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Have agents ruined football?

Monday 9th July 2018

For many years, the business of football was relatively modest. Players were well paid at top clubs, but most teams run by local business people. Marketing didn’t go much further than the advertising hoardings surrounding the pitch. Those were painted, by the way, not electronic. It was a much simpler and many would say better time.

The first big change came in 1992. The Premier League was launched. Ever since, football has grown from a modest, working stiff's game to the billion-pound industry it is today. Nowadays, clubs employ more staff to run the commercial side than they have players. With increased revenue, it’s only natural other parties notice and fancy claiming their own slice of the pie. The biggest vultures are players' agents.

In previous generations, transfers were more straightforward. If a player wanted a move, he would go and knock his manager's door, explain his reasons and invariably get an answer straight away. If a team wanted to sign a player, the chairpersons would have a discussion about any potential deal. Nowadays, nobody does anything without the involvement of several agents, lawyers, medical staff, and other consultants. Worse, agents are often manipulating all aspects of the game to pad their fee.

For a time, agents involved themselves in third-party ownership. Essentially, they owned the rights of the player they were looking to transfer. That practice has been outlawed, but agents are nothing if not enterprising. Jorge Mendes has worked with Valencia and Wolverhampton Wanderers, to bring in players who fit their needs [and his]. Although Jose Mourinho is a Jorge Mendes client, he did all his business in his first Manchester United transfer window with Mino Raiola, signing Eric Bailly, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba.

One tactic, my personal favourite, is "leaking" news linking their players with other clubs. Doing so often forces the club to which the player belongs into contract negotiations that involve heavy fees and commissions for the agent. 

While it is often said agents have brought negativity and shady practices to the game, it would be more accurate to say they have levelled the playing field in that department. Clubs have a long history of taking advantage of squad players and developing talent. Unedecutated, naive and unrepresented, such players had no idea of their rights or value when signing contracts. That said, it hasn't been enough for agents to right those wrongs. They've carried matters to the opposite extreme. 

As well, many agents have ignored their players best interests, either working in tandem with clubs or simply not providing the advice needed for proper financial management. Many players have gone bankrupt as a result, Lee Hendrie perhaps the best known case.

PFA Chief Executive Gordon Taylor wasn't too complimentary towards agents in a 2013 BBC interview.

I have to be careful what I say about agents, but they are there during the good times and a bit like butterflies in the bad times.

Recently, many young players have made the jump to big clubs before they were ready. That reaps a huge reward for the agent. In terms of player development, it is a detriment to his client. Players only improve through regular football. Too often, these moves take that option away from players. Consider Jack Rodwell's move from Everton to Manchester City or Florian Thauvin's from Marseille to Newcastle.

Perhaps the most annoying tool employed by agents is using another club's interest as bait to negotiate a new deal for players already on multi-million-pound deals. Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos have all dominated the rumour mill in recent seasons only for their respective clubs to announce contract negotiations and seemingly annual renewals of the record-breaking variety. 

Often, agents are just opportunists who have found a lucrative cash cow. Old school fans can do without them. In their minds, player representatives have brought next to nothing to the game. Although, when it comes to hoovering up the millions of pounds the game generates, they are right at the heart of the action. 

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Gerry Johnston

I am a 33-year-old sports writer from Ireland who enjoys watching European football. My main focus is La Liga, but I do keep a close eye on all of the major leagues throughout the world.

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