Agents are soccer's most powerful people ⁠— but are they necessary?

Ryan Bailey
MADRID, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 15:  Crsitiano Ronaldo (R) speaks with his agent Jorge Mendes (R) after his signing contract renewal For Real Madrid at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on September 15, 2013 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
Cristiano Ronaldo's career has been overseen by super agent Jorge Mendes. (Getty)

On Wednesday, one of the biggest transfer sagas of the summer appeared to reach its conclusion, as Matthijs de Ligt arrived at Juventus’ training center for a medical.

Fans at the Vinivo lined the gates around the parking lot to catch a glimpse of the young Dutch defender … and then proceeded to do something unexpected. They chanted the name of a paunchy middle-aged man making his way to his car, with the same excitement and fervor usually reserved for highly anticipated new player arrivals.

That paunchy middle-aged man was Mino Raiola, the agent who looks after the affairs of de Ligt:

If you thought that players, managers or owners were the true kingmakers of modern soccer, think again.

For the manner in which Raiola has brought players to Juventus — and earned them a world-record $111 million for the sale of his client Paul Pogba — the Italian “super agent” has earned the adoration of the Juve faithful. They chant his name, while conveniently overlooking the fact that he will make another hefty commission when he moves de Ligt away from Turin in a season or two.

As Raiola crossed the parking lot, the fans also shouted, “Bring back Pogba!” That will be music to the outspoken Italian’s ears, as he made a staggering $51 million when Pogba was sold to Manchester United, a $28.6 million slice of the transfer fee and a further $20.41 million for each of the five years of Pogba’s contract, per The Telegraph.

The agent fee was so high that FIFA launched an investigation into it. In June, Raiola was banned from soccer activity for three months for undisclosed reasons, which would have restricted his ability to negotiate a deal for de Ligt had he not used his influence to have the ban rescinded.

Super agents like Raiola and Jorge Mendes (who looks after the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, David De Gea, Jose Mourinho and Diego Costa) effectively control the flow of premium talent between top clubs. There is almost certainly a connection between Wolverhampton Wanderers’ rise to Premier League stability and their relationship with Mendes. Equally, the spat between Raiola and Pep Guardiola — which started when the Catalan did not utilize Zlatan Ibrahimovic to the desired extent — may be the reason de Ligt hasn’t started house hunting in Manchester.

For their ability to act as a middle man between players and clubs, agents are paid like Premier League superstars. According to Forbes, Mendes’ company, Gestifute International, made $100.5 million last year from commissions, while Raiola hauled in a cool $62.9 million.

Agents typically take between 10 and 12 percent commission on a sale, and they also take a cut from player endorsement contracts. This flow of cash toward agents represents a significant proportion of the spending of the world’s biggest clubs.

TURIN, ITALY - JULY 17: Agent Mino Raiola accompanies Matthijs De Ligt as he arrives in Turin ahead of his signing with Juventus FC on July 17, 2019 in Turin, Italy. (Photo by Stefano Guidi/Getty Images)
Mino Raiola is the man behind Matthijs de Ligt's move to Juventus, and he is not alone in his influence. (Getty)

The English Football Association publishes the fees paid to all registered intermediaries, and the figures for the year ending Jan. 31 show that agents were paid over $323 million by Premier League clubs. Liverpool was the biggest spender, shelling out $54.5 million during a year when it paid record fees for Naby Keita, Virgil van Dijk and Alisson Becker.

The Reds would need to sell nearly 64,000 of their cheapest adult season tickets to cover those fees alone.

And it’s not just the big transfer spenders who suffer agents’ fees. Tottenham shelled out $13.8 million this past year when they didn’t buy a single player.

In a world where the majority of soccer clubs operate in debt and fans pay increasingly high prices for tickets, TV subscriptions and merchandise, it is troubling for the intermediaries to take such a big slice of the pie.

But in an industry where players are increasingly savvy — and agents in other business sectors, such as travel, are being phased out by tech-literate consumers — why do players and clubs need a third party to help them do business? What does an agent actually do?

Essentially, an agent is a good communicator with a tenacity that ensures he or she will get the best possible deal for his or her client. Additionally, agents will also oversee endorsement deals and control their clients’ media appearances. Often, the agent will control negative news stories or aim to bump up the value of a player by feeding stories to journalists.

Clubs take a dim view of agents due to their ability to negotiate higher transfer fees, and their propensity to encourage promising players to move on to another club. Players, meanwhile, will see agents as guardians who help them earn more money. (Crucially, it is the clubs who pay agents’ fees, not the players themselves.)

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While very few players represent themselves in transfer deals, it is not uncommon for the parents of young players to manage their careers. In fact, three of the biggest superstars in the game have eschewed super agents by employing their respective fathers: Lionel Messi, Neymar and Eden Hazard.

But the evidence suggests that employing one’s father as an agent can have mixed results. Messi has enjoyed the stability of staying at Barcelona for his entire career, while negotiating a salary to make him the best-paid player in the world. Neymar’s father oversaw his son’s world-record $249 million move to Paris Saint-Germain, and has made a reported $130 million in commissions.

Neymar Sr., however, has experienced some legal troubles with his dealings, and has arguably favored lucrative deals at the expense of his son’s career — it is clear the superstar forward is not happy at PSG. And although Eden Hazard has earned his dream move to Real Madrid, it took many years longer than expected. If he had an unscrupulous super agent looking after him, instead of his father, Thierry, he may have made his move a lot sooner, and with better terms.

On balance, it appears that agents are a necessary evil in the world of soccer, but the Wild West in which they operate may soon be a thing of the past. Currently, agents (who require zero qualifications and must only register with relevant football associations for a small fee) have no limit to the amount they can earn from a transfer. FIFA is reportedly working on reforms that would require licensing and potentially impose a cap on the amount that an agent can make from a sale. The salad days of the super agent may be numbered.

For now, however, Raiola and his ilk will continue to have their names chanted by fans who have come to realize the tremendous influence they hold.

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