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Agents of change

3/12/2014
Deadline Day sees a scrum of fans and reporters outside the clubs in England for all the latest updates. 

February is a month of relief. Transfer madness is done, a certain TV station gets to rest its yellow "breaking news" ticker and those in the game can concentrate on actual football again.

For the football agent, however, it continues to be business as usual. Future deals are always being worked on. In any case, the professional life of an agent is not wholly concentrated on transfer business; player welfare and sponsorship opportunities are just two other areas that need attention. In fact, DEADLINE DAY, to give the full capitalised title, is something of an illusion.

Carrie Baird -- a FIFA-licensed football agent working out of Amsterdam, with clients in the U.K., USA, Australia, Netherlands and in South America -- usually watches on in amazement at the late-night media frenzy.

“It’s hilarious,” she tells ESPN FC. “Agents, clubs, whatever, they are not doing what people think they are doing. It’s just not how it works. Most of the time the deal has already happened, and it just won’t have been announced. This whole ‘deadline day’ of hanging around the phones and computers, only the media are doing that, not agents or club executives.”

Sometimes things do happen, as Liverpool chief exec Ian Ayre flew out to try to sign winger Yehven Konoplyanka from Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk by this January's deadline. But the deal fell through.

“Sure, you can pick up one or two deals, but I don’t know what Liverpool were doing out in Ukraine for two, three days, for example,” she says. “Who flies out there three days before the deadline? You are not supposed to let it get to that point. You should never get to the stage where you are meeting each other in the last few days for the first time.”

Deadline Day is really a big noise only in the U.K.; European clubs are far more circumspect. The groundwork is done at other times in Germany or the Netherlands for instance.

“People like me work the whole year round,” adds Baird. “It’s natural that there is going to be interest in what player is moving where and in the psychology of a deal, but deals don’t only have to happen during the windows. I guess that single day is representative of that for many people, but it just doesn’t make sense to agents and guys at clubs.”

FIFA published a report earlier this month to spell out transfer trends during the period from June 1, 2013, to Jan. 31, 2014. It will come as little surprise that England remains the prime destination, with finance being the key driver for that.

“England is by far the biggest net spender in the international market,” says FIFA’s release. “And the only country with several clubs still signing numerous footballers priced at the top end of the market.”

But it is hard work. “Selling players in England is quite gruelling,” Baird says. “You are working with big budgets, which is nice, but the clubs are run by administrators. The coach usually passes you on to someone else. In transfers, you don’t want too many people involved or too many delays. Deals don’t get done, because another club comes in or, in South America, another agent comes in.”

Brazil has always been the world’s prime exporter of talent, but England is now an ever more frequent destination for Brazilian players. Baird suggests that it has taken a switch in attitudes from both clubs and players to effect such a change.

“I think for anyone, England is the pinnacle, the region guys want to play in,” she says. “Clubs in the past were too nervous to accept a Brazilian or South American, and those players haven’t got any more talented so something’s changed. Economics have changed that, and it’s more lucrative for these clubs to invest -- not just on the pitch, but for a brand. Chelsea have targeted an area and followed a particular strategy there.”

Indeed, players like Oscar and David Luiz have opened up new marketing and sponsorship opportunities that can take advantage of Brazil’s expanding economy. That makes them less of a risk, as does a fresh professionalism from Brazilian players.

“England have revolutionised their recruiting,” Baird continues. “It used to be dominated by the Scandinavians, now it’s a Latino market. The players have the quality to succeed on the European stage. I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to have a strategic idea where the whole of the globe switches on to you.

“The most important thing is the attitude of the players. Players now know that talent alone is not enough. Their behaviour is so very important. If you look at the Brazilians in particular, that’s what’s changed. You can’t be Ronaldinho anymore, out until 3 a.m.” (At Barcelona, Ronaldinho stopped being the world’s best player once partying outstripped his playing exploits.)

A further complication of dealing with transfers from countries like Brazil is a high proliferation of third-party ownership, which FIFA is currently reviewing after heavy duress from the English Premier League and UEFA. It is common for investors to pay for a share of a player’s “economic rights” and then profit when he is sold on elsewhere. It allows clubs to contract players previously not affordable to them, and generate short-term funds. The unravelling of such an arrangement has led to the Neymar fiasco that has cost Barca more than 100 million euros and club president Sandro Rosell his job.

The frequent accusation is of a conflict of interest, and, to place it in Roy Keane’s famous terms, players being treated like “pieces of meat.” International players union FIFPro is leading a sustained attack on third parties, as well as agents themselves as part of a transfer system the union thinks is wracked by inequality.

FIFPro claims 28 percent of all the money from transfer fees ends up in the pockets of agents. "The transfer system fails 99 percent of players around the world, it fails football as an industry and it fails the world's most beloved game,” said the organisation’s president Philippe Piat in December.

Baird says that agents below the “super-agent level” of Mino Raiola, who represents Zlatan Ibrahimovic, or Jorge Mendes, Cristiano Ronaldo’s adviser, are not putting away cash by the million, and has concerns over what might replace the agency system should FIFPro have its way. Refuting the notion that football agents are a pox on the game, in her view, good, responsible agents are the engine of today’s globalised market.

“OK, they don’t like them, but what else is there?” she says. “There are many dodgy agents out there and, unfortunately, a lot of them get away with it. Players’ careers do get ruined but, honestly, they really don’t prevail overall.”