Revealed: the secret (and very lucrative) world of the football agent

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The Independent Football

Back in the days when members of England's World Cup winning team were forced to auction their shirts and medals to make money, football agents simply did not exist. Now, in the heady world of the Premiership and its European equivalents, endorsement deals and multimillion-pound TV rights, they are an intrinsic part of the game.

Back in the days when members of England's World Cup winning team were forced to auction their shirts and medals to make money, football agents simply did not exist. Now, in the heady world of the Premiership and its European equivalents, endorsement deals and multimillion-pound TV rights, they are an intrinsic part of the game.

But they have also been accused of being greedy leeches. David Dein, the vice-chairman of Arsenal, who has good cause to be wary, is said to sometimes make them sign deals on a copy of the Bible.

Over the past few years agents are said to have indulged in massive profiteering at the expense of clubs, aiding the demise of Leeds United and the failure of the Scottish national side along the way. Now, their activities have cast a long shadow over the career of Sir Alex Ferguson.

Although there are now growing calls for regulation to govern their activities, it remains unclear whether either the Football Association or the Government will take action to ensure greater transparency. They were already under pressure from MPs and others, even before the disclosure this week of the £13m paid by Manchester United to outside agencies, including Elite, co-owned by Sir Alex's son, Jason.

Jon Holmes, chief executive of one of biggest agencies, SFX, which represents England stars such as Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard, agrees with critics that the concern about his profession is justified: "Football is now very big business and like all big businesses it is capable of corruption. If only one tenth of what is said to be going on actually is going on, then we need to take action about it.''

Earlier this year, the All-Party Football group of MPs called for payments to agents by clubs to be made public - a move endorsed by the non-Premiership clubs - for all employees of agencies to be licensed and for a levy on transfer deal commissions to be ploughed back to help the grassroots of the game. Although the Government has yet to respond, the MPs have already decided to survey clubs about agents and are said to be considering another inquiry solely into the subject of agents.

Only a dozen or so years ago, agents did not exist. Then, in the early 1990s along came the Premiership and Rupert Murdoch, anxious for people to buy satellite dishes. Suddenly players were earning huge money, sportswear firms craved endorsement and transfer fees rocketed. Footballers suddenly needed people to handle all this.

There are now 229 officially registered English agents and about another 55 in Scotland; all of whom have to pass a Fifa examination to establish their credentials. Some, like the cigar-chomping Eric Hall, graduated from a showbiz tradition, while others, like Jason Ferguson, were former footballers.

According to the most recent analysis, that of the 2001-02 season, agents would earned a total of about £46m out of almost £800m the Premiership clubs spent on wages and transfers.

Examples are not hard to find: Max Sports, run by Bernie Mandic, was paid £2m when the striker Harry Kewell was sold by Leeds to Liverpool last year, and Tom Bower's 2003 book, Broken Dreams, showed how some agents were paid more than £100,000 for a few telephone calls.

In the Ferguson affair, an Italian agent, living in Switzerland, was paid £700,000 for his part in a £2.3m transfer involving an American player - of which £139,000 was paid to Mike Morris, who is linked to Elite, Jason Ferguson's company.

Most clubs agree to pay agents out of the "club" side of the deal, rather than the player paying. This means there is no incentive for players to shop around for agents, said John Williams, director of the Centre for the Sociology of Sport at Leicester University. Many blame the clubs themselves for encouraging a climate in which the agents prosper. "I can't believe how some clubs have failed to regulate these deals - aren't they supposed to be businessmen?'' said one agent, who asked to remain anonymous.

Jon Holmes is pessimistic about whether reform will come about: "We need much tighter regulation by the Football Association and if they will not act - and I am not sure whether they will do so with sufficient vigour - then the Government must do something. And I can understand why highly paid players need agents, but why clubs need them is beyond me.''

But Alan Keen, chairman of the MPs group, believes it is down to some of the clubs themselves to take action. "I don't think it's the job of the Government to legislate, it's the job of the Football Association.'' He added: "It's been swept under the carpet for too long, the public are getting pretty disgusted by all this.''

For its part, the Football Association said it is still drawing up new guidelines on greater disclosure over financial details which it hoped to have ready for the start of next season - guidelines, which, it has been speculated, have been delayed due to opposition from some clubs. Mr Williams said that despite their public moans, most of the clubs enjoy working with agents: "It is a culture they know and agents use a way of working that most clubs instinctively identity with and understand. The top clubs and the best managers will always ... look out for the marginal advantages that the very existence of agents tends to offer.'' Agents also did a lot of things managers were unable to do, such as vetting and recommending players.

A TALE OF TWO TRANSFERS

ALAN SMITH

Total transfer fee paid by Manchester United: £7.05m

Total payable to Leeds United: £6m

Agent's cut: £750,000

Premier League levy: £300,000

The transfer was controversial only because it involved a home-grown Leeds footballer moving to the club's bitter rivals across the Pennines. Otherwise it was a model of transparency. Smith was said to have been tearful at his club's relegation and waived his signing-on fee, which is usually 10 per cent of the transfer, giving Leeds most of United's money. At more than 10 per cent of the total, the cut taken by Smith's agent, Alex Black, is relatively high. The norm is around seven to eight per cent.

JAAP STAM

Total transfer fee paid by Lazio: £16.5m

Total payable to Manchester United: £5.3m (approx)

Still owing to Manchester United: £10m plus interest

Agent's cut: £1.2m divided three ways

Stam was sold in August 2001, to recoup part of the £28.1m United had just paid Lazio for Juan Sebastian Veron. United's chief executive at the time, Peter Kenyon, used two agents: Mike Morris, who has close links with Jason Ferguson's Elite agency, and Bruno Pasquale, an unregistered Italian agent. Elite invoiced Lazio for work on the Stam transfer that Kenyon claimed did not take place. United received little of the fee, due to Lazio's financial problems.

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