Three years on, I still find myself thinking about the strange story of Diego Jokas. It came back to me just the week before last, when that video clip of Joe Marler talking about Harlequins’ defeat to Clermont Auvergne went viral. You must know the one. Marler starts off talking about how his team have to “get back on the horse”, and ends up following his train of thought so deep into the woods of his imagination that he ends up whinnying an apology to Harlequins fans and promising they’ll play better against Bath in their next game. The minute-long clip has been seen by hundreds of thousands of people.
Three different friends shared it with me. The only other time I’ve ever heard two of them talk about rugby was when they were telling me how little they like it. For people like me, who follow the game, the most surprising thing about all this was that everyone else seemed so startled by it. Marler’s an irrepressible eccentric, and he talks that way most weeks. During the World Cup, England would often put him up to brighten up rainy day press conferences when his less creative teammates were explaining they were going to take each game as it came.
The question, then, is why everyone else seemed so taken with Marler’s interview, why people who had absolutely no interest in rugby were so amused and enchanted by it. It was picked up by news outlets in Australia, New Zealand and the US, where it was covered by Sports Illustrated, the Washington Post, USA Today, and the Daily News, among others. Why, over on the feminist blog Jezebel, Megan Reynolds, explained that after watching the clip she now wanted to “ride this rugby man like a motherfucking Clydesdale” (a compliment meant, she said, with “no disrespect to Marler’s wife, Daisy, who seems lovely”).
And the “why?” is where Diego Jokas comes in.
It’s important to stress, right here at the start, that this isn’t the Diego Jokas you’ll find online, the one who works as a sports journalist in Uruguay. This was the other Diego Jokas, one who, for a stretch of time, had a successful career selling celebrity interviews to newspapers and magazines. Like his exclusive with Lionel Messi that was published in the January 2017 edition of Coach magazine. In it, Messi, offered up some polite platitudes about himself (“What motivates me is to win titles for my club and my country”) and his club (“We work very hard in training so that then what happens in the matches happens”).
Messi spoke, too, about Cristiano Ronaldo: “I see him as a great player who has achieved great things,” and Wayne Rooney: “I have always had great respect for Wayne Rooney, he has played at the highest level for many years and is one of the special players of the generation.” He praised two of his old coaches – Frank Rijkaard: “He gave me my first opportunity. It started with him for me,” and Pep Guardiola, who had started at Manchester City that season: “He is a very good coach and will adapt to the league, I’m sure he will succeed.” So far, so familiar. But there was a wrinkle.
And the wrinkle was this. Messi was in the midst of contract negotiations with Barcelona at the time, and there were a lot of hot rumours flying around that he might be about to join a club in England, or even Real Madrid. Barça’s president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, had recently said he was unconcerned about the negotiations, and, with all that in the background, every word Messi said mattered. Even this: “I have always said that Barcelona has given me everything,” Jokas quoted him as saying, “and I am here for as long as they want me to be.”
In the circumstances, that phrase – “as long as they want me to be” – took on undue significance. The Spanish press picked up on it. And it was then that the whole thing began to unravel. Messi’s management put out a statement explaining that he’d never given the interview. And on Twitter, the other Diego Jokas, the real Diego Jokas, put out another: “I want to clarify that I don’t work nor have I worked for Coach Magazine and I did not participate in this interview with Messi which has been attributed to me.” Coach magazine immediately yanked the interview offline. And Diego Jokas – the other Diego Jokas, who had, presumably, always been quite happy to be mistaken for his namesake – disappeared.
Behind him, he left an email address and a back catalogue of innocuous interviews with assorted superstars, Ronaldo and Usain Bolt for one magazine, Sergio Agüero and Rafa Nadal for another, Gianluigi Buffon for a third, which were all subsequently taken offline. The strangest thing about it all this isn’t that Jokas was able to fake the interview, anyone with a pile of clippings might be able to do that. Like Nicholas Tomalin said, the three essential qualities for real success in journalism are rat-like cunning, a plausible manner, and a little literary ability. Whoever Jokas was, he seems to have had all three.
No, the surreal part is that, but for that one little slip, he might well have got away with it. As if we’ve all become so habituated to the cliches a lot of sports stars use in interviews that even they can’t really tell which ones they actually came out with. Messi may not have said it, but it sounded like he might have, and that was enough. Against that backdrop, it’s no wonder that a man doing an impression of a talking horse has made such an impression.