How 'fake news' put the transfer of a Ukrainian football player in limbo

MADRID -- This is a story about a Nazi symbol that isn't a Nazi symbol. A transfer that isn't really a transfer. A soccer player that, for the moment, isn't actually a soccer player.

It starts in Ukraine, with fear and blood and war. It comes to Spain, with anger and frustration and resentment. It involves politics. It might involve Russia. It involves a clandestine car ride through a back alley and a bizarrely un-clandestine meeting in a shopping mall food court.

It is peculiar, it is preposterous and the shortest possible version goes something like this:

Roman Zozulya, a talented 27-year-old forward from Kiev who represented his home country last summer during the European Championships, is in the prime of his career but currently has nowhere that he is allowed to play.

He is stuck. And it is because of fake news.

Occasionally, fake news in sports is purposeful, if misguided. The guy who started the hoax about how the Minnesota Vikings planned to offer shelter to the homeless inside their new stadium last year during a brutal cold snap was, he said, trying to draw attention to a growing problem in Minneapolis.

More often, fake sports news is ignorable; if you've seen one intentionally deceptive @Adam$chefter Twitter account "reporting" an outlandish NFL scoop -- and the '$' looks remarkably like an 'S' on a fast scroll -- you've seen plenty.

There are, too, the odd bits of fake news that are just funny: Tom Brady creating a poster of suspects in the case of who stole his Super Bowl jersey and including Swiper the Fox from "Dora The Explorer," say, or the time a soccer team in Australia announced it had brought in a highly touted overseas player only to learn that the player, in fact, did not exist (the whole thing was an Internet sham).

The Zozulya case is a different shade. On Jan. 31, Real Betis, a club in Seville, completed a loan agreement that would send Zozulya to Rayo Vallecano, a team on the outskirts of Spain's capital.

Zozulya's playing time had been erratic at Betis, and there was interest in him from a number of clubs, according to his agent. Braga, a team near the top of Portugal's first division, was a serious suitor, but Zozulya opted instead to go to Rayo, even though it was foundering in Spain's second tier. Zozulya and his wife had just had a baby girl, the couple's second child, and Zozulya did not want to move them from Seville; from Madrid, he reasoned, he could get home easily to see his family on days off.

On Feb. 1, he arrived at Rayo's home stadium, Vallecas. It was his first day. As he walked in, fans shouted profanity at him. Graffiti covered the stadium's walls. One message read, "VALLEKAS EN PIE DE GUERRA" (Vallecas is at war). Another read, "FUERA NAZIS DE VALLEKAS," (Get away from Vallecas, Nazis). During Zozulya's first training session with Rayo, a group of fans broke into the stadium and held up a similar sign, yelling at Zozulya all the while.

"He was in a state of shock," Zozulya's agent, Jose Lorenzo, said in an interview. "It was vile."

Zozulya felt as if he was reliving a nightmare. The fans' emotion stemmed largely from media coverage surrounding a picture published months earlier, in August 2016. In it, Zozulya was walking off the plane after arriving in Seville to join Betis, and was wearing a T-shirt that multiple Spanish outlets reported as being the symbol of a neo-Nazi group in Ukraine known as Pravyi Sektor.

As with much fake news, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact stone that started the landslide, though it is believed that a report in El Correo was the first to claim that Zozulya was wearing a Nazi symbol (Messages left with the sports department at El Correo were not returned). Regardless, the reports were false: Zozulya's shirt actually had the Ukrainian crest on it. And while the symbols are not dissimilar, if you compare them, the presence of a giant sword in Pravyi Sektor's emblem is the key difference.

Shortly after the reports emerged, Zozulya described publicly his position: yes, he openly supports the Ukrainian army in its fight for independence in the war against Russia, but no, he does not support any para-military or Nazi group. After this clarification, El Correo deleted the story from its website. The uprising simmered. Zozulya joined Betis. He started his career in the Spanish league.

"It should have been over right there," Lorenzo said.

It was not.

Rayo's fans are famous. Generally hailing from the working-class region around the stadium, they are boisterous and outspoken, aggressive and unabashed. There is a group of ultras known as the Bukaneros, who are particularly belligerent, but a noticeable thread that seems to run through much of the fan base is this: many of the supporters are leftists, and unafraid to show it.

It has always been that way. While Real Madrid became the team of the establishment -- it was the dictator Francisco Franco's favorite team -- Rayo, from the south of the city, belonged to the left.

"It is not a fan base who cares only about results," said Michel, a former player for Rayo who was named the team's coach just a few weeks ago. He paused. "They are interventionist," he said. "They interfere."

Michel was clearly choosing his words carefully, and a club press officer angrily (and profanely) interrupted the interview before he could continue. Michel looked apologetic, but the press officer's reaction crystalized how much the club feels hamstrung by the situation: true or false, the roots of the story about Zozulya have spread so deeply that its veracity, or lack thereof, almost does not matter.

That reality has also frustrated and confused Zozulya, according to his agent. And the Ukrainian ambassador to Spain, Anatoliy Scherba, offered a potential theory to Zozulya, the agent said, suggesting that there have been an accelerant in the revival of the stories when Zozulya was set to go to Rayo: Russia.

Russia is engaged in "hybrid war" against Ukraine, Scherba said, meaning a war that involves both military action and also misinformation or propaganda. Embarrassing and restricting a Ukrainian star athlete such as Zozulya, who turned down multiple interview requests for this story, would be a strategy that fits the latter, Lorenzo said, though he declined to offer more specifics on what Scherba suggested. Multiple calls to the Ukrainian and Russian embassies were not returned.

Certainly the Rayo fans seem convinced. After the loan agreement between Betis and Rayo was made official, Zozulya wrote a letter to the Rayo fans, explaining his allegiances and the work of his foundation to help both in rebuilding infrastructure in Ukraine as well as aid children in the region. His work, he wrote, "coincides fully with the social values" of Rayo.

It made no difference. David Arranz, a leader of a Rayo fan group, said the group has "a folder of reports that prove" Zozulya's Nazi ties, and the Rayo protests against him are simply the fans "rejecting a person that has positioned himself publicly in favor of what he has positioned himself," despite the fact Zozulya actually hasn't publicly done so. And with regard to the "folder," Arranz has not shared such any material widely and declined requests for elaboration.

After spending his Friday morning in the stands with other fans watching Rayo practice, Pedro Jimenez, who lives just a few minutes from Vallecas, shrugged at the mention of Zozulya's name. "I don't know if he's a Nazi or not," he said, "but I think the majority of the fans, even if it's not clear, don't want him to play here."

After that first day, Zozulya left Madrid and returned to Seville. He felt threatened and worried for his family, his agent said. Could he have persisted? Maybe, though it was clear he had reason to be concerned. In addition to the direct attacks he faced, Zozulya was also seen as linked with the club's president, Martin Presa, who had pushed to sign him.

This association is not positive. The Rayo fans have a long-running feud with Presa, and have created a campaign against him that features scarves and signs depicting his picture with Mickey Mouse ears on it. Fair or not, Zozulya had become a target alongside Presa.

Standing outside the stadium before a match in February, Raul Diaz, another fan group leader, said of Zozulya, "If he determines he wants to play, it's his decision. But he's not welcome by the majority of fans. And we're 10,000 members."

Zozulya remained in Seville. Betis and Rayo worked out a temporary agreement that allowed him to train at Betis's facility but he could not rejoin Betis fully because the Spanish transfer window had closed until the summer. By rule, the only team Zozulya could play games for was Rayo.

Pressure around the situation grew quickly. The Ukrainian foreign minister issued a statement supporting Zozulya. The president of the Spanish soccer league, Javier Tebas, said his organization "will not wait with its arm crossed" and the league brought a lawsuit against the fans who broke into the stadium to protest Zozulya at the Rayo training session. Betis tried to stay out of the fire. Zozulya continued to train and go home, watching matches every weekend and wondering when he might be able to play in one again.

Last Wednesday, the agreement that allowed Zozulya to train with Betis expired. Technically, Zozulya had to return to training with Rayo and so Lorenzo, the agent, arranged a meeting with Rayo executives to discuss some sort of buyout. Late in the afternoon, with a crowd of cameras and reporters watching from the outside, Zozulya -- wearing a backward Baltimore Orioles cap -- and Lorenzo went into Rayo's offices and were told there were no Rayo officials there to meet them.

Stunned, they returned to the street only to receive a phone call from a Rayo official, telling them to get in their car and follow a different car parked nearby. They did -- catching on that perhaps the Rayo executives were hoping to have the meeting away from the press -- but then arrived at a shopping mall, where a meeting with Rayo was held in the food court. (The media also quickly found them).

About a week later, a buyout agreement with Rayo was finally reached. Zozulya was free -- "it's a happy ending for a disgusting string of events," Lorenzo said -- but the story is not yet over. Lorenzo still needs to find a new team for his player.

It has not been easy for him. With his client sitting at home, Lorenzo is in contact with clubs all over the world -- including in MLS, he said -- but keeps running into walls at every turn.

Fake news, he is learning, is difficult to truly erase.

"There is a stain that can never be completely washed away," Lorenzo said. "This will be part of his career now, even though it is false."

Lorenzo paused. He sounded weary. "I ask you," he said, "Is that right?"