I’m going to tell the story like I’ve always told it. When I was a teenager, my best friend and I played a lot of pranks. We wanted to be like Chris Morris, fooling celebrities, journalists and politicians into absurd situations of our making. Morris, of course, is a genius and his satire remains the gold standard. We were not geniuses. To our 13-year-old minds, his work offered a simple lesson: you could just ring people up, influential people, and lie to them for fun.
So we did. My first go was on the eve of the May 2010 general election, where I called the Hilton Hotel in Westminster, pretending to be David Cameron’s chief of staff, Ed Llewellyn. I spoke with their private events manager for 45 minutes, ordering a stupendous party banquet for the Conservatives’ imminent victory: hundreds of bottles of Krug, trays of shepherds’ pie, feathers to fall from the ceiling at the moment the vote was called in their favour. All of these requests were sent to the hotel from my school email one afternoon. The following morning, I was pulled out of my geography lesson, and told that the hotel had called my school requesting a £10,000 deposit. I was very nearly expelled.
Over the next few years, as we aged a lifetime between 13 and 16, we continued to dabble and dupe, using fake emails, fake accents and Wikipedia tricks to make each other laugh. We dropped our names into the Wikipedia pages of minor indie bands in the hope of making it stick. I got as far as being named as the “multi-instrumentalist” for Mystery Jets by an Australian music critic; my friend is still listed on the Swedish-language page for the Scottish rock band Del Amitri. In 2011, we booked the veteran French footballer William Gallas a room in a luxury Midlands hotel, purporting to be his agent, and then tipped off the papers to his imminent signing by Birmingham City. When the club’s manager, Alex McLeish, was forced to deny those rumours live on-air on Sky Sports News the next morning, we laughed until our lungs gave out.
It was a powerful feeling. We were little masters, smart enough to mimic our targets and dumb enough not to fear their reprisals. But the best was yet to come. In 2012, the Olympics came to London. Among the nations competing in football was Honduras. A small central American country of 10 million people, Honduras does not have a glittering football history. As an ironic no-hoper for two annoying 16-year-olds to get invested in, it was perfect. And for our next grift, we wanted a blank canvas, which we found in their young midfielder in the number 10 shirt: Alexander López.
López was 19 years old, and had scored three goals in 28 starts with CD Olimpia, who had just won the Honduran league championship. As we took to his Wikipedia page, three career goals soon became 11; a column on his stats table then opened up for “assists”, and we judged that he should have 20. We built a grand narrative for him. As his stardom had grown in Central America, he had been invited for trials at Napoli, Malaga and Tottenham Hotspur. He was the next big thing. To fans, he was best known by his nickname: the “Honduran Maradona”.
With his online profile buffed and polished, we sought a bigger prize: his name in print. Our plan was to convince the British press that Wigan Athletic, the Premier League club that had brought three Honduran players to England in the previous few seasons, was on the verge of signing López for £2.5m. We spent a day ringing the local papers, then the regionals, then the nationals. At various points I pretended to be a club physio, a friend of the physio, an agent, and a local freelance journalist. By the evening, an editor, who believed he was talking to a journalist, was on the phone. And so, on 28 July 2012, in the back pages of the Olympics Opening Ceremony souvenir edition of the Times, you can find the following fateful words: “Wigan Athletic have agreed a £2.5 million deal for Alexander López, the Honduras playmaker, from Olympia.” The story was even picked up in Honduras by the local tabloid Diario Diez. We laughed; we loved it. We’d done it again.
López became our private joke. As months passed, we kept checking in with him, taking the time to further inflate his stats. By July 2013, he had 18 goals and 34 assists – figures that would put him alongside Messi and Ronaldo at a similar age. Figures that nobody would believe.
Then, one August afternoon, just over a year on from prank day itself, we came across something truly unbelievable. It was a press release from a major US team, Houston Dynamo. The club was announcing the $1m signing of a “young international with a bright future”, who had “registered 18 goals and 34 assists in 51 career league games”.
The new signing would be earning $212,000 a year, the fifth-highest salary at the club.
The club’s site celebrated this new arrival with a picture of López, beaming, holding an orange shirt with “ALEX – 10” on the back.
We didn’t, did we? Did we?
Eyes wide in astonishment, we checked the forums and comment boards to find fans celebrating the arrival of the player they would surely come to adore, a talent that would dazzle MLS (Major League Soccer, the game’s top tier in the US), bring glory and acclaim back to Houston in perpetuity. They were about to welcome the Honduran Maradona.
I’ve been telling this story for the entirety of my adult life. At the end, like clockwork, everyone asks the same thing: “What happened to Alexander López?” Good question. I never used to care about the details, once my little star turn was over. He didn’t light up MLS; maybe the club found out the truth and sent him to train with the reserves, I’d speculate. I knew he eventually ended up in Saudi Arabia. Imagine how much money he’s on, I’d say. “He owes you!” people would laugh in response. “Yeah, maybe he’s in on it! Where’s my cut?” I’d reply, before waving away the possibility with faux modesty.
It might have been more accurate to say I owed López a cut. I was cashing in from day one. I bragged about the prank in the interview for my first internship; writing it up was my first paid commission at a small Liverpool magazine called Halcyon; that piece then directly got me my first job, and my second, third and fourth indirectly. It was a foot in the door, a pat on the head, a parlour trick used pretty much always in service of professional gains.
I lost track of where López was playing a little while ago, but that has never stopped me spinning the yarn. At some point, though, in among all the gladhanding and horn-tooting, I started to think more about the implications of what I’d been boasting about all this time. If my prank really had played a part in López’s transfer, then I would have callously tampered with the life of a promising young footballer. I could have set him up for a fall in Houston: fans with unrealistic expectations, disappointed coaches and teammates, a young man finding himself lost and alone in a new place. If the transfer had been a mere coincidence, and my prank had been immaterial, then I had been lying to just about every friend and colleague I had ever met, puffing myself up with some fantasy built on the shaky foundations of an erroneous transfer rumour in 2012.
It ate away at me just a little bit, the more I thought about it. I needed to find out whether I had been a troll, a fabulist, or both. And since there were few sources I could trust online (having somewhat poisoned the well a decade ago – a problem of my own making, I concede) I set out on the trail of Alexander López, on a transatlantic flight from London to Houston to god knows where, to see if I could catch up with the Honduran Maradona, to correct the record of his life, and to tell him what I had done.
One problem with taking a long plane journey to get to the bottom of an exceedingly stupid thing you did when you were a teenager is that you have a lot of time in mid-air to reflect on the sheer idiocy of not only your original scheme, but the subsequent scheme that has led you, as a supposed adult, to be sitting on a plane, on your way to an unfamiliar city, to interview dozens of people, including a decent proportion of the senior staff at a reasonably large MLS team, on the flimsiest of premises. Having arranged to visit Houston Dynamo’s training ground immediately after landing, I was unable to carry out my favoured mode of long-haul flying, which is to drink myself unconscious with vodka and Powerade and wake up 10 hours later.
After touching down, I made my way to Houston Sports Park, in the city’s south. As I waited to meet with Nick Kowba, who was the Dynamo’s director of soccer operations back when the club signed López and is now the club’s assistant general manager, I watched golf buggies full of balls and cones zig-zag across the arid cul-de-sac separating the two nearest pitches. A goalkeeper waved at me at one point. I felt like I had broken in.
I had arranged interviews with practically every authority I could find on López in Houston: Kowba, ex-manager Dominic Kinnear, former club president Chris Canetti, former senior vice president Matt Jordan, and Honduras and Dynamo icon, Óscar Boniek García. From those conversations, a consistent story emerged.
Kowba had been tipped off to López’s potential at Olimpia by García in the summer of 2012 (at almost the exact same time as I started to meddle with his online statistics, I noted to myself). “I remember Boniek telling us, ‘You’ve gotta keep an eye on this guy’, and so we did. We started asking around to learn more about his character, his professionalism, his family life.”
The coaching staff – who were, at the time, also the scouting staff – started to look over López’s games for Honduras during the Olympics. Later, they flew out to watch him play for his native Olimpia. Kinnear was impressed. “He passed all the tests for us,” he told me over Zoom. “I told senior management that he was a player with a bright future, in MLS and possibly beyond.” The club duly snapped him up.
At first, things seemed to be clicking. On his first start, López made an impact, assisting Houston’s only goal in a 4-1 loss to the New York Red Bulls. But the chasm between the Honduran and American leagues soon slowed his progress. Fitness was an issue, Kinnear told reporters. So, too, was the language, as López bemoaned to the Honduran press on a visit home in December 2013.
The Dynamo fans quickly lost enthusiasm for their new signing. When he had arrived in August 2013, a bulletin in the Spanish-language Houston lifestyle magazine Famosos hyped the arrival of “el Maradona Hondureño”.
“There is hope for some creativity and spark, something the @HoustonDynamo have lacked for years,” wrote one fan on Twitter. “Pretty much every move the Dynamo make is the right one,” wrote another. Three weeks later, some Houston fans were growing sceptical. So wrote @Skeelon1215: “Honduran Maradona my ass!”
It took López another 10 months to appear in the starting 11 again, this time in a 2-0 loss to Sporting Kansas City. It would be his last league start under Kinnear. He had a little run of form under Kinnear’s successor, Scottish veteran Owen Coyle, but when he was offered a lower salary in his contract renewal, he opted to move back to Honduras. Six months later, he was off to the Saudi Arabian league, playing for the soccer team of Al-Khaleej, a multisports club more renowned for its success in international handball. He lasted six months, and returned to Honduras again to rebuild his career at Olimpia.
In Houston, looking for a supporter’s perspective on López, I was pointed to a spot where Dynamo fans congregate when the team is playing out of town, a sports bar named Cobo’s. I went there to meet one of the club’s official fan groups: The Surge, one of the newest and flashiest of four designated supporter affiliates. I worked the room looking for memories of López, all the while eating brisket quesadillas and sinking cans of Lone Star – when in Texas, after all. The majority of the fans I spoke to knew right away, telling me about how he never quite hit the heights, or how he could have been better used, or wondering why I was digging around on a bit-part player from seven years prior. All understandable responses.
When I asked Robb Zipp, a supporter since the club’s inception in 2006 and a prolific YouTube livestreamer, he drew a blank. Then, he asked: “Does he have a Wikipedia page?” Now that I could vouch for. We sat outside finishing our beers and looked through his online profile — for the sake of integrity, I pointed out the bits that were still my handiwork. Zipp was genuinely surprised to see him wearing Dynamo orange.
Did the prank ever get back to the Dynamo top brass? Well, I asked all of the Dynamo top brass and they were annoyingly clear about it. Kinnear burst out laughing when I asked if he’d heard the story of the Honduran Maradona. “The first time I heard that nickname was from you, today.” Boniek García had no clue; Kowba said he couldn’t recall if he’d heard it, but clarified that those sorts of nicknames, on the whole, were “whatever”, and that he “didn’t really take stock in somebody’s nickname, to be honest”.
Chris Canetti, the former club president, might have been caught out a little bit. When asked, he breezily reassured me that they “knew about [the name] at the time of the signing, but just didn’t make too much of a deal of it”. When I pressed the faked stats angle with a man who ought to know, ex-general manager and senior vice president Matt Jordan, he gave little encouragement: he had heard nothing of the sort while he was in charge, and nothing since.
It seemed that, at the very least, I could forgive myself the charge of having doomed López’s time in Houston before it began – the Dynamo front office all liked him, all wished he could have done a bit more, but certainly hadn’t considered being sold a bill of goods with him. What I hadn’t learned much of, from fans or from chats with staff, was what came next for López. So I went back to Kinnear, now an assistant coach at FC Cincinnati, and asked if he’d kept an eye on him. He had.
It transpired that Alexander López is now playing in Costa Rica, and he’s a big deal there. His club, LD Alajuelense, won their 30th league title in 2020. In the same year, they won the Concacaf League – the regional equivalent of the Europa League – beating bitter rivals Deportivo Saprissa in the finals of the tournament; López, near ever-present for the side, scored the winning goal. At the time of writing, Alajuelense are in contention for another domestic and continental double.
Kinnear fondly remembered seeing López play for Alajuelense in the Concacaf Champions League, the region’s premier competition, against Atlanta United last year. “And you know, he plays exactly the same way. It was like watching him for the first time all over again. He hasn’t changed,” he said.
I considered my situation. Costa Rica was three-and-a-half hours from Houston; home was 12 hours. Flights were cheap, as were places to stay. While I’d answered a few questions for myself in Houston, I hadn’t really found what I was looking for. What I was looking for was López, and if there was ever a moment to put this story to rest, it was now. I had to fly to San José, and I had to do so immediately.
In the cab to the preposterously named George Bush Intercontinental Airport – a detail I had been too stressed to fully appreciate on the way in – I rattled off the story of how I’d got here, and my plans for Costa Rica, to a genial Texan retiree who was surprised to learn that the city had a soccer team at all. About my story, he seemed ambivalent. As he dropped me off at the terminal and I wrapped up my 20-minute travelogue, he said, somewhat crushingly, “Good for you.”
True, it was not exactly trailblazing reportage. And still, on my way to San José, I felt like I was leaping into the unknown. At the time of boarding, all I had was the phone number of López’s agent, and a brief window when I might be able to catch the player: at some point between his two next matches, both played away from home in different corners of Costa Rica, and when he would not be imminently due in training. Since arriving in 2017, López had emerged as one of the league’s top players. I couldn’t just expect to walk into an interview with him, just as I couldn’t expect to book a chat with Kevin de Bruyne with two days’ notice.
Upon arrival, I turned my hotel room into a command centre, trying to reach interpreters and agents and, hopefully, the man himself. In order to secure the interview without spooking López or his representatives, I had styled myself as something of a sports reporter, with the simple intention of going over his career for a story about the lasting impact of high expectations on so-called “wonderkids”. Which was, in effect, if not in spirit, basically true.
Only breaking from my laptop, phone and Google Translate tab to pace around the hotel pool, drink Sprite and plot next moves, I inched the plan along bit-by-bit as the possibility of landing the interview came into focus. I was dauntless. I was Truman Capote in Kyoto, talking his way into his famous interview with Marlon Brando. I was AJ Liebling reporting from Normandy on the night the Allies crossed the channel.
Eventually, after some obsequious texts in my best Spanish, I was given a time and date: 4pm the next day at the Hilton La Sabana in San José, floor 18 – the SkyLobby of Costa Rica’s tallest building. I celebrated that night by taking myself to the only restaurant within walking distance: of all things, a curry house. I ordered “la especialidad de la casa”, which turned out to be a lamb korma, extra-hot.
When the big day arrived, I decamped to a nearby bar two hours early to get my head in the game. I rehearsed back-and-forths, plotted how firm my handshake should be, and considered what was, to me, the very real possibility of being punched in the face. As I stared out on to the busy road, I clenched my teeth a little to practice taking it like a man.
Once my interpreter, Illeana, had arrived at the Hilton, I headed up to floor 18, took a seat overlooking the Costa Rican national stadium, and with sweaty thumbs typed “Estamos en SkyLobby”, lingering as I considered fleeing back to the UK.
When he stepped out of the elevator into the plush, airy bar, López looked totally at ease. Despite living close to Alajuela, a flyover suburb of the capital, López had checked into the San José Hilton to take his daughters swimming, which is the kind of fancy thing you can do if you’re a star of what we have to call, for sponsorship reasons, La Liga Promerica. We shook hands, made small talk, and sat down for what was, on its face, a straightforward recap of his career.
It turned out that I had no cause to give him a false reputation: López had been prodigious in his own right. Around the age of 15, he began to be heralded as Olimpia’s brightest young star, appearing for the side’s reserves alongside fully grown men before he had even signed a professional contract. “When I was barely 18, the president of Rosenborg” – the most decorated team in Norway – “came to watch me play, and wanted to buy me,” López told me. “But our president stopped it. He wanted me to get more experience first.” To my astonishment, he then told me that at this time – a whole year before I would try to link him to Wigan Athletic – he had caught the eye of Arsenal, and was offered a trial to train with them for a few weeks.
We talked about his time in Houston. His take pretty much matched that of the Dynamo staff: he had had issues with fitness, pace of play, language. But he had loved Houston, loved the US. One of his daughters had been born during his time there. He had made friends and developed himself as a player. As for the nickname, I asked him casually, like a reporter might, and he said he had heard of it, although he laughed it off as a quirk of life – fans make up silly nicknames sometimes!
He talked with more sadness about the lonely, difficult months he spent in small-town Saudi Arabia. “All our training was at 11pm because the days were too hot, so I’d come home every day at 2am to my wife and daughter, go to the supermarket, eat, sleep through the day, and wake up the next evening to head out and train again.” The relentlessness of it all drove him to reconsider whether the money was worth it. Despite being signed on for two years, he terminated his contract early and headed home: a gamble on himself that had eventually brought him all the way to where we were now.
It took him a little while to find acceptance at Alajuelense, too. He confessed to crying all the way home after missing a crucial penalty in a 2019 tournament final. “The fans were so angry, calling me a foreigner who didn’t try for the team,” he said. “It was the toughest moment of my career.” But in the years since, he has more than redeemed himself, helping bring Alajuelense back to glory.
As the interview came to an end, López stood up, ready to shake hands and head off. I told him I had one more thing to mention while I still had him. For one final ride, I launched into the story that brought me here, this time in short, staccato segments for the interpreter, who valiantly attempted to keep it coherent. All of time itself dilated between those key details – ‘“Wigan Athletic”; “perfil de Wikipedia”; “Maradona Hondureño”. As the story unfolded, López stared back inscrutably, like a man caught up in a bungled sting operation. Sportsmen have layers and layers of security buffers to prevent roughly this kind of situation.
At a certain point, López sort-of croaked with incredulity, eyes widened, swinging his face from shoulder to shoulder in a manner that wasn’t quite urgent enough to be shaking his head. What did it mean? I kept going, gabbling through the journey to Houston, the time with the fans and the coaching staff, the flight over, the nerve-wracking wait for confirmation of the very meeting we were now having.
Finally, he laughed. And then kept laughing, throwing his head back and covering his face with his hands. I was telling him how I might have unwittingly altered the course of his life. He seemed to find it hilarious. “Why didn’t you tell me in advance?” he said, mock-exasperated. “I would have brought you a Dynamo shirt!”
The moments after were a blessed relief, a blur of puffed cheeks and exhausted thankyous. For López, this weird request for an interview from a British journalist finally made sense. “Now I know,” he said, tapping his head and laughing. He saw the whole silly story as a tale of mutual benefit. We were both founded in some part upon this story – or at least one of us was. Now, I was at one side of the interviewers’ table, and he was at the other, both much further from home than when this all started.
On the patio of the SkyLobby, we talked about this new entanglement, and what all of this had really meant. He reflected a bit more wistfully to me about what the sport had brought to him, where it had taken him: every continent, by his count; and even an offer to play in South Korea, which never came to pass as the Korean club in question couldn’t match Alajuelense’s financial expectations for him. He itched for one more shot at the big time. Perhaps, he mused, in coming all this way to write about him, I might yet have a hand in a future move. He promised more interviews down the line at the next stop of his career; I could keep catching up with him, chronicling him like I’d been doing surreptitiously all those years. Now he really is in on it.
Even if he stays in Costa Rica, López has made his own imprint on the game across North and Central America. He’s even got a new nickname: El Ingeniero, or “The Engineer” – building the play, organising the attacks, coordinating the team. As it happens, engineering is something of a López family trade. His brother is one, in the traditional sense, and now he is, too. His mother loves it. Best of all, it was given to him by the Alajuelense fans, handed over organically, as these names are meant to be.