“Friendship is constant in all other things Save in the office and affairs of love… Let every eye negotiate for itself And trust no agent,” Claudio, Act II, Scene 1, Much Ado About Nothing
William Shakespeare seldom got much wrong about life and how we live it. His comedies, his tragedies and his histories contained some fairly implausible scenarios and embellishments at times but the enduring value of his work lies in his ability to skewer all facets of the human character. What he taught us about ourselves remains as relevant today as it was when the first drafts flowed his quill.
The words he gave Claudio in Much Ado are a case in point. Given they didn’t have offices in Elizabethan times, Shakespeare was talking here about the conduct of a romantic relationship and how it’s best to woo the subject of your desire for yourself. But, had he been talking about the office as a 21st Century ear might hear it, his words could not have been truer either. To paraphrase Claudio in modern terms: “Friendship cannot be guaranteed when it comes to business… Do your own negotiating and don’t trust agents.”
That agents are perhaps not to be trusted is one conclusion reached in recent days by a report the European Clubs Association [ECA] commissioned on European clubs’ transfer activity. Guided by the former Internazionale chief executive, Ernesto Paolillo, who led the study on behalf of Università Cattaneo, and Emanuele Grasso of PwC, an accountancy firm, it covered 14,322 transfers between the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons.
But before delving deeper into one of its most important points – the involvement of agents in transfers – it is worth going over some of the background to the report. Currently the entire transfer system is the subject of a complaint before the European Court of Justice, lodged by the global confederation of players’ unions, FIFpro. The court has yet to recognise its validity but there is a chance the outcome could shake up the status quo as fundamentally as did the Bosman ruling in 1995.
As such the ECA-commissioned study is akin to a skeleton argument its lawyers might present in favour of the current system. That much is clear from the commentary in its foreword: “While different positions exist, the European Club Association (ECA), as the sole representative body of football clubs in Europe, believes that those outlined to-date have not been presented in a manner that can truly be described as objective.
“Discussions focusing on the transfer system are often led by individual opinions and personal experiences with little focus on detailed financial and data-based analysis.”
In other words: have at you, FIFPro. But whatever your view on the incipient conflict between players and their employers, the ECA report provides a fascinating anatomy of what was a $5.147 billion transfer ecosystem over the period. Given the report runs to 130 pages, there are far too many data to run through them all here but one or two kernels give a very good insight into the money sloshing around in transfers involving European clubs.
Over the two years the five best-place-finishing clubs in the “big five” leagues (the top divisions in England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain) exchanged €1.435 billion in cross-border transfers between themselves. That is to say the internal market among those 25 clubs alone was worth 27.9% of the entire international transfer market among all UEFA leagues.
The report did not count internal transfers between clubs within each respective league but what it did show was that the Premier League was by the far biggest net spender on players not already employed by its 20 member clubs. The chart below demonstrates the net transfer expenditure in €m of the ‘big five’ leagues, that is to say how much more money they spent with clubs in leagues other than their own. And it is very clear how England’s external investment dwarfs the rest.
So anyone providing a service to assist in all this cross-border deal making stands to make a very good chunk of money. It is not an easy business to get into – of the 14,322 transfers overall, only 865 (6%) involved agents employed by clubs. But those who enter this exclusive industry sector enjoy a very lucrative trade indeed.
“Over the 2-year review period, club-agent commissions totalled $254 million, representing 14.6% of the value of the 865 [international] transfers with which they were involved,” the report found.
That means agents engaged by clubs earned on average $293,641.62 per deal they were involved in. Almost four-fifths of these commissions were paid by clubs in England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia and Turkey, with the total from those nine countries worth $197 million. This, quite obviously, is nice work if you can get it. The report went on to explain how the transfers involving club agents were worth $1.74 billion overall. The $254 million paid out to the agents therefore represented 14.6% of the sum expended on signing the players involved.
Indeed, the earning opportunities for agents are not limited to what they can earn from transfers. Representatives of the best-paid players can also earn tremendous sums from their clients’ contracts. “Given that the fees paid to players’ agents were not included within the analysis,” the report reads, “it is evident that agents are receiving a considerable portion of the transfer fees paid by clubs.”
It is probably encouraging, then, that the report urges clubs to take a good look at why and how they use agents in club-to-club deal-making. “Both their role and levels of compensation need to be reviewed and monitored carefully,” the report recommended, entirely sensibly.
Since the senior representatives of the ECA clubs were all in the same room together at the delivery of this report in Barcelona last week, the question naturally arises: if you want to trade with each other why not just exchange business cards and pick up the phone to chat about it? In this as in so many things it pays to listen to Shakespeare: let every eye negotiate for itself, and trust no agent.
Journalist and broadcaster Matt Scott wrote the Digger column for The Guardian newspaper for five years and is now a columnist for Insideworldfootball. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.