Sala deal highlights problems of regulating player representatives

The chaos that has followed the tragic death of Emiliano Sala has shone an unflattering light on the murky dealings of player agents and reinforced calls to properly licence them.



Even though France has stricter rules governing agents than other leading Western European football nations, at least six intermediaries have been named in connection to Sala’s 17-million euro transfer from Nantes to Cardiff City in January.

Illustrating the problem of controlling who clubs and players choose to involve in negotiations, two of those thought to have had fingers in the Sala deal did not, in theory, have any authorisation to practise as agents.

FIFA is thinking about re-establishing licences, a spokesperson told AFP, having done away with them in 2015.

World football’s governing body has also said it is considering a “clearing house” to handle, among other things, the money involved in transfers, and a ceiling on the percentage an agent can take, a suggestion that has provoked heated opposition.

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Since 2015, federations in major European nations have tended to adopt a minimalist policy, with “intermediaries” having to declare transactions in a national register and meet certain professional standards. Spain also conducts an interview and a background check and asks agents to sign a code of conduct.

However, the French Football Federation (FFF) has maintained a licence system, with a reportedly difficult entrance exam. French agents complain that the system means they are like registered taxi drivers competing with Uber.

“All’s fair in the eyes of clubs trying to land a player and for the players who surround themselves with these pseudo-advisers,” Stephane Canard, of the Union of French Sports Agents, told AFP.

“As nobody says anything, the authorities do very little. For us, there are agents on one side, and on the other usurpers and imposters.”

– Keeping it in the family –
In the Sala case, the disappearance of the player led to an unsavoury argument over who was to blame and who was entitled to what from his transfer.

Attention quickly turned to Willie McKay, a Scot who lost his English Football Association licence in 2015 after the bankruptcy of his company. But he works with his son Mark, who is on the FA’s list of recognised intermediaries.

In football dealings, it is not unusual to keep business in the family. It is hard to argue that a player should not lean on a parent or a sibling in negotiations.

At the club Sala was joining, Cardiff, manager Neil Warnock has used the services of Unique Sports Management, a company that employs his son James Warnock, to handle player transfers. The FA has said it is now monitoring the situation which has brought complaints of a conflict of interest.

– ‘Factual complexity’ –
In France, despite the licencing system, unregistered agents find ways to get their hands on more than the maximum 10 percent commission.

“I’ve seen deals where an unauthorised foreign agent recovers the 10 percent via a French agent and takes another 300,000 euros ($337,000) with a trumped up ‘scouting’ contract,” one agent told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The FFF have a commission to supervise financial dealings but, said the anonymous agent, “they cannot control lawyers or foreign agents”.

In 2017, the FFF signalled to prosecutors doubts about Ousmane Dembele’s transfer from Rennes to Borussia Dortmund and the role of Moussa Sissoko — not to be confused with the Tottenham Hotspur player — who does not have a FFF licence but is registered with the FA.

He worked with Laurent Schmitt, who is licensed in France. Dembele has since moved to Barcelona, but Rennes prosecutors told AFP that they are still wrestling with “the factual complexity of the case.”

“I cannot talk about it because there is an investigation,” Schmitt told AFP. “I just think there was a lot of noise only because there were other agents who had been spurned at some point by the player.”