During my time involved in football, my perception often ‘flip-flops‘ from seeing it as the ‘beautiful game’ or a ‘grubby machine’. Suffice to say, the former is from my coaching days at a lower level of the ‘footballing ladder’ and more recently the occasions I go to watch my nephews play and develop as footballers (which currently is the stage of 8 pairs of little legs, chasing after the same ball at the same time, like a set of dis-coordinated lion cubs trying to devour a coconut).
Sadly, the latter perception of a ‘grubby machine’ is more one developed from my time involved with aspects of professional football, football governance (or lack of) and the industry that surrounds it, not least the world of football agent activity.
However, the simple fact is that whilst a somewhat dirty machine, arguably the grubbiest component of the machine is the oil, albeit a necessary component to keep the machine running …. and as such it is the agents who I believe fulfil this role of being the vital ‘oil’ in the current ‘football machine‘.
Everyone ‘loves to hate‘ football agents (quite often even the agents themselves), they are the convenient target for blame, hatred and vilification …. whether it be fans, the media, FIFA, managers/coaches, players, clubs and even agents. Yet when the agent is ‘on the side’ of any of these parties that disparage them, and serve the parties best interests, all the ‘sneering’ is forgotten; even to the point where I have heard the names of football agents sung at football grounds.
The simple fact is that agents are an integral part of the ‘football machine‘ (business), and whilst agents vary in so many ways (e.g., level, wealth, knowledge, approach, ability, ethics, morals), they keep part of the ‘football engine’ running and thus are an integral component.
As mentioned above, the role of an agent varies; from those who just ‘broker deals‘, those who offer an all-round service to clients, to those who THINK they offer an ‘all-round‘ service but in reality, don’t. The fact is agents often get left to do the undesirable tasks no one else wants to do or can be seen to do. And for the so called ‘super agents’ although they may not do the undesirable task themselves, they have a junior agent or minion who will be charged with the task, for example:
1. Whether it be unsettling a player (i.e., ‘tapping up‘) that is under contract at a club, this is invariably reported as an agent doing the unsettling. When in all reality the request is often at the behest of another club who wants to sign the player (and thus unsettle them) – who can’t be seen to ‘tap up’ another clubs player for risk of sanctions and/or how it is perceived.
Afterall, how many times do we now hear the line in a manager’s ‘presser’ that they don’t want to talk about other clubs’ players, when it is blatantly obvious, they are interested.
2. The reports in and around a transfer window; about a club being interested in a player (whether it has a hint of truth, or total fantasy) is again often tagged to an agent, and quite often it is a case of an agent trying to generate interest in a player client. However, it could again be a club using the agent to convey such a message or even the desperation of some in the media to get a ‘scoop’ and be able to add some ‘credibility’ to the story as the agent has said it (dare I say, they ask a willing agent to create a story or put their name to a quote).
3. I accept that in cases where a player may be reported to be pushing for a transfer, new contract and/or salary increase, this may be motivated by the agent, but in a lot of the cases this is the player who is pushing the agent to act as the conduit in the request (and subsequently it is the agent who ‘cops the flack’ as the antagonist).
This is just a few of the assignments that agents get tasked with; whether lawful or unlawful in the eyes of football regulations, agents are doing the ‘dirty’ work ensuring the other components of the engine continue to function in the way that they wish.
What must be considered is that when I entered into the football agent industry, all of these actions by agents were unlawful under the football agent regulations at the time (FIFA and FA), but over time the concern of such activity has dissipated and it is arguable whether the football authorities take much notice of such actions (let alone sanction them effectively). Not least as the components of the football machine accept that there are ‘grubby’ parts of the process, and so long as it is not them that has to deal with it, then that is just fine by them.
As I have written about on many occasions over the last 2,3,4 or even 5 years, FIFA are looking to ‘change the oil‘ in the ‘football machine‘; and by this I am referring to the implementation of the new FFAR (FIFA Football Agent Regulations).
However, in continuing with the ‘engine and oil’ metaphor, the question has to be asked whether FIFA are, with the implementation of FFAR, seeking to change the ‘oil’ in (what they see as) their ‘engine’ with:
1. a ‘Premium Brand’ – for the engine to run smoother and better
2. a ‘Cheaper Brand’ – to cut costs
3. Swiss tap water – to both cut costs and give the impression of a clean image and spotless ‘engine‘ (and reducing the risks of them ‘getting their hands dirty‘).
Now, for anyone with even a basic knowledge of normal cars, they would appreciate that ‘oil‘ is a vital component to keeping the engine running. They may not know why the ‘oil‘ is so important, how it works or indeed know how to (or want to) change the ‘oil‘. Yet most will be aware that not using the proper oil in an engine will cause the engine to seize and/or do costly damage.
Looking at the options above, many I think would welcome approach number one (agents included), in replacing the old ‘oil‘ with a ‘premium brand’ for a more efficient engine and arguably a cleaner engine. Whilst options 2 and 3 will immediately be highlighted as mistakes.
Granted, in 2015 FIFA arguably replaced the ‘oil‘ with ‘tap-water‘ and in 2017/18 conceded that they had damaged the engine – this was through the ‘deregulation’ of football agents (something ‘FIFA’ only recently admitted at CAS) and the introduction of RWWI (‘Regulations on Working With Intermediaries’).
FIFA may argue that they are changing the ‘oil‘ for a ‘Premium Brand’ to make things function better on the matter of football agent regulations, but whilst I and many others will appreciate FIFA ‘changing the oil’, there is the argument that FIFA are using a ‘Cheap Brand’ replacement that may not damage the engine immediately, but still result in poor performance and long-term problems. Some may even say that FIFA are pouring the replacement oil into the wrong part of the engine entirely.
The questions that I would ask at this point are whether football (i.e., FIFA and the football authorities), want to change the engine, or just ‘change the oil‘ (with whatever is most conveniently at hand).
Personally, I would argue that between 2018 and now, FIFA have had an adequate opportunity to do both, if not aim to ‘go green’ (to continue the car and engine metaphor), developing their combustion engine to a high performing hybrid and in the long term a largely cleaner ‘all electric’ engine …. without the fumes and fewer grubby components to worry about.
Sadly, after many years I think FIFAs approach with FFAR is just an means of them changing the oil, and more worryingly, they are replacing the oil with an inefficient alternative that will result in a less well functioning and dirtier engine ……. if not an overall breakdown.