Agents Of Change

Athletes usually do not handle the details of their terms of employment. They’re here to play a sport; the process by which they got here may have left them with too little formal education to understand the pile of legalese that makes up their contract (which isn’t a bar that’s very difficult to fail to clear, given all the end-user agreements you’ve probably skipped in your day), but given that it was personally tailored to be for them to follow, someone has to read it and make sure that it includes what they want it to include. Which is why we have sports agents, people who are paid specifically to read all that stuff and make sure you get the best possible deal.

That’s what they’re paid to do, anyway. The problems start when the agents decide that they’re more inclined towards making deals that are best for them, and decide to screw their client over in a way that the player doesn’t realize they’re being screwed until it’s too late to do anything about it. This is an all-too-common method of exploitation in Africa. Someone from Europe presenting themselves as a reputable agent will walk up to a young African player- as young as 11, perhaps- and fill their head with promises of trials at major European clubs. Sometimes the players are actually that good. Sometimes they’re not even close. It doesn’t matter much so long as the player believes it, and so long as their family believes it enough to pay the agent’s ‘fees’, which can easily end up being the family’s life savings, savings the family is willing to pay because should their child actually make it big, it would mean the entire family’s way out of indefinite subsistence toil in a semi-fallow African field, or out of war-torn political strife, or some other existentially desperate situation.

A hope that, all too often, proves misplaced, as the agent- who might not even be registered with FIFA- will stay with the player only long enough to grab his passport and money and then, when the time comes to actually follow through on arranging a trial, simply abandon the player in Europe, most commonly France. Some don’t even make it all the way out of Africa. At this point, the player is left to fend for themselves with no money, no documentation, no connections, and no idea where to turn for help without someone looking at them only as an illegal immigrant. The only thing they know is that returning home, even if they have the means to do so, would be an admission of failure to achieve their dream, which is never an easy thing to admit.

Sometimes they end up in the sex industry, as Mariana van Zeller reported four years ago in the runup to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

At the most recent FIFA Congress, held just prior to the 2014 World Cup, some action was taken regarding the player-agent model, though what effect it will have on someone’s ability to simply lie to someone who doesn’t know any better remains to be seen. In short, the new regulations- explored in more detail here by Oskar van Maren- are meant to shift responsibility from FIFA, which agents had to previously register with, to the national associations, who will now be responsible for setting their own standards as of April. A player is not to be bound to an agent- or ‘intermediary’, in the new parlance- for any particular length of time; instead, they are free to swap for every individual negotiation. The onus is on the player, or the club, to approve an intermediary. An intermediary is not permitted to take more than a 3% commission for the total length of the contract, and not permitted to take any money from minors- which is the part that, if followed through on, would be the game-changer. Of course, following through is another matter entirely, and the national associations of players likely to be exploited may not be able to keep up.

As one might imagine, legitimate agents, who tend to make around 5-10% from players of any note, beg to differ. The word being thrown around is ‘deregulation’, despite FIFA’s assurances to the contrary, and fears of players hooking up with match-fixers and other corrupt bodies as their ‘intermediaries’ abound, as well as the potential for under-the-table payments. Nobody is exactly willing to take FIFA at their word these days. European agents are considering legal action to prevent the changes; African agents are doing likewise.

South America, meanwhile, has its own set of contractual concerns with FIFA. In a separate move, announced last month, FIFA is banning the concept of third-party ownership. For the benefit of those who don’t know, third-party ownership is when an outside investor puts up part of the cost of a player’s contract, in the expectation that the player will play well enough to command more money in another contract for some other team, and when the player is sold off to that other team, the outside investor will turn a profit.

This is a major driver of clubs in Latin America, most notably Brazil and Argentina, as well as Portugal, with one estimate claiming that 80% of Brazilian players are under such an arrangement. Clubs that struggle to pay their bills, yet need a way to keep their best players from being lured to Europe, often turn to third parties to make up the difference in a player’s salary commands, knowing that for every player that indeed ends up getting sold on for a higher fee, there will be someone else who ends up an unsellable bust that they won’t have to eat the entire cost of developing. Corinthians, which from 2004-2007 was majority-owned by one such third-party investor, Media Sports Investment, has been something of a poster boy, with the ban in England coming not long after Corinthians sold Carlos Tevez to West Ham United in 2006, and after a lengthy saga culminating in a near-appearance before the Court of Arbitration for Sport before Tevez was eventually handed off to Manchester United. Tevez himself has become a symbol of large contracts, reprising his role as a big-money signing when he became the vanguard of Manchester City’s resurgence.

What is likely to happen to clubs in those areas is, simply, players who can’t get the money they want heading to somewhere that has it. It won’t happen all at once, as existing deals will be grandfathered in, Nonelite clubs in Italy and Spain that have had to utilize third-party ownership to keep up are liable to also suffer (and with FC Barcelona breaking transfer rules to the point of getting a 1-year transfer ban, it’s not easy to keep up even then). The major beneficiaries are likely to be those countries and clubs where lack of third party ownership is the current state of operation and that can stand to spend the extra cash.

England, with its hard ban, and France and Poland with similar bans, seem set to clean up. But then there’s the United States. Depending on how this is interpreted, MLS could either be a big winner or a big loser. Players in MLS are, at the end of the day, owned by the league, and they through a complicated set of maneuvering parse the players out amongst the clubs. MLS itself almost never accepts players who are under third-party ownership, so the ban would open up the talent pool of who they could go out and sign. But there is always the chance that MLS itself could be classified as a ‘third party’, with every contract in the league (save for those of the Designated Players) being up for scrutiny. MLS has always tried to slow-roll the influx of wage freedom into the league, so as to avoid situations where one club spends so much money that fans abandon the other teams and the league’s warchest quickly runs dry, like what happened with the New York Cosmos in the NASL, or the New Jersey Generals in the USFL. Opening the floodgates outright has been something the league has wanted to put off until they know every team within can handle it.

Whether FIFA allows it, turns a blind eye, or forces those floodgates open remains to be seen.

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