From the public’s perspective, being an agent – or, as FIFA now calls them, an intermediary – is a glamorous, high-profile and highly lucrative profession for what some think demands very little work or effort. They are often seen as the curse of the modern game, the people responsible for driving transfer prices and wages up or down, depending on their client’s priorities. In light of such arguments, does the football industry really benefit from agents? Whisper it, but yes. Agents are essential and play an important role in delivering the spectacle that is modern football.
There are bad apples in any profession, but there are plenty of extremely hard-working agents, who are paid very well and do a fantastic job for their clients. One such ‘super-agent’ is Mino Raiola, who represents Paul Pogba and is reported to have made more than £40m from his client’s transfer to Manchester United from Juventus. There was widespread condemnation, the former FA chairman David Bernstein being among the most vociferous critics: ‘Even if they [the transfers] are being done within the existing regulations, figures of those sorts of size in agents’ commissions are just immoral. It might not be illegal but it’s immoral.’ Those fees were in addition to the significant sums Raiola has made in brokering deals for Romelu Lukaku, Zlatan Ibrahimović and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Such prominent agents inevitably colour the media’s portrayal of the profession; not all deals are as high-profile or as lucrative.
There are thousands of agents working across the world’s major football leagues. There are over 1,800 registered agents operating in the English Premier League and Football League alone. It’s fair to say that the amounts made by Mino Raiola, Pini Zahavi (Robert Lewandowski’s agent) and Jorge Mendes (Cristiano Ronaldo’s agent) are very much the exception to the rule. Nonetheless, they make headlines – because elite clubs are willing to pay record transfer fees and wages for world-class, elite players.
Top agents are highly trained negotiators and impressive networkers, who provide connections to clubs that might otherwise struggle to make a deal happen. Granted, not all agents are as savvy as the next. But fans and the wider public usually have only a very distorted view of agents – believing that an agent only has to make a call, set up a meeting and then pocket the significant commission. Such circumstances, in my experience, are rare. Indeed, Pogba’s transfer to United – to offer just one example – will have taken many months to structure, will have included detailed and nuanced negotiations, and involved numerous clubs, executives, personalities and politics. Agents are masters at cutting through roadblocks and finding solutions.