The Times newspaper has accepted that its story surrounding a Qatari-backed 'Dream Football League' "appears to have been invented" after an internal investigation.
The newspaper, founded in 1785 and among the most reputable in the United Kingdom, had run a story on Wednesday last week suggesting that Middle Eastern investors were prepared to fund a biennial summer tournament that would attempt to rival the Champions League and Club World Cup.
Soon after the report was published, a French satirical website, entitled Les Cahiers du Football, had claimed on its Twitter account that The Times had based its story on a spoof it had produced earlier in the week.
@julienpretotrtr ? On a publié ça dans la nuit de lundi à mardi vers 1h du matin... Tout est sorti de mon imagination.— Cahiers du football (@cahiersdufoot) March 13, 2013
The tweet read: "We published this on the night of Monday to Tuesday at around one in the morning - all of it came from my imagination."
The Qatari Football Association then issued a statement to confirm it had "no involvement in any such initiative" and had "heard nothing to suggest such a concept is genuine".
Oliver Kay, the journalist who wrote the story, told Reuters in the aftermath that he had not based his story on the Cahiers du Football spoof and that his source "is very good, the information is very good". He was backed by the paper's football editor, Tony Evans, who said Kay would be "fully vindicated".
A new story on the subject appeared in The Times the following day, claiming Manchester United were leading the opposition to the new competition.
However, under the headline 'When we are wrong, we will hold our hands up. It's the right thing to do', Evans acknowledged in Monday's edition that the newspaper had been misled by its source over what it had "thought was a blockbuster".
Evans wrote: "Oliver Kay developed a relationship with a contact who appeared to be connected with the Qatari ownership at Paris Saint-Germain.
"Over the months, this contact provided information that subsequently turned out to be right. Kay did not use any of this knowledge because he could not back it up with secondary sources. However, each time a tip-off turned into a fact, an element of trust grew."
Evans added that Kay had contacted "some of Europe's biggest clubs" about the DFL story and that, "because so many significant people in football did not laugh off the idea, it seemed that the story could be genuine".
Relying on "secondary sources", Evans wrote, was "where The Times made a massive mistake".
He continued: "The warning signs - that no one had heard specific details of the DFL or seen its plans - were missed. In principle, the idea was possible. There were plenty to attest to that. In reality, the story appears to have been invented and had just enough plausibility to be seductive.
"Initially, The Times launched a strong defence of the story and the reporter. However, the paper also launched an investigation by its internal ombudsman. Over the three days that followed the publication of the story, it appeared increasingly clear that Kay and the paper had been duped. And that the checks from the office in London had not been stringent enough in the rush to publication."
Kay also took to Facebook to explain his error, and said his mistake had been the level of trust he placed in his contact for the story.
"It was my story. I was confident in it. When people accused me of stealing or plagiarising it from the French website 'Cahiers du Football', I defended myself -- sincerely and, as I saw it [at] the time, truthfully," he wrote. "There are things I could say to defend the process that led to publication, but that would serve no purpose whatsoever. Key aspects of the story were based on the word of someone whose credibility I severely overestimated.
"I still can't fully work out how or why that happened. All I know is that, uncharacteristically, I let my guard down -- and in doing so, let down myself, my colleagues (not just at The Times but throughout the sportswriting community) and of course our readers, who rightly expect the highest standards of journalism."