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The complex and increasing influence of "intermediaries" in transfer deals should be afforded closer attention and stricter legislation imposed by the football authorities

18 March ~ It is said to be a sign of someone’s power and influence if no one outside their own field has heard of them. Sadly, the reverse is true of football agents, with Jorge Mendes and Mino Raiola appearing more often than any player in round-ups of transfer rumours. Agents have been officially known as “intermediaries” since 2015 when FIFA abandoned their licensing system. The decision had a weary logic to it – as the majority didn’t sign up to the rules, they couldn’t be held to be in breach of them. Last autumn, FIFA set up a committee to examine transfer regulations. The revival of the agents’ licence was set to be addressed, along with the stockpiling of youngsters by major clubs. At the end of February, Chelsea were banned from buying players for the next two windows having reportedly breached rules relating to 29 different overseas signings. They are to appeal and it would not be a shock if the ban was reduced. Still, it is a start. Taking on “intermediaries” will be far more difficult.

Many transfers turn out to be failed gambles for a variety of reasons. There is also a type of signing, seen throughout the world, that seems to make little sense. This involves a squad player moving from one country to another, spending a short time as a reserve for his new club, then moving on again. On rare occasions these sort of moves might be justified by a family link. In 1996, Middlesbrough bought Brazilian midfielder Emerson from the Portuguese league. A few months later they returned to Portugal for another Brazilian, Fábio. He was Emerson’s cousin, brought in to help his more talented relative settle on Teesside. Emerson played 70 league and cup games in two seasons, Fábio appeared once for the first team, in the League Cup. During this time, Boro achieved a remarkable treble, losing both cup finals and being relegated, so their supporters might wonder whether providing Emerson with someone to hang out with was worth the effort.

More often the signing of two players with some sort of connection but very different levels of ability will have a more dubious cause. It can be an arrangement between some employees of the buying club, and an agent. Player A will sign if they also agree to take Player B, who has the same representation. Player B departs after a short while, possibly to become the secondary element in other deals. This aspect of the transfer market tends to become an issue only when a team are doing badly. If Player A makes a positive impact at his club, no one is expected to complain. Supporters may even feel that their team have been disadvantaged when a transfer breaks down over a point of principle. In 2004 Crystal Palace were set to sign Tim Cahill from Millwall when their chairman Simon Jordan baulked at paying a commission, five per cent of the £2 million fee, to the player’s agent. Cahill moved to Everton instead, and scored 11 league goals as they finished fourth; Palace were relegated by one point. The move might have gone ahead if rules required that the agent’s fee had to be paid by the player, something that has long been called for.

The reports on the death of the Argentinian striker Emiliano Sala, killed in a plane crash on his way to Cardiff from Nantes in January, pointed to other problematic aspects of the current transfer system. The move was officially brokered by Mark McKay, who was not Sala’s agent but had been given a mandate by Nantes to find a buyer for a player whose contract was soon to run out. The specifics of the deal were arranged by McKay’s father Willie, a former agent who is not currently registered as an intermediary with either the English or French FAs. Neil Warnock has since claimed that the press are conducting a “vendetta” against him for his previous dealings with McKay senior but there has been no suggestion that he or Cardiff were in the wrong – they simply made use of existing practices.

Any reform of transfers should begin with requiring a selling club to conduct negotiations directly with a prospective buyer, and a properly licensed players’ agent. If FIFA can’t impose that as a basic starting point, it is hard to see what else they hope to achieve.

This article first appeared in WSC 385, April 2019. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more here

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