Ask chairmen, managers and fans to provide their opinion on football agents (or intermediaries as they should now be called) and they will likely all return the same view, that they are at the dark underbelly of the game, the very definition of everything wrong with the sport.
As another summer transfer window comes to the boil, football clubs up and down the country deal with these controversial figures on a daily basis. Whether it is in the boardroom or on mobile phones, agents are never far from the action. They have over time inculcated a sense of indispensability into the minds of those within the game.
On the periphery of all the usual transfer frenzy, tabloid stories emerge which serve to only further strengthen people’s distrust in them. Indeed, Sunderland’s Lamine Koné is currently hitting the headlines, providing the Black Cats cause for ire. The Ivory Coast international’s agent is considered to be behind masterminding a move to Everton despite the player being only six months into a four-year contract on Wearside.
Despite the cynical backdrop against which these dubious characters are viewed, here is why they should not be considered symbolic of football’s damaged soul.
At a time when success for footballers seems to be judged on the money in their wallet rather than achievement on the pitch, there will inevitably be those who are attracted to the culture of avarice now embedded deep within the game. Wealth has a way of corrupting even the most virtuous and it is in this environment a football agent operates. It is their natural habitat.
A collective noun for football agents should be ‘pack’ as they are certainly thought to move in the shadows of the game, hunting out opportunities to survive in competitive situations. However, agents are not predators surrounding an innocent, hapless player. No, instead they circle around the true problem: the greed of the modern footballer.
Each Premier League team will bank an average of £120 million during the current campaign thanks to the renegotiated TV deal. This revenue stream is now worth close to £9 billion over a three-year period and a significant proportion of this money will end up in players’ pockets. Whilst ensuring football continues to expand, these eye-watering sums also provide the perfect incubation conditions to nurture corruption and greed.
When all is said and done, agents are simply willing participants in an extravagant game and operate on the edges of a sport which the FIFA scandal has shown to be decayed right to its very core.
Football is eating itself. High profile figures, such as Sepp Blatter, who generate the sport’s obscene sums of money, have ironically fallen catastrophically from grace because of it. But it should also be recognised that those spearheading a sport with such a corrupt nature have similarly provided the means by which those operating below them can flourish.
It is true that agents are certainly around these murky activities, yet they cannot be considered guilty of implanting a sense of greed within those that do not have it already. They merely work towards attempting to satisfy their client’s appetite. No doubt at this moment players are seeking out moves away from clubs they have likely expressed faux loyalty to, but they surely cannot be persuaded to do something so fundamentally against their will if that want was not already within their DNA to begin with.
Let us not forget, agents act on behalf of players. That is the very definition of ‘agency’. They represent footballers whose competitiveness on the field is only surpassed by their addiction to the ‘lifestyle’ the game has become. Without the desire for such excess, there would not be a need to serve it. Expensive supercars, jewellery, model girlfriends, mansions and big holiday homes have become the footballer’s raison d’être.
As a result, the beautiful game is now full of tragic tales. Gambling, drugs and alcohol are all issues that its young millionaires encounter, and some fall by the wayside, becoming victims of their own success.
The former Premier League striker Michael Chopra could be described as being somewhat of a poster boy, reflecting what footballers have sadly become. Having reportedly been £2 million in debt and threatened by loan sharks, the Newcastle-born forward recently spoke of the culture that exists within dressing rooms: “We would take thousands of pounds on to the bus, anything up to £30,000. It might change hands playing cards on the bus, we would go to the bank before and take out the money. It was part of team bonding.”
Once players retire from the game and the steady stream of income dries up, matters often get worse. Former England goalkeeper David James declared himself bankrupt in 2014 despite earning an estimated £20 million over his illustrious career.
Great strides have been made in recent times to rectify these sorts of problems occurring but often footballers are thrust into a frenetic world all too quickly, which they can have had no preparation for. It is important that once a youngster emerges tentatively into this unknown, someone with the right credentials is there to provide guidance, but there needs to be accountability on the part of the footballer too.
If any individual is uncomfortable with the life choices they are making as a result of external forces, they should accept that they themselves are the only ones capable of affecting change.
Any good agent should seek to not only advise on career matters but also provide pastoral support, signposting clients to the appropriate help when needed. There is an interesting relationship dynamic at play here because of this. Given the range of duties the intermediary undertakes, agents have now moved above the football club in the sports food chain. Rightly or wrongly, the role has taken on far more importance in the modern game.
The landscape has also changed recently, arguably for the worse. FIFA’s global licensing system for agents ended on 1 April 2016 and this deregulation means that each member state must govern their own affairs. This cannot help young players seeking to ensure they have a credible agent working on their behalf.
Mel Stein, chairman of the London-based Association of Football Agents considers this a backwards step: “The licensed football agent will be a thing of the past. Intermediaries will no longer be required to pass an exam to qualify. In theory, anybody can become one, providing they have an “impeccable reputation” – essentially are without a criminal record – have no conflicted interests, and in England pay £500 to register with the FA.”
Whatever arrangement is in place to govern the practice of intermediaries, part of the agent’s duties is to broker transfer agreements and this is unlikely to change any time soon. The footballer’s role is to ensure that they make the right choice by appointing someone who is credible with a sound reputation to act on their behalf.
Should a player have the option between signing with an agent who is recognised as being experienced and sincere or someone who is considered to be only interested in selling the lifestyle, then it should be easy to weed out the wheat from chaff.
However, there have always been questionable practices even with regulation in place. In 2006 a BBC Panorama programme spoke with two agents who claimed to have made illegal payments to a number of managers. The apparent purpose was to ensure that a number of transfers were concluded in their favour.
Brian Barwick the then-FA Chief Executive spoke of the matter at the time: “These are serious allegations which have been made by Panorama and we are determined to investigate them fully. It is vital for the integrity of the game and for every football supporter that we do this. We will work in close co-operation with the Premier League. As with any investigation, we will ensure that our inquiries are exhaustive and thorough. If we find evidence of corruption we will act on it. We recognise our responsibility.”
Distilled to its simplest level, agents are people and thereby capable of the full gamut of human characteristics. Just as in any profession, there will be those with questionable values. But there will be also those that want to ensure their players’ careers are nurtured without the need to exploit.
The truth of the matter is that players are responsible for their own actions. Therefore if football has a damaged soul, it is the players themselves that should look in the mirror first, not football agents.
By Graeme Atkinson. Follow @_graemeatkinson