An eye-opener – life on the fringe of the football industry

AFTER a long career in finance, working for major, highly-regulated institutions, coming across many of the companies in the football industry has been something of a reality check.

For three years, I have combined my successful financial writing career with my freelance football activities, which date back to the late 1980s. For most of my working life, I was involved in an environment that was disciplined, well-run, had reasonable levels of accountability and, effectively, you worked long hours and were well paid. As a writer, I could not have earned anything remotely close to my salary from a media company. My entry into the football industry has been an eye-opener in many ways, and it just doesn’t stop at the financial contrasts between finance and football.

At the highest level, there’s not a lot of difference between footballers and investment bankers. You could argue that both are overpaid, both are extremely focused on achieving and both depend on results. As we saw during the economic crisis, finance can bend rules, act irresponsibly and be fanatical about making money, often forgetting any ethics.

Footballers – and bankers in a different way – are prime examples of conspicuous consumerism, witness weddings on thrones, huge cars and houses, tasteless demonstrations of wealth. While footballers, generally, are from humble backgrounds, most bankers are well educated at some of the world’s top universities and their talent, if that is the right word, extends beyond making money in capital markets.

But what I have discovered in the football industry is that there is a lack of scruples, financial discipline and a culture of ignoring responsibility. Such as paying bills.

Football has become a vast industry, with many intermediaries and operators earning a crust, from player agents to events management, number crunching, data analysis and the stadium development sector. It’s a little like the elephant or rhino with small birds feeding off the hide of the beast. An eco-system that has many, many creatures pecking away for money. You could say my own activities fall within that category, although freelance football writing is only part of my portfolio, I am not reliant on it as my sole source of income.

I have family members who are self-employed builders and plumbers. They have told me, for some years, of the struggle to get paid by people who gladly welcome them to construct an extension or refit a bathroom but then refuse to pay or delay payment for months and months. Sometimes, it ends in court or is settled after negotiation.

I have found a similar situation exists for the freelance writer, although it is interesting that there is a differentiation between the type of client. Any firm that is regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority, or other professional bodies, always pays within a strict timeline and there is never any problem. Unregulated firms, or those that are loosely regulated, often sit on their cash or ignore your invoice for some period of time. The sums involved, independently, are relatively small, but when added up, they represent a significant sum of the percentage of my freelance earnings.

Now, I am not losing too much sleep over this, but I find it extremely annoying that a client is basically abusing my trust and also ignoring the “little man”. I have tentatively sought legal advice, but I know – and the client knows  – that I am unlikely to take any drastic action. However, the football industry is an incestuous world and everyone seems to know everyone else. Reputational damage can be a difficult thing to shake off and those clients that are lacking in transparency will, ultimately find that trust is eroded and, to be blunt, they acquire a bad name.

So what do I do? I am grateful that most of my clients, especially those that operate properly and under strict regulation, are decent, responsive and appreciative. That’s where my focus will be going forward.

Instant gratification rules in the big-time

AS if we didn’t know it, recent analysis by CIES Football Observatory has revealed that major football clubs are geared towards short-termism.

Across 31 European leagues under consideration, the percentage of club-trained players fell from 23.2% in 2009 to 16.9% in 2018. Southern Europe (12.8%) and Western Europe (15.7%) show the lowest number of players developed at home, while Northern Europe (21.9%) is at the top of the list.

Among the “big five” leagues, Serie A has a worryingly low 9% of club-trained players. Premier League and France’s Ligue 1 are next with 22.7%.

The Premier League has the highest percentage of “migrant” players, with an astonishing 59%, underlining the global nature of the league, both in terms of ownership and spectator appeal, as much as the financial clout of the English league. It is debatable if this situation will continue once the UK leaves the European Union. Italy has an expatriate percentage of 52.4%, while Germany has 46.2%.

CIES commented: “The evolution in the percentage of players having already migrated over the course of their career also allows us to account for the process of the internationalisation of the football players’ labour market. The proportion of footballers in this situation has increased from 46.4% in 2009 to a record level of 56.9% in 2018.”

CIES’ work reveals a number of very clear trends. The market has become very deterritorialised by a decreasing presence of club-trained players, a higher level of expat players and greater mobility. Therein lies the problem – clubs have a responsibility in their local market which is not necessarily being fulfilled.

CIES added: “In an increasingly segmented and speculative context, owners and executives tend to optimise financial returns on the transfer market to the detriment of more eminently sporting considerations. An increasing number of players consider their team as a mere stepping stone to more lucrative markets. Agents and their entourage also play a decisive role in this regard.”

CIES believes that this scenario creates instability that reduces the competitiveness of a growing number of clubs, tipping greater advantages towards the wealthiest clubs. In other words, as the market becomes more reliant on the transfer market, rather than the development of talent, those without resources cannot possibly compete.

The Blair pitch project…football agent

Was it a second hand car salesman? Or an estate agent? Or perhaps an off-duty member of the Bullingdon Club? No, it was Nicky Blair (no, he’s not a hairdresser, either), football agent extraordinaire.

As middle-men go, he actually looks quite normal and fairly decent, notwithstanding the debatable facial hair. But he’s not Nicholas or even Nick. He’s gone for the popularist “Nicky”, which will make himself sound more acceptable to footballers. If he changes the spelling to “Nikki” or something equally phonetic, he will gain even more street cred.

I wonder what Mr and Mrs Blair think? They must have been as surprised as everyone else. All that public school and Oxford education and he becomes one of a species that many people consider to be the equivalent of the small animals feeding off the back of elephants and rhinos. I am sure he will be a wealthy small animal – actually, he must be already after his Mexican transaction last week.

It would be nice to think that young Blair will bring “ethical agency” to a role that has always raised suspicion and mistrust – with his surname, surely he cannot afford to do otherwise? We live in the age of intermediation. Whole economies are based on “everyone taking their slice” in a game of buying and selling. The football agent is part of that process and they are rarely the friends of clubs – just look at some of the media manipulation that goes on when a top player wants a move. Incredibly, some non-league footballers claim to have agents, though for the life of me, I can’t think why.

So what do you need to be a football agent? I always thought that you needed to be born with a mobile phone glued to the ear, possess a  big watch ( “says more about a man than anything else” – I was told), smoked glass windows on your BMW, maybe some overpowering aftershave, perhaps an ASBO-wielding “attack dog”, and an over-bearing in-car hi-fi system. That’s one characature, the other is of the smooth, well-tailored, well-connected, silky-tongued salesman who would not look out of place skulking the streets of St.James’. I was once mistaken for an agent in Copenhagen when two extras from Eastenders were talking to Brondby’s Marc Reiper and assumed I was also from their “profession”.

Invariably the more urban agent will have a name that suggests machismo or edginess – Axel or Troy, perhaps. The second will try and create the impression they have corporate respectability –but if they have associates in the title, you can bet your 10% skim-off they undoubtedly work alone.

In the past it has been easy to say you are an agent – I’ve seen baggy tracksuit-bottomed chancers claim to be a “football agent” when really  they are  blokes with mates who can play football and they want to share in their [limited] future. It’s a bit different today, if you want to be legit.

I made some enquiries about becoming a football agent. I don’t have a Wagnerian watch or smoky windows on my car, and I certainly don’t have a pitbull, but I can pass for a Jermyn Street regular on a dark night, so I’ve got a chance. “George Fjord Associates”, perhaps bringing Scandinavians to the Premier, or maybe “The Well Tasty Player Agency” tapping into potential-rich Moldovan talent.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as a “FIFA Players’ Agent”, the licenses are handed out by each country’s association. There are almost 500 registered to England, only Germany comes near to that total.

There’s good news, though. The Football Association is making it harder for would-be “best friends” to get through the examination. They now need 95% to pass – well, for Christ’s sake, we are talking multiple choice questions.

Not for one moment do I think all agents are bad, but it would be nice to think there’s room for the Jerry Maguire approach to sports management. If I ever get my 95%, I will be taking a leaf out of Tom Cruise’s book. In the meantime, I’m scouring eBay for a chunky watch…I may have to ask my agent for advice.