably.
Ten league titles, eleven FA Cups, three European Cups, and 481 career goals. Not bad going. But Roy Race, Melchester Rovers’ finest ever player, was a comic-strip character, and so in addition to his footballing exploits he was kidnapped five times, survived a mid-match earthquake, and saw his 38-year playing career—from his first appearance in 1954, through to the last weekly episode in 1993—come to an end when his left foot was amputated following a helicopter crash. More details are available in his autobiography, which a cynic might suggest was only slightly more ghosted than the average footballer’s life.
There have been plenty of great comic-strip footballers—your correspondent’s personal favourite would probably be Hot-Shot Hamish—but few have been quite as resonant as Roy. You can learn a lot about a country through the stories it tells about itself, and Roy of the Rovers, despite being entirely fictional and occasionally ludicrous, somehow manages to do as good a job of explaining English football as anything more serious or factual has ever managed. That’s because Roy is the English footballer as the English imagination insists that he should be.
He’s a working class boy who grew up playing football on the streets, unthinkingly honest and reflexively sporting, married and always loyal to his first sweetheart. Never played for any team other than his hometown club. Naturally suspicious of both foreigners and tactics. And brilliant; scorer of more late, crucial, spectacular goals that Manchester United and Steven Gerrard combined. All actual English footballers, even the sainted Bobby Moore, are imperfect reflections of his Platonic majesty.
Which isn’t necessarily a good thing. Writing in The Blizzard, Scott Murray has suggested that Racey’s comic book knack for saving the day at the last minute might have had a chilling effect on his readers. “English football spent their formative years being taught a very strange lesson: it doesn’t really matter what you do for 89 minutes, because a superhero will turn up eventually, welt the ball into the net, and you can all go home with your cups and medals.” Just as the people of Superman’s New York have no reason to look both ways when crossing the street, so Roy Race’s Englishmen have no need to think about the game. Victory’s just the stroke of a pen and the swipe of a left foot away.
Of course, the success and cultural impact of Roy of the Rovers has inspired any number of imitations, rip-offs and parodies, and that naturally leads us to the august pages of Viz magazine. Like Roy Race, Billy Thomson plays for his hometown team; here called Fulchester Rovers. Like Roy, Billy is an extraordinary footballer; as a goalkeeper he’s often the difference between his team handing out or receiving a thrashing. And like Roy, Billy’s been around for years, played with celebrities, and dealt with anything the game could throw him him, realistic and otherwise.
Unlike Roy Race, Billy’s a fish.
Well, half a fish, anyway; a human head on a piscine body. Despite this, and despite being quite small for a goalkeeper, he’s had a long and successful career, floating a few feet above the ground and directing himself around his penalty area with tail and fins. But as well as being a vehicle for the writers to mock Roy and the persistent tendency towards the miraculous in footballing fiction, Billy’s also encountered wider footballing issues: match-fixing, a tabloid fake sheikh, Twitter, David Beckham’s hair and an atom bomb that threatened to destroy the entire first team squad. At least until coach Syd Preston noticed that they’d been tricked by perspective, and the bomb in question was in fact very small.
Tragically, Billy the Fish has died on several occasions, most recently during the FA Cup final, when he saved a booby-trapped ball. Luckily, his identical-looking son, also called Billy, was on hand to step into his boots. Well, not boots. Because he’s a fish.
If you play Football Manager for long enough the whole world will become a fiction, as time marches on and the game creates fresh players to replace those that leave the game. Most long-term fans of the video game series will have one or two regens that are particularly close to their hearts. One of them, Ivica Strok), has even made his way into Manchester’s National Football Museum. But when players load up a New Game, the universe is firmly in the present, and the series’ makers Sports Interactive pride themselves on how closely the player database cleaves to real life.
Back in the glory days of Championship Manager 2001/02, however, things were a little less precise, and that brings us to Tó Madeira. He began the game playing for tiny Portuguese side Clube Desportivo de Gouveia, but he was available to almost any side in the world for an absolute pittance. And he was magnificent: strong, quick, and capable of scoring more than 50 goals a season. The kind of player you could build a side around, all for no more than Jose Mourinho has to shell out following a particularly testy press conference.
Tó Madeira wasn’t the combined work of Mr and Mrs Madeira after a night on the madeira, however. He had sprung from the imagination of one Antonio Lopes, a civil engineering student who had been attached to Gouveia as a juvenile but had never made it as a footballer. Recruited by Sports Interactive to provide scouting information on the club, he seized the opportunity to bring into being the player he’d dreamed of becoming, and recreated himself as a legend. Hard to blame him, frankly, even if he did get sacked for his troubles. To Madeira himself was quietly patched out as the game was updated, but he lives on in the memories and frontlines of many a world-conquering virtual team.
Unlike everybody else on this list, Ali Dia is a real person. He was also a real footballer, and played at a level that most would-be footballers can only dream of reaching. What he wasn’t, however, was a Premier League footballer, and we know this because he proved it beyond all doubt by briefly becoming a Premier League footballer.
To explain: in November 1996, Liverpool and Rangers legend Graeme Souness, then manager of Southampton, received a phone call. On the phone was George Weah, 1995 Ballon d’Or winner and general all-around hero, who suggested to Souness that he might consider looking at Weah’s cousin, a Senegalese international who had previously been playing for Paris Saint-Germain. Souness was so entranced by the thought of this coup that rather than offer Weah’s cousin a trial, he signed him up to a one-month contract.
None of it was true. “Weah” was a friend of Dia’s; his previous footballing experience extended to a few clubs in the French and German lower leagues; and though he was Senegalese, he had never won an international cap. All of which became excruciatingly clear when, half an hour into a home game against Leeds United, Matt le Tissier pulled a thigh muscle, and Souness turned to Dia. On he came. And then, five minutes before the end, off he came again, the substitute subbed, the manager humiliated, and the television audience vastly amused.
“His performance was almost comical,” recalled Le Tissier, strongly underselling things. “He kind of took my place, but he didn’t really have a position. He was just wandering everywhere. I don’t think he realised what position he was supposed to be in.” Dia disappeared from Southampton shortly afterwards, reappeared briefly at Conference side Gateshead, and then, presumably, went on with his non-footballing life. But while he may not have been much of a player, you have to admire the hustle.