Risky business: Football’s middle men eye rich pickings in transfer window

Story highlights

Football's January transfer window opened on New Year's day in Europe

Window reveals tensions between clubs, players and their agents

As few as 25-30% of international transfers are concluded using licensed agents

World governing body FIFA receives 3,500 complaints a year relating to transfers

CNN  — 

It’s not just clothes, shoes, sofas and other household goods that are on sale right now – plenty of footballers are up for grabs as well.

The January transfer window opened on New Year’s day in Europe – 31 days of opportunity for clubs, be they title chasing or relegation haunted, to reinvent their season.

A window of opportunity for players to seek pastures new. A window of opportunity for fans to dream afresh. And a window of opportunity for agents and lawyers – football’s middle men – to secure their cut from these transfers.

The biggest deal so far was actually arranged during the previous transfer window, in August. Brazil international Lucas Moura has now signed a four-and-a-half-year contract to join big-spending French club Paris St. Germain from Sao Paulo in a transfer worth an initial $52.8 million, with up to $6.6m in bonuses.

File under bargain

Within hours of this window opening, struggling English Premier League club Reading confirmed the signing of Sporting Lisbon captain Daniel Carrico.

The 24-year-old former Portugal Under-21 defender has signed an initial two-and-a-half-year contract, with the option of a further year, after Reading paid $990,000 for him. By all accounts Reading have snagged a bargain.

Over in Italy, Inter Milan’s Wesley Sneijder, who has not played for the Serie A club since September – partly due to injury, partly due to a dispute over his contract – is another player likely to move during the January window.

Read: Inter star Sneijder dropped in pay dispute

The 28-year-old is one of football’s highest-paid players, but he has struggled to regain the heights of 2010 when he helped the Netherlands reach the World Cup final after a treble-winning season with Inter, who are keen to reduce their wage bill.

Speculation also surrounds the playing futures of a host of other players, including the likes of Barcelona striker David Villa and midfielder Frank Lampard of Chelsea.

” I think it’ll be reasonably quiet in continental Europe, but I can see a few high profile moves happening in England,” Monaco chief executive Tor-Kristian Karlsen told CNN.

“In the English Premier League the stakes are so high as regards to television money that in certain scenarios it does actually make sense to spend relatively heavily in an effort to secure an objective, be it a higher table position or staying up.”

Buyer beware

Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson has called the January transfer window “the silly season”.

That is because clubs are loathe to sell their best players midway through the season and if they do more often than not will slap a premium on the departing star, just as Liverpool did when they sold Fernando Torres to Chelsea for $80m in 2011, with the Anfield club subsequently paying Newcastle $57m for Andy Carroll.

Those two transfers perhaps best demonstrate the danger of buying in January, with Torres only just starting to recapture the form he showed at Liverpool, while Carroll is now on loan at West Ham.

It is not just the transfer fee and the players’ wages that clubs also have to take into consideration when they sign a star – there is also the cost incurred by employing the agents who oil the wheels of every transfer deal.

Between October 1, 2011 and September 30, 2012, English Premier League clubs spent over $123 million on fees to agents, who fill a dual role – sometimes working for clubs, while also representing players.

Read: English Premier League’s hidden costs revealed

It is a competitive business. In England there are 493 licensed agents, Italy has 937, Spain has 559, while Brazil has 291, according to the FIFA website.

“There are too many agents chasing too few players of commercial potential which leads to a ruthless, cut-throat industry,” wrote lawyer and agent Mel Stein recently, estimating that there is a ratio of one agent for every six professional players in England.

Even before the window had opened Newcastle found themselves at the sharp end of that “cut-throat industry” as Chelsea expressed an interest in signing Magpies striker Demba Ba.

Representatives of the Senegal international, who has an $11.3m release clause in his Newcastle contract, held talks with Chelsea on Sunday, which were described as unproductive.

Yet by Wednesday Chelsea had triggered the release clause in Ba’s contract and Newcastle finally gave the 27-year-old permission to speak to the European Champions League holders.

The role of Ba’s representatives – according to UK media reports his agents want to share fees of $3.25m – has irked Newcastle manager Alan Pardew.

“In some respects I feel a little bit sorry for Demba,” said Pardew.

“There are people out there fueling this who are not actually involved or want to be involved and that’s the sort of world that we are in.”

Ba’s official agent is Alexandre Gontran. CNN was unable to reach him via phone or email, but another source close to the negotiations dismissed the 27-year-old forward’s reported demand for a signing on fee of £2m ($3.25m) and a weekly wage of £100,000 ($163,000) as “ludicrous.”

“When I negotiate a transfer I try to do a deal where everybody comes out a winner – the selling and buying club, the player and the agent,” added the source, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of such negotiations.

However, the regulation of agents is proving cause for concern for world governing body FIFA.

With as few as 25-30% of international transfers concluded using licensed agents, FIFA wants to ditch the system for regulating them.

“A possible new approach could be to regulate the conduct of clubs and players, and extend the scope of the regulations to include all kinds of intermediaries,” FIFA said in November.

“In other words, the regulations would stop attempting to regulate access to the activity, and instead control the activity itself.

“Players and clubs could choose any parties as intermediaries, but would have to meet certain criteria and respect certain principles. This approach would also result in the annulment of the current licensing system.”

Read: Using Facebook to bounty-hunt football’s ‘disappeared’ players

But FIFA’s hopes of reforming the agents’ regulations have met opposition from a number of leading football associations, and for the time being the idea of deregulation has been kicked into the long grass.

Not that the agents are particularly happy with how the current system works, with one describing it as a “joke.”

“I belong to a generation of agents that had to make a deposit of $219,000 to get the license,” said Brazilian agent Paulo Teixeira.

“I got mine in 1997 as co-founder of the Associaçao Brasileira Agentes FIFA. There were only seven of us and we were called ‘the Golden Seven.’

“Then the deposit was dropped, replaced by an insurance scheme, which had to be done in every country. The FIFA agent concept disappeared then, and licenses had to be issued by every association.

“If you want a license, I can show you the way to get one for a maximum of $6,600.”

Administrative backlog

Where huge sums of money are involved, disputes invariably follow, thereby providing an administrative headache for FIFA, which has to deal with 3,500 complaints a year relating to transfers.

One French agent, Malick Coulibaly, who is still waiting for a decision over a complaint he filed to FIFA in September 2010 over a transfer, is so fed up with the backlog that he is trying organize a petition among agents to bring about reform of the system.

“A lot of agents or players called me to tell me about their problem with too long a delay. There is a one-session trial per month, which is incredible for the number of cases,” he said.

“These delays break careers of players and lead to a lot of collapses of business for agents because many of them don’t pursue litigation.”

A FIFA spokesman said that type of delay was “very unusual from the cases I’ve had to help provide answers to in the past.”

The more you delve into the world of transfers the riskier business it appears. If buyers should beware of rushing to find a bargain in the January sales, agents and players might also proceed with caution.