Football Agents - Monsters of our own Making?

Posted by Kez on July 7, 2005, 03:14:34 PM

Football Agents - Monsters of our own Making?

Years ago Liverpool had 'Big Bamber' and 'Little Bamber' (Stevie Heighway and Brian Hall respectively) and footballers had a life outside of the game. Today the sport is all-consuming with boys as young as eight or nine being snapped up and taken on by Academies and Centres of Excellence around the country. In such places the education settles around football with little time given to academic achievement. You could say that it is a necessary sacrifice to produce the best young talent of tomorrow, but what of those who don't sign professional forms? Whilst the majority of their peers are educated to at least G.C.S.E. level with up to eleven grades apiece, those who fail to reach the professional standard are left with little but the knowledge and skills of a world that has rejected them. Those that do achieve the holy grail of a professional contract are just as poorly prepared for the real world. Often with few or no academic qualifications, they are expected to sign and understand complicated documents such as contracts of employment and sponsorship deals and this is where football agents enter the fray.

An agent can be a player's best friend and a club's worst enemy. They are in a lucrative business where the biggest rewards stem from the biggest clients. Agents are there to put the finer points of contract or sponsorship negotiations in terms that their client understands. They act as the middle-men for everything from transfer negotiations to getting their client's shopping delivered on time. (Unless you are Igor Biscan in which case you do your own shopping in Tescos, usually at around 10 'o-clock on Monday nights.) Football agents also help to arrange press conferences, interviews, image consultancy, meetings and even handle house, holiday and car purchases.

Just about anyone can be an agent; there is no upper or lower age limit. Solicitors and Barristers can be employed by clubs and players in an 'advisory' role as long as they have a current practice certificate, but they cannot advertise themselves as football agents unless they have sat and passed an exam set jointly by FIFA and the football authority in the country they wish to work. In reality there is little or no difference between lawyers acting as 'advisor's' and actual football agents in the job that they do, but the payment varies considerably. Lawyers will charge by the hour and are strictly regulated by The Law Society but agents contract on the FA's standard terms of ten percent of the player's basic wages plus a ten percent cut of any transfer fee.

Only properly licensed agents and lawyers can practice. To become a licensed and recognised agent you have to take and pass with a minimum of 66% the exam jointly set by FIFA and the national football authority. The exam is multiple choice and based on a pack of information sent to all those intend to sit it in either the March or September of each year. The failure rate is high, but those who do fail can apply for resits. And once you've passed, it is only the beginning. FIFA and the FA require CAB checks to be carried out and proof of certain professional liability insurance has to be presented before contracts and codes of conduct can be signed. Currently FIFA has 2488 licensed agents operating in 101 countries. Italy has the most with 307 licensed agents, and England comes second with 283.

Crystal Palace chairman, Simon Jordan, is one of the many footballing men with a passionate dislike of agents having once denounced them as "...scum. They're evil, divisive and pointless." Who can blame him for his attitude? In September 2004 the FA revealed financial details of the football league which showed that in the previous six months, the 72 league teams had spent a total of £1.4 million on agents' fees alone. Hardly surprisingly, the Premiership teams refused to release their figures, but in November 2003 the BBC's 'The Money Programme' in partnership with estimated that collectively the Premiership teams had spent in excess of £50 million in agents' fees for the previous year alone. When they are earning that kind of money, is it any wonder that football agents are fast replacing 'personal injury' lawyers at the top of people's hate lists?

Of course, not all agents are bad guys. Some, if not most, are perfectly respectable men (and women) who have their clients interests at heart, and not those of their own back pocket. Yet as always there are those who make headlines by earning obscene amounts of money from their players; the £2 million Bernie Mandic received from Harry Kewell's transfer from Leeds to Liverpool being the most obvious example. Some agents have claimed that they assisted in the transfer dealings of footballers and go on to demand a cut of the transfer fees. One case, decided only days ago in the High Court, concerned ex Liverpool player Ronnie Rosenthal and his business partner, Jacques Lichtenstein, claiming a £450,000 slice of the transfer fee paid by Arsenal for Gilberto Silva. Although Brazilian side Atletico Mineiro had authorised Lichtenstein to 'interest' European clubs in Silva, the actual deal was between Arsenal's representatives, Silva's own agent and Atletico themselves and done without the influence of either Rosenthal or Lichtenstein. Mr Justice Jack found in the Brazilian club's favour and left the agents with a legal bill in excess of £200,000.

One could ask just where has the relatively recent phenomena of football agents come from? As approximately 80% of professional players now employ one, would it not be prudent to ask why such a disliked figure has become so influential in today's game? In some ways, the FA and the clubs only have themselves to blame. The insistence of clubs in taking younger and younger boys out of main-stream education and immersing them into the world of football leaves them living their lives in a bubble. Although they are coached to be fine athletes and master tacticians, I doubt that helping them to understand contract law is high on anyone's agenda. In the money orientated and overtly commerical world of English football an agent is a player's greatest asset, not because they want one but because they will struggle to survive without one.

A further quirk of the world of football agents is the prevalent 'Chinese whispers' culture. Agents act as go-betweens and middle men for their player and his club, sponsor or business venture and this is a position of some considerable responsibility. In a world where negotiations can balance on a knife edge there is no room for facts and wishes to get lost or forgotten in translation.

One could speculate that being a football agent is a good job for the corrupt and greedy at heart. Agents are supposed to be objective and mindful of their client's wishes when entering into negotiations on his behalf, but what incentive is there? Well, agents get a ten percent cut of a player's basic wages. If the player wants to stay at a club and his wages are set to rise by £10,000 this means an extra £1000 a week for the agent. But if another club is willing to step in with an offer of, say, £35 million and £120,000 per week, that would net the agent £3.5 million in transfer commission and £12,000 a week as his cut of the wages. When talks "irreconcilably break down" despite the public desire of both player and club to commit to paper I always sink into a cynical mindset as far as any agents involved are concerned.

Unfortunately, given the system in place for nurturing young players in this country, I don't see the situation changing for the better any time soon. Club managers, coaches and chairmen may moan loudly and frequently about what they see as the bane of the modern game, but are agents not at least partly a monster of English football's own making?

© s@h 2005

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