Soccer transfers are a murky business. Can FIFA clean it up?

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Agents in football are nothing like Jerry Maguire. It’s not that they don’t develop heartfelt bonds with their representatives: Mino Raiola, who represents Paul Pogba, Erling Haaland and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, famously has no written contracts tying him to his clients but relies on handshakes instead. No, the difference is that in Maguire’s world — and in most U.S. sports — agents are paid by players for representing them in contract negotiations, whether with sponsors or clubs. In football, they still represent players in contract negotiations with teams, but agents typically get paid by the teams, not the players they’re representing.

Moreover, for many agents, a big chunk of the business comes during the transfer window when they act directly for clubs as intermediaries.

In most football leagues outside MLS, players under contract aren’t traded and because they have guaranteed deals, they can’t be released. So their contracts are bought and sold for cash, which means there’s plenty of business to be had representing either a club looking to sell a player or a club looking to acquire a player. You can get paid for that, too.

If it’s a player you represent, you get paid twice. And though this is rare, you can hit the trifecta and get paid by all parties involved: buyer, seller and the player.

Such a system is evidently rife with potential for conflicts of interest and malfeasance. But last week, FIFA unveiled a raft of new regulations aimed at limiting such practices while increasing transparency, mandating licensing and putting a cap on the commissions an agent can earn for an individual transfer. It appears certain they will be approved next spring and come into effect in September 2021.

Why did FIFA feel this was necessary?

Football agency is a loosely regulated system, and as often happens with unregulated markets, things are generally fine until two things happen: the money paid becomes huge, and a few operators come to dominate big sectors of the market. That’s pretty much what has happened over the past decade in football.

According to FIFA, fees paid to agents more than doubled over four years, from 2015 to 2019, to more than $630m. At the same time, top football agencies have more power than ever before in terms of the talent they represent and, effectively, control. According to Transfermarkt, which issues market values for each player, the top two agencies control more than a billion pounds’ ($1.3 billion) worth of players. That’s more than any club: Liverpool‘s players have the highest market value, at £973m ($1.28 billion), just ahead of Manchester City (£971m/$1.27m).

And, by the way, the two agencies at the top by aggregate market value of their clients aren’t Mino Raiola or Jorge Mendes’ Gestifute (Cristiano Ronaldo, Jose Mourinho, Ederson), they’re the relatively lower profile Stellar, who was recently acquired by ICM (Gareth Bale, Ben Chilwell, Saul) and Wasserman (Fede Valverde, Houssem Aouar, Jamie Vardy).

So agents have a lot of clout and a lot of money, but that doesn’t necessarily make them bad.

Of course not, though it does create potential conflicts of interest. For example, when an agency represents both a manager or coach and a player at the same club. Or when an agency has players at a club to the point where it gains leverage and can influence a club’s decisions.

That’s why the disclosure part of the new regulations is key. There’s a lot of cash sloshing around, and when there’s a lot of cash, you’re tempted to put it to work for you to ensure you keep your share of the market, especially when there’s very little regulation and such an extreme lack of transparency. That’s also why there have been reports of bungs (essentially bribes paid to the decision-makers at clubs), money-laundering, exploitation of minors and so on.

I see FIFA are also going to cap the amounts that agents can earn.

Yes. If you represent a player or a buying club, it’s 3% of his wages, which goes up to 6% if you’re acting for both the player and the buying club. If you’re helping sell a player, it’s 10% of the transfer fee. Those are all maximums.

Shouldn’t it be up to the club to pay whatever they deem appropriate?

That’s a good point. If you have transparency — which we’ll get to in a moment — it shouldn’t matter. James Kitching, FIFA’s director of football regulatory, says it’s a matter of perception. In an ideal world, he says, you’d let the market decide; there would be an upfront disclosure from a service provider and the customer would determine if he wants to pay it.

“But that’s not what happens now,” Kitching says. “A lot of the commission payments are negotiated after the fact — they’re tacked on as part of a transfer deal. We want to get back to something that reflects the work provided. It’s a matter of perception … I’m not saying large numbers automatically lead to abusive practices, but an agent who acts on your behalf has a fiduciary duty to act in your best interests, and sometimes big numbers may cause an agent not to act in the best interests of the client.”

I get his point. FIFA’s regulations lay out many different ways an agent can be paid that do not involve commissions, like negotiating a fixed fee, or paying an hourly rate or retainer. These aren’t capped. This feels a little bit like playing to the masses by simply cutting the amount somebody can earn, but if we have full disclosure, this shouldn’t be necessary.

But we do have greater transparency in the regulations, don’t we?

Yes, and I think this is the best part. FIFA say they will publish the details of every transfer, including the fees paid to the individual agents. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, as the saying goes. If a club decides to pay agent XYZ $2 million for helping them sell a $20m player, they can explain their actions and be held to account. Disclosure will also help where there are potential conflicts of interest.

Like what?

For example, the owners of Wolverhampton Wanderers, via subsidiary called Foyo, own a 15% share in the parent company of Gestifute, Jorge Mendes’ agency. Article 12 of FIFA’s new regulations would bar anyone with an interest in a football agency to also hold an interest, directly or indirectly, in a league or club. It seems like common sense, but it’s the strongest stance yet taken by a regulatory body.

Oh, and by the way: the relationship between Wolves’ owners and Gestifute at least was transparent and passed as fit by the Football Association. FIFA believe there are other relationships that are far murkier and undisclosed.

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Julien Laurens rubbishes claims of Juventus offering PSG a swap deal for Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar.

What about the licensing of agents?

They will need to pass an exam, acquire liability insurance, submit to a code of conduct, be governed by a FIFA dispute resolution body, pay an annual fee and take online tests to make sure they’re up to date with regulations and practices. Otherwise, they’re out.

Will it work?

FIFA say they consulted agents and the majority are in favour of it, although, you presume, some of the ones getting the mega-commissions are not. Much will depend on what happens at national level since technically, FIFA only have direct jurisdiction over international transfers. FIFA are confident member associations will support the changes.

There’s also the threat of legal action, though again, FIFA are confident that, a bit like financial fair play, folks scream and shout about this violating EU competition law (which is meant to guarantee a free and fair market) and then get nowhere in court.

The single biggest positive, as I see it, are the disclosure requirements. Once everything is in the open, fans and media and players can judge for themselves and, if necessary, exert pressure or demand explanation from the decision-makers.

This isn’t going to fix everything, and there is always the possibility that some of football’s malfeasance just gets pushed further underground, with payments off the books or offshore. But it does raise barriers, and it does raise awareness. That’s a huge step after years of FIFA effectively abdicating responsibility.