Glenn Moore: Next month anyone can be an agent, but it may not be the messy free-for-all some predict

THE WEEKEND DOSSIER

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Heard the news? You, I and practically anyone else who is solvent and not been convicted can now become a football agent. Order the Ferrari, crack open the Cristal, and wait for the ten per cents to roll in from those multi-million-pound deals.

That is the upshot of new Fifa legislation which takes effect from the end of this month. The only catch is you will not be raking in the ten per cent of legend, the recommendation is now three per cent commission. Still, three per cent of a £10m transfer is ten times the national average wage so it is not exactly penury.

Nevertheless, one group of people are unhappy at the new legislation. The Association of Football Agents (AFA), who represent many of the 550-odd existing UK agents, all of whom have had to pass an examination and take out a licence, are mounting a legal challenge to Fifa through the European Commission. Mel Stein, once Paul Gascoigne’s agent, who is AFA chairman, has even suggested a ‘wild west’ scenario is in the offing as all manner of shady characters try and get a cut of football’s cascading wealth.

A cynic might suggest that is the situation already but while there are a few chancers, and the occasional crook among the fraternity most agents these days are reputable professionals. Indeed, the industry also features around 150 specialists such as lawyers and financial advisors.

The new legislation has been brought in by Fifa on the basis that the old regime was proving impossible to enforce with two-thirds of worldwide transfers done by unlicensed agents. That may have been so, but not many were in the UK where the FA operated a relatively tough regulatory regime.

The FA have strengthened Fifa’s regulations, and the UK should remain the most regulated market in Europe, but agents still have three main concerns. One is that almost anyone can now become agent with the result, said one, ‘the market will be flooded’. Another is that three per cent cap. Plus there is a ban on earning from deals involving players under the age of 18.

Sympathy may be in short supply among fans (and, indeed, many within football). Agents are largely unloved and their objections appear primarily motivated by self-interest. However, they are a necessary evil; before their arrival players were routinely exploited. Plus, given the demands of modern players, it is not a job in which an agent can switch off. Even a transfer is now a complex operation.

“It is not just a case of making two phone calls and picking up £1m, there is a lot more to that,” said Daniel Geey, a solicitor and sports lawyer with Field Fisher Waterhouse. He added: “If a club is signing a player for £10-£20m they will want to protect their long-term liability and a strong agent is required to protect his clients interests.”

Matthew Buck, director of player management at the Professional Footballers Association, said: “Agents get a bad reputation but most of the ones I’ve come across have been around a while and know what they are doing. Arranging a contract isn’t as easy as simply going in and asking for a sum of money. The standard contract now is 20-30 pages long, plus there are aspects to arrange like loyalty bonus payments, a pension, image rights, signing-on fees, salary sacrifice, bonuses, and so on.

“Players need someone who can look at it carefully. You get things like the 20-appearances clause, when it triggers another year’s contract or a bonus. What happens if the manager stops picking you after 19 games?  You have to get the wording right and need legal guidance.”

Indeed. remember the furore over Luis Suarez’s contract when Arsenal tried to trigger what they - and the player - thought was a release clause. It transpired that was an incorrect reading, Liverpool merely had to tell the player if a bid was received in excess of £40m.

The time and expertise required explains some of the resistance to a three per cent cap especially as it only applies to the basic salary and not to bonuses, which can be as much as a third of a players’ wage. It is only a recommendation, but it is feared clubs will use it to drive commission rates down. That players cannot, unlike in the US, set agents’ fees against tax exacerbates the situation.

Of course, if a club really needs a player they are likely to be prepared to pay the current going rate of five per cent or more. It is the agents representing the less in-demand players who may be squeezed down. “Some of the better, more reputable agents may decide to pull out,” said Buck. “This may be a problem.”

As most players need agents it is in the game’s interest to ensure they are are trustworthy. AFA board member Leon Angel is among many concerned that the new laws will leave players vulnerable. “After 1 April there is no exam, all you have got to do is not have a criminal record. We want higher standards, not lower.”

At present players often get an agent the way someone finds a plumber, by word-of-mouth. This might be the recommendation of a senior pro, but young players are increasingly targeted before they have access to the experience of the first team squad. Thus Fifa’s ban on payments to under-18s, extended by the FA to prevent any contract with a player before 1 January in the year of his 16th birthday. 

However, while laudable, these restrictions throw up obvious anomalies, such as when a Raheem Sterling bursts on the scene at 17. The FA are examining this issue, which may be partially ameliorated by an advice service set up by the PFA and Premier League.

The AFA want to self-regulate and are seeking FA support to do so. Self-regulation has been a mixed success in other industries, not least journalism, and only works if backed up by real sanctions. It would need newcomers to buy into the scheme.

The likelihood is that many will be attracted by the perceived easy money and glamour of being a football agent, including a few rogues, and some players will be seduced by exaggerated promises into bad deals. However, the FA have a two-year limit on agent-player contracts which provides some safeguard. Besides, as one ex-pro noted, “there have always been horror stories, picking an agent has long been a minefield.”

This is less so now, and while there may be a brief spike in skullduggery the reality is the industry is so complex and so competitive - with a few big agencies responsible for the vast majority of players - it will be difficult for outsiders, whether honest or bent, to muscle in. Best put that Cristal back on ice.

Key features of Fifa/FA regulations on *agents which take effect April 1

Three per cent recommended commission on transfers and player wage agreements

No agent to contract players before 1 Jan in the year of 16th birthday

No commission to be paid for working with players under 18

Two-year maximum contract length

No licence required but all intermediaries must annually register with and pay fee to FA

Intermediaries breaking regulations may be warned, fined or suspended

*agents will be known as intermediaries

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