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The Devil You Know: Evolution of the Football Agent

Eric Hall, archetype of the 1980s wheeler-dealer football agent.

No doubt the clearest way to understand the esoteric world of football agents is to look at the deals that define them. 

In 2010, a Portugese footballer named Bébé arrived on the doorstep of Old Trafford. He had come at a price of 9m from Vitória de Guimarães, just five weeks after he had signed for them. His new owner, Sir Alex Ferguson, had never seen him play. He would eventually: only twice, for the first team. He did not impress. Speaking to Marca, Bébé later said “I had a contract with a termination clause of €9m and within two days there was a team that wanted to pay it. And I went to Manchester. I thought they were joking.”

The man behind the deal was Jorge Mendes. A former footballer himself, he had struggled to find a club to offer him a permanent contract, eventually giving up in his early twenties. He instead found work as a DJ, opening a bar and a video shop in Caminha, a municipality in northern Portugal. There, in 1996, he happened to meet Nuno Espírito Santo, goalkeeper for Vitória Guimarães – the same club that Mendes would eventually pluck Bébé from 14 years later. Nuno would be Mendes’ first movement in the agency business, and far from his last.

Jorge Mendes, looking as much like a football agent as humanly possible.

Mendes’ ascent marked the rise of the football ‘super-agent’. On his books now are the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, James Rodriguez and Jose Mourinho. At the time of the Bébé transfer he also represented Carlos Quieroz – Portugal’s then national coach - who’s recommendation of the young player to Ferguson reportedly played a large part in his move.

These faintly shady dealings are hallmarks of a world that is dominated and defined to us by a web of stakeholders all with their own rogue agendas. Looking in, it is impossible to know what and who to trust. Allegations of bungs and last minute swoops on rival agent’s deals, the near-universal use of tax-havens, unscrupulous third-party player ownership and the exploitation of young players are all endemic to what is an extremely murky environment. Just as football has always moved with the economic zeitgeist so, in turn, has the explosion of super-agents like Jorge Mendes, Mini Raiola and Pini Zahavi run parallel with the pay-TV fuelled hyper-inflation of the game itself.

The game's background characters have become the chess-masters, with the players reduced to pawns.

Would Ashley Cole have been what he was without Jonathon Barnett tapping him up? Who was really responsible for Wayne Rooney's seemingly unprompted hesitation to stay at Manchester United: the player himself, or Paul Stretford - the man who Ferguson diplomatically described as "unpopular" in Manchester? Does Carlos Tevez have the itchiest feet in world football or does it merely suit Kia Joorabchian's needs that he moves as much as possible?

In light of the trickery of this opaque world it would seem extremely unwise to deregulate it. Regardless, that is what FIFA have done. From April 1st, FIFA is no longer responsible for the licensing of practicing football agents, transferring the responsibility instead to the individual FAs of each footballing nation. Alongside the deregulation comes further ‘suggestions’, such as the capping of agent’s fees at 3% of the overall transfer value, the prohibition of fees of any kind on players below the age of 18 and the renaming of agents to ‘intermediaries’.

Mel Stein, head of the AFA.

The move has been met with wide-spread criticism. Mel Stein, head of the Association of Football Agents, has said that the changes will mean “a return to the ‘wild west’” before regulation – though the veiled suggestion that the current system is a utopia is a little hard to swallow. More convincing, however, is his belief that already dubious deals will instead be forced further underground: “They’re saying you can’t make a charge for a professional player unless he’s 18. So that means whoever did Raheem Sterling’s deal could not have charged. What will happen is they won’t charge anything, they’ll go to the club and say: ‘You give us a scouting agreement for £1m a year”.

Former FA chief executive Mark Palios joined Stein in his condemnation, describing the reforms as “half-cooked” and saying that "this is, again, FIFA trying to fix something that's a worldwide problem … It's a case of 'one-size fits all' that doesn't actually fit at all in terms of this country."

What the real outcome will be, only time will tell. As a football fan, it is impossible to know who to trust. Or more accurately, who to distrust more: FIFA, the FA, or the agents themselves.