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Dream League or fantasy football – has 'The Times' scored an own goal?

The paper stands by its story about a new, Qatar-led contest. But, says a French website, 'we made it all up'

A story appeared in a British newspaper last week which, although distinctly questionable, tells us a great deal about the world in which we live.

The story, occupying several pages in The Times on Wednesday, said that Qatar and other Gulf states were going to "sheikh" up football by starting a new league for the world's most prestigious clubs, from 2015.

The story was plausible enough. Qatar, the reported mastermind of the plan, has won the right to stage the World Cup in 2022. The Qatari government already owns Paris Saint-Germain and David Beckham. A wealthy Emirates family owns Manchester City.

Tiny, hyper-wealthy Qatar has a publicly announced strategy to make itself one of the great nations of the world through investing hundreds of billions in education, culture and sport – especially sport.

According to The Times, Qatar and neighbouring states have invited 16 big clubs – including Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea – to compete in the Dream Football League in the Gulf from 2015. Eight other "guest" clubs will participate every two years.

The Times carried a large image of the logo of the Dream League, showing a futuristic stadium.

Within hours of publication of the story – billed as "exclusive" – the internet began to bubble with amusement and astonishment. Especially the internet in France.

Many, though not all, of the significant details of the story had appeared on Tuesday morning on a French satirical website, Les Cahiers du Football, devoted to sending up the world's most popular sport.

The name of the competition, the number of clubs, the start date in 2015, the launch date next month – all were the same. The logo shown by The Times with the slogan, "let the dream begin", had first appeared on the French site.

Other aspects of The Times story were different. The newspaper said that the Dream League would be played every two years in summer. The French site that the new competition would be played for five months each year.

Les Cahiers said that it had concocted the whole business – the name of the league, the logo, everything. The story was not intended as a hoax, the site said, but as a satirical comment on a world in which football was being taken away from the fans as a plaything, or Machiavellian political tool, of the super-rich.

Many of the details in the original French version – not repeated by The Times – were self-evidently satirical and absurd. The story was accredited to "Agence Transe Presse". The clubs were to be paid ¤2bn each; the players would live on artificial, off-shore islands where the moral code and laws of the Gulf would not apply.

The matches would be simultaneously acted out in the clubs' home stadia by holograms. The roar of the crowd at Old Trafford or the Nou Camp would be broadcast to the players in the field in the Gulf.

The story in Les Cahiers ended with a manifestly spoof comment from a pundit called Bonnie Pascal-Fasse – meant to call to mind a real French sociological pundit on football, Pascal Boniface.

The Qatari government has since denied any knowledge of a Dream Football League.

And The Times?The Times insists that its story is true and that its source was not Les Cahiers du Football.

Oliver Kay, chief football correspondent, who wrote the story, told Reuters: "I've been amused by the speculation about the source of this story … I can guarantee you 100 per cent, 1,000 per cent, 175 million per cent, that my story had nothing to do with any website, spoof or otherwise.

"I've no idea about their modus operandi. I know that my source is very good ... and that there is more where that story came from."

The editor of Les Cahiers, Jérôme Latta, says: "I can assure you that the Dream Football League is a pure product of our imagination … Our parody started to be taken seriously on a few specialised sites on Tuesday afternoon. In my opinion, The Times must have become aware of that and contacted one of its sources and was taken in by that source."

Mr Latta says that he believes it is "significant" that his invented story should be taken seriously by a "venerable" newspaper such as The Times. It points, he says, to the degree of anxiety and fantasy surrounding the role of big money, and especially the Gulf countries, in football.

The whole affair is also strangely reminiscent of the horse-meat-in-lasagne scandal. Information, in the information society, makes oddly convoluted journeys and sometimes ends up being rather different from what it says on the label.

A sign of the times?