Håkan Dahlström Photography

Football agents: Invaluable experts or manipulative vultures?

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Since the launch of the Premier League in 1992, English professional football has changed remarkably, not least regarding the role of agents.

What is now a billion-pound industry has become even more complex: image rights, release clauses, commercial endorsements and noodle sponsors have become the norm.

The potential financial rewards on offer to players and their representatives have become ever more alluring.

Consequently, and perhaps unfortunately, the role of the football agent has grown.

The agent is undoubtedly the most controversial figure in football, only visible in the mainstream media when a high-profile signing or contract negotiation is in the offing.

The perception of the agent as an in-it-for-themselves manipulator who prioritises personal financial reward over their client’s on-the-pitch interests persists.

As such, they often attract the scorn of fans and club officials alike. As a recent case in point, Josh Maja broke into Sunderland’s first team this season following their relegation to League One and has scored fifteen goals in twenty-four league games.

With his contract set to expire this summer, his prolific form was enough to entice the Black Cats’ hierarchy into opening contract negotiations.

They are fixers, friends, confidants and truth-tellers all rolled into one.

Despite Maja himself telling the club he would sign a proposed contract, his agent stated the opposite (via the media, to make things worse) and opened negotiations with other clubs for Maja’s signature.

The 20-year-old subsequently signed for Bordeaux, a move seemingly against his own wishes. Given the ceaseless advancement of the commercialisation of the game and the seemingly endless recurrence of Maja-esque sagas, the negative image of the money-driven agent is unlikely to disappear any time soon.

Nevertheless, it cannot be disputed that agents have helped to level the off-the-pitch playing field. Prior to the 21st century, football clubs, armed to the teeth with lawyers, solicitors and accountants, had a long and unethical history of taking advantage of uneducated and unrepresented players when it came to contract negotiations.

To that end, agents provide invaluable knowledge and technical know-how, without which players have historically struggled to negotiate fair deals.

Furthermore, agents can be just as valuable in a player’s day-to-day life. In his insightful and revealing book Done Deal, football lawyer Daniel Geey explores the specifics of an agent’s role: “many agents take care of all their client’s needs, from picking up their laundry to booking their holiday and organising a cleaner for their home.

They are fixers, friends, confidants and truth tellers all turned into one. However, these benefits do not come without hefty costs.

UEFA, the governing body of European football, has calculated that between 2013 and 2017, approximately approximately €3bn was paid to agents and, on average, 5%-10% of a contract’s value was paid as commission to a player’s agent.

Although the percentage of a deal which is paid to an agent as commission hasn’t changed in recent years, the value of the average transfer or contract has.

The role of the football agent has grown

As a result, agents’ earnings have increased. In the eyes of the supporter, this increase has come without agents doing anything in addition to their standard duties to warrant such an increase.

Such substantial figures hardly help the dichotomy between the fan and the agent, especially considering that critics are likely to point out how the sums involved could have been used to improve the supporter experience by subsidising increasingly extortionate ticket prices or by financing new signings.

It’s no suprise then that the agent has become the pantomine villain

It’s no surprise, then, that the agent has become the pantomime villain of the beautiful game, but, thinking pragmatically, it’s difficult to imagine modern football without them.

The complexities of the commercial side of the game necessitate the involvement of expert individuals who are paid handsomely for their services and who support players’ on-pitch performances by looking after them in every way imaginable off it.

The complexities of the commercial side of the game necessitate the involvement of expert individuals

And, whilst it cannot be contested that some agents do a disservice to their clients and can be extremely harmful to football clubs and their supporters too, it is unfair to tarnish them all with the same brush of anti-agent vitriol.

Perhaps what points most aptly towards the underlying reasons behind the popularity of anti-agent sentiment is their microcosmic potential.

As one of the groups to have gained huge influence and material reward from the extensive changes seen in the modern game over recent decades, agents are an easy target for those who long for a bygone age of supposed footballing purity.

I’ll leave you with this. Upon his retirement from management in 1993, the notoriously colourful Brian Clough remarked: “The only agent in the ‘60s was 007, and he just shagged women, not entire football clubs”.

Imagine how Old Big ‘Ed would react to the state of the game today.

Photograph: Håkan Dahlström via Flickr.

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