Agents or club chairmen – who are most disliked? Polling even worse are the growing subset who step from one job to the other. As one agent who helped bankrupt a club faces jail in Switzerland, Dan Brennan looks at the puzzling trend
Letting a football agent take control of your club might sound a bit like handing a burglar a spare set of keys to your house and telling him where the family silver is kept. That is certainly how it must now feel to supporters of Servette, the venerable Swiss club that went bankrupt two years ago and were forced to begin life again in the third division.
In 2004, the club were placed in the control of Marc Roger, formerly one of France’s top agents. Within a year, in February 2005, the club were declared bankrupt, with debts of more than 12 million Swiss francs (£8m). Roger was one of several club officials who were arrested as part of an investigation into fraud, embezzlement and mismanagement. In July 2005, after an initial three-month period in detention, he was released on bail, but when he failed to turn up for a hearing an international warrant was issued for his arrest. By then he had fled to France, where local law meant that he was safe from extradition. But this February, after 18 months on the run, the past finally caught up with Roger when he travelled to Spain, tempted by the chance to take in the Champions League match between Barcelona and Liverpool. In doing so, he broke his cover and was arrested by the Spanish police. He now faces extradition to Switzerland, where he will have to answer the charges against him.
Perhaps Roger had been unable to resist the chance to return to the scene of former triumphs. His most profitable deals as an agent had been cut between English and Spanish clubs. Claude Makelele’s move from Real Madrid to Chelsea and Nicolas Anelka’s transfer from Arsenal to Real were both his deals, though he complained that David Dein never paid him the ten per cent (£2.3m) he was supposedly promised on the latter deal. Roger eventually proved such a thorn in Arsenal’s side – it was his machinations that were behind the interminable Patrick Vieira-to-Real Madrid saga – that he earned himself a ban from Highbury and his conduct came under scrutiny by the FA.
In hindsight, it seems rash in the extreme that a club should entrust their future to a character with such a controversial reputation. But then again, since when has a chequered past been a barrier to club ownership? These days, with so many clubs desperate for funds and willing to court any passing investor, an agent’s financial clout – the fruits of a decade’s worth of lucrative deals – may start to look increasingly attractive. Last year, for example, Sven-Göran Eriksson’s agent, Athole Still, was reported to be behind one of the rival bids for Aston Villa.
With the heat being turned up on agent activity in recent years, it is perhaps not a bad time for members of the profession to be considering a sideways career move. In England, the FA have been promising (though not as yet delivering) tougher regulations. In Italy, in the wake of Moggigate, forensic investigations into the affairs of the country’s largest company of football agents, GEA (run by Luciano Moggi’s son, Alessandro), are being carried out, but it is in France where agents have been given the greatest reason to sweat. Last June, seven agents were convicted of involvement in the Marseille transfer-fee scandal in the late 1990s, along with former club president Robert Louis-Dreyfus, head coach Rolland Courbis and several other club officials.
One of those agents, Luciano D’Onofrio, received two years in prison – including 18 months suspended – and a €375,000 (£250,000) fine. He subsequently resurfaced on the board of Standard Liège, where his brother Dominique was technical director. Last year Luciano was barred from any involvement in football for five years. There has also been a major probe into 15 transfer deals involving Paris Saint-Germain between 1998 and 2003 – including Ronaldinho’s move from Gremio – which has seen a host of the country’s agents come under close scrutiny. Meanwhile, also last year, agent Pietro Allatta was arrested in Belgium and charged with forgery, use of false documents, embezzlement and issuing threats, as police homed in on a suspected match-fixing syndicate with ties to the Chinese mafia.
In 2004, Claude Anelka, older brother of and part-time “advisor” to Nicolas, bought himself the right to run the Stark’s Park show when he agreed to invest around £200,000 in Raith Rovers. This was a fraction of the £64m in cumulative transfer fees that his younger brother has attracted during his career. Anelka the elder, whose chief professional credentials were as a part-time DJ, appointed himself director of football and unveiled his plan to populate the team with amateur players from France. Predictably enough the plan backfired; within a year he was gone, leaving the club in an even more parlous state than the one he had inherited.
On the Côte d’Azur, another former French agent, Pape Diouf, has enjoyed a somewhat more successful metamorphosis. The Senegalese-born Diouf had a large share of the market for bringing African players into France (a star-studded client list included Didier Drogba, El-Hadji Diouf and Marcel Desailly) and, often working in tandem with British agent Willie McKay, was responsible for the subsequent transfer of many of these players to the UK. He forged particularly strong links with Marseille, acting on their behalf in many transfers, so when he hopped over the fence to become their general manager in 2003 it was a relatively smooth transition. A year later he was promoted to club president, surviving a police investigation into his affairs as part of the crackdown on agent activity in France, and becoming embroiled in a very public spat with his Lyon counterpart, Jean-Michel Aulas, over the latter’s attempts to prize away Marseille’s star asset, Franck Ribery.
Former US President Lyndon Johnson once said of FBI chief J Edgar Hoover that it was “probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in”. It was perhaps the same logic that prompted Zenit St Petersburg to appoint Konstantin Sarsania – Russia’s top dealmaker and agent to the club’s most saleable asset, Alexander Kerzhakov – as their sporting director last summer. Sarsania, who was Russia’s first FIFA-licensed agent in the 1990s, is certainly not your average “Mr Ten Per Cent”. Indeed, he is something of a football renaissance man: a former player, as well as blazing the agent’s trail, he also established his own academy, spent a stint as head coach of Sportakademika – a club in Russia’s second tier – and as a sideline is a football commentator on national TV. Few men in Russian football can boast such an extensive network of contacts, or knowledge of the international transfer market, so in a way harnessing his expertise – a bit like putting an expert hacker on the payroll to look after your security – could prove a canny strategy.
They will have to hope it works more smoothly than former agent Murdo Mackay’s two-year stint as director of football at Derby County, which was laced with controversy. The Scot, who once looked after the interests of most of the Rangers team, was handed the role at Pride Park by chairman John Sleightholme, but struggled to find many other allies and an acrimonious relationship with manager George Burley, who accused him of meddling in team affairs, prompted the latter to resign.
Last month, Roger’s arrest was hailed as a victory for the judicial system by Geneva’s chief prosecutor Daniel Zappelli. It should also serve as a cautionary tale across football as to what can happen when the poacher turns gamekeeper.
From WSC 242 April 2007. What was happening this month