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Player and Agent Disputes – When it all 'Turns Sour' ....

...... Can mediation help in maintaining the delicate balance between harmony and acrimony?
2nd April 2023

The relationship between a footballer and their agent is a delicate balance between harmony and acrimony. A large proportion of this crucial relationship is beyond the control of both the player and agent and can further vary depending on so many events, conditions and variables; whether it be such things as transfer windows, injuries or the general successes and failures on the pitch.

Relationships between the agent and the player client can go from harmony one minute to acrimony the next, and whilst things are good there isn’t a care in the world for either player or agent. But when things go wrong, it can be a very different story resulting in dispute and damage for both parties in terms of finance, mental health and reputation.


A High Profile Example of a Breakdown in an Agent Player Relationship

In late February 2023, reports started to circulate surrounding the Italy and West Ham player Gianluca Scamacca ‘parting ways’ with his existing agency (although some of the sports media rather distastefully ‘framed’ the situation with terms such as ‘dumped’ and/or ‘dropped’), and it is was reported this was the decision of the player’s representatives (agents/agency).

Now, whilst there is plenty of speculation in the public domain and gossip in the ‘football village’, these are not things I will further speculate on. Not least, as I know after many years in the football world “believe none of what you hear, a small proportion of what you read, and a slither of what you actually see”, as there is usually an agenda (or ‘two’) behind every football rumour.

However, such cases do raise several questions as to why an agent and player would seemingly part ways unilaterally, when a representation agreement (contract) between them is still in place. Especially when the player is arguably in the prime of his career, playing in one of the best leagues in the world and an international player for a prominent footballing nation.

Whilst it is not unheard of for an agent to take action against a player for breach of contract, or more typically a player entering into a dispute with their agent for breach of contract – it is rare for an agent to effectively ‘walk away’ unilaterally from what seems to be a successful player. From first-hand experience there were occasions in the past where I have wanted to ‘walk away’ from representing a specific player client (for various reasons, that I will keep confidential), but there should be a legally binding contract (representation agreement) in place that states that the agent has a duty and obligation to the player (as the client) for the full term of said contract.

Yes, there are cases where there may be ‘just cause’ for a player to seek legal advice and decide to unilaterally terminate their agreement with their agent, and vice versa for that matter. And in the case where a player (and/or their family) may have ‘had their head turned’ by another agent or 3rd party to change their representation, quite often the agents/agencies will come to some form of agreement to either work together, or reach a somewhat ‘acceptable’ (if not amicable) ‘parting of the ways’ between agent and player-client (which is usually a ‘golden handshake’ between player/new-agent and the original agent).

Experienced agents are realistic enough (although they may not always demonstrate it) when it comes to their relationship with clients to know that one mistake from themselves, not being ‘on their guard’, or the ‘fickleness’ of some (clients) may all lead to them losing a client. And ultimately most agents accept (even if privately), that most player-clients won’t remain with them for the entirety of their playing career, especially if the player is successful and sought after in the transfer market and thus attracts the attention of other agents and large agencies.

A ‘Rare Breed’ – The ‘One Agent Player

The days of a footballer being known as a ‘one club (wo)man’ are seemingly incredibly rare, if not an extinct breed in modern day football at the upper levels. And I think it fair to say that the same is true of players in having the same agent represent them throughout their playing careers. Even when a parent, guardian or relative of the player starts out as the players agent in their formative years, this relationship often gives way to that of an agent when the time is right and professional representation is required for career progression.

On the occasion when a player is identified as a major talent and is signed to a prominent agent/agency from a young age, and their career goes ‘without a hitch’; it is feasible that the player may stay with that same agent/agency throughout their career and become a one agent player’. Not least as everybody is happy and contented with the relationship and the successes shared along the way by both the agent and player.

That isn’t to say there aren’t attempts by other agents and third parties to destabilise a players seemingly unbreakable relationship with a long-standing agent, or to ‘turn the heads’ of the player and their family by speculating that they would be better off with another agent/agency.

I think everyone who has been in the industry for anymore than a year (if not less), would confirm that, it is ‘par for the course’ of football agents; something as an agent you have to be wary of and on guard for, whilst also trying to win over new client-players (some agents by fair means, and some others by foul means and the ‘dark arts’).

Handling the Almost Inevitable

As I mentioned earlier, it is almost inevitable that at times the relationship between agent and player-client will ‘wobble’, if not become strained for whatever reason. Quite often the strain on the working relationship is beyond the agent or even the players control, and quite often (as with other disputes outside of sport) one party may be totally oblivious that the other party has a grievance.

Again, this is a position I have been in on occasions with clients, and on some of these occasions I have been totally oblivious to there being a problem (despite my best endeavours), let alone what caused it so that I can try and rectify the problem and help the player-client.

In some instances, no matter what the agent does the damage is irreversible, especially when another agent or associated 3rd party has started to ‘pour poison into the ear’ of a player-client.

The ‘Pouring of Poison’ into Ears and Minds

Either directly or indirectly through their family, teammates or a manager/coach at times during their career, footballers will have ‘Poison Poured into Their Ear’ by someone who has a motive or agenda. Quite often, this approach is to destabilise the relationship between the player and the agent; whether it is direct from an agent or an agency employee (runner, scout, gopher – as some may refer to them) or via a connected third party such as a family member, a team mate, a coach/manager or club official.

Quite often such messages are quite harmless, innocuous, speculative and seen as part of ‘sales & marketing’ in selling to the player that an agent/agency is better for their career, than their current agent. However, some of these approaches go further and into the realms of ‘tapping up’ (i.e. the player to breach or cancel their representation agreement/contract with their current agent), whether it be lies about the other agent, an offer that contravenes laws or regulations, is blatantly slanderous about the other agent, or maybe on rare occasions something that touches on sinister.

From Bad to Worse – Disagreement to Dispute

The fact is that once there is a profound disagreement between a player and their agent it is very difficult to reverse let alone repair the relationship, after all many of these relationships are built on trust and working towards common, shared and mutually beneficial goals. This is possibly even more true of smaller agencies and independent agents who have to manage most (if not all) of the aspects of their client’s affairs themselves. These agents don’t have the resources that a big agency often provides, or the facility for delegation (if not shifting blame when things don’t go to plan).

Furthermore, once the ‘poison is poured’, the ‘players head is turned’ and the ‘grass SEEMS greener’ elsewhere …….. quite often the agent is resigned to quite possibly losing their player-client with little or no recourse or compensation for the loss, and the hard work and effort spanning many years.

Mediation in Potential Player – Agent Disputes

So, when it comes to the prospect of a disagreement or even a dispute in player-agent relationships; what can be done? Whilst the approach for many has been to (i) make the most of a bad situation, (ii) sit tight and fight, (iii) refer to footballs disputes mechanisms, (iv) be as awkward as possible for the other party, or even (v) resort to litigation (which isn’t advisable as it often falls outside the football regulations of FIFA and member associations) ……… all of these are damaging to both the player and agent (and possibly others involved e.g. the club).

This is where football mediation ‘steps into the breach’, either to work in resolving the problem before the disagreement even develops into a dispute (thus rescuing, if not strengthening the working relationship), or work to resolve the dispute with a mutually satisfactory settlement agreement for both player and agent (and anyone else impacted by the disagreement and dispute).

I would say in the vast majority of situations where there is a dispute between player and agent that does not constitute a breach of the agreement/contract that exists between them, or the fact the player may have been swayed to leave the agent – I believe the relationship can be rectified, if not strengthened through mediation if that is what the player and agent want and show a willingness to achieve such a resolution.

It is fair to say, that when agent and player have such a disagreement it is often down to a misunderstanding, miscommunication or a misinterpretation based on what they have thought, heard, observed or been told by others. It is not uncommon for a player to not fully understand what is in their agent representation-contract and thus have false expectations of their agent. Likewise, it is not uncommon for an agent to not fully appreciate problems a player may be experiencing relating to either their professional and/or personal life whereby they may need support that the agent can assist with, but doesn’t, as they simply aren’t aware of the issue.

Mediation offers both the player and agent a means to confidentially resolve such issues that may be damaging to their relationship, and also their professional lives in the long term. It can be an opportunity to realign interests and differences, and to strengthen their relationship for mutual benefit. 

There is no doubting that like in any other client-agent relationship, the relationship can break down to a point where neither party can continue to work together effectively. And whilst mediation endeavours to offer a mechanism and solutions to repair and enhance working relationships, this isn’t always possible.

It is difficult, if not impossible for an agent-player relationship to ever be as strong or even repaired when one party believes trust has been broken (e.g. an agent is told that the player has been negotiating with a rival agent whilst under contract, OR the player perceives and/or is told there has been an approach by another club for their services which their agent has seemingly withheld from them), and whilst the trust may have been perceived to have been broken, it is not always true or what it seems.

Through mediation in football, there are ways and means to resolve a dispute between agent and player, even when trust has been lost, or the relationship has soured so much due to the ‘pouring of poison’ (as mentioned earlier). And whilst footballs dispute mechanisms do offer some means of resolution, this can be costly for both the agent and the player. Not just in terms of financial cost but also time and potentially damaging reputations in what is a relatively small and close-knit professional community.

Mediation offers players and agents a way to resolve disputes that saves them time, money and damage to their reputations – even to an extent of having the potential to repair and strengthen such damaged relationships. A quick and confidential mechanism that allows the agent and player to be in control and resolve their dispute; without the dictation of football rules, regulations and governance interference, in reaching a mutually satisfactory outcome and settlement that allows both player and agent to move forward and progress.