When it comes to getting tough on agents, FIFA has been here before.
More than a decade ago, it introduced a strict set of regulations designed to bring order to what was seen, even in 2008, an industry out of control.
It’s fair to say that the complex rules and strict entry requirements failed to gain traction; three years after its introduction, less than a third of all transfers used agents authorized by FIFA.
The result was an embarrassing descent.
FIFA softened its approach in 2015, swapping the licensing system for a minimal set of standards.
But six years later, soccer’s governing body is back on the warpath. It is cracking down on middlemen with stricter regulations.
According to Gareth Bale’s agent, Jonathan Barnett, they run the risk of making the same mistakes as the first time.
One thing that bothered Barnett is that FIFA did not consult widely with the people it affects; agents.
“I am opposed to people who don’t know what they’re talking about telling me what to do,” Barnett tells me.
Barnett is the president and founder of ICM Stellar Sports, arguably the leading soccer agency; His impressive list of clients includes Mason Mount, Jack Grealish, Saul Niguez, and Ben Chilwell.
However, the governing body did not call him or any of its competing agencies before embarking on a set of rules.
“We understand that there have to be rules and regulations. I have no problem with that, but we have to be part of [them],” he adds.
‘In the interest of the player’
Another aspect of the FIFA rules that Barnett disputes is the idea that governing body regulations are beneficial to players.
He believes that his actions constantly show contempt for those who play the game.
“If you look at the Super League, the first thing that came out with FIFA was’ we’re going to ban the players. Well, that is not looking after the interests of the player.
“If you ask footballers from all over the world? Who do you prefer to represent you? My agent or FIFA? I think [they’d choose us]. “
Barnett spoke to me as vice president of The Football Forum (TFF), an alternative international association of soccer players and agents.
The organization, which is made up of the world’s leading intermediaries, such as Jorge Mendes and Mino Raiola, wants to develop a set of standards and best practices, like FIFA, but driven by the representatives themselves.
An easy target
Barnett believes that FIFA is going after agents because they are easy targets; it’s a way for a governing body that is no stranger to bad publicity to get some positive headlines.
“We have something in England; we like to hit people [and agents] they are easy to hit. They say we are taking money out of the game, but we are not in the game. I’m not on any council for [soccer]. My job is to represent the players. And if I didn’t do it well, my player wouldn’t have me as an agent. “
The most substantial change that FIFA wants to introduce is a cap on the commissions that agents can earn.
The previous regulations established soft limits that were left to the discretion of the different associations, the new set of rules establishes the following hard covers:
- An agent acting to sell club: 10% of the transfer fee.
- An agent acting to buy a club: 3% of the player’s salary.
- An agent acting on behalf of the player: 3% of the player’s salary.
- An agent acting for both the player and the buying club: 6% of the player’s salary.
But Barnett fiercely opposes any form of cap on what an agent should be able to earn.
“I am against the limitation in any way. I think it is wrong. I think it goes against all the principles of the law and everything else,” he tells me.
The impact of caps is difficult to predict, but there is a good chance it will favor larger agencies that can work to achieve economies of scale and attract top talent before they are demanding higher fees with a hefty commission.
This would be to the detriment of both smaller agents and lower league clubs where fees are lower.
It would also incentivize agents to move their clients more frequently because they would need twice as many transfers to earn the same amount of money as they do now.
At the elite level, inflation is unlikely to be limited to transfers, often attributed to agents, for the same reason.
As Barnett points out, the cash will simply go into someone else’s pocket.
‘Other ways to do it’
A cap system also raises the possibility of unofficial payments and nefarious practices being used to grease the wheels.
“It will start to get people to look for other ways that they can do it. [make money]. So it’s a dangerous line to go down, ”adds Barnett.
Barnett’s ace up his sleeve is the group that is almost always forgotten when existential discussions about soccer take place: the players.
He believes they will back their representatives if FIFA tries to impose a burdensome new regime on them.
“The players will not tolerate it,” he says.
If FIFA ignores the players, Barnett and his friends at The Football Forum have lawyers ready around the world to fight the governing body in court.
FIFA has been contacted for comment.