The career of a football player is like an iceberg: people only see the tip, a small part, the final glory, and the whole process that takes place until then is usually ignored.
A player’s career begins when the athlete is 10-12 years old. During the time between that age and the signature of his first professional contract, there’s a piece of the puzzle that is absolutely a must: the intermediary, also know as agent. This is the person who manages the athlete’s entire career, arranging try-outs, dealing with parents and other relatives, coaches, club executives etc. When they’re serious about their role, agents usually provide players with financial support, which can include footballing equiptment, items of daily use, and sometimes even food for, most commonly than not, children from underprivileged families.
When the athlete approaches maturity (for FIFA, 18 years old) clubs and players start to negotiate and draft the kid’s first professional contract. The intermediary is absolutely crucial at this point: normally, the player and his parents don’t possess any technical knowledge, experience or negotiating skills, and without the intermediary they can end up signing terrible deals, way below what the athlete expects or deserves. FIFA has a rule (Art 7(8) of the Regulations on Working with Intermediaries) which prohibits agents from getting paid for services rendered to minors. It’s a rule that’s usually present in national federations’ regulations as well, because of FIFA’s prohibition.
The participation of minors in official tournaments is allowed by FIFA, and, in most countries, the first professional contract may be signed before the age of 18. Here are some facts regarding the participation of minors in major tournaments:
- Youngest player to ever take part in a UEFA Champions League match: Céléstine Babayaro (16 years, 2 months and 25 days)
- Youngest player to ever take part in a Copa Libertadores match: Diego Suárez (14 years, 3 months and 25 days)
- Youngest player to ever take part in a AFC Champions League match: Min-ho Kim (15 years, 9 months and 26 days)
- Youngest player to ever take part in a World Cup Qualifiers match: Souleymane Mamam (13 years, 10 months and 10 days)
It’s pretty clear that FIFA has no problem with very young players competing (a 13-year old played a match for the World Cup Qualifiers!). If there’s no prohibition concerning the participation of minors in such tournaments, nor to the signature of deals with intermediaries by minors, isn’t it a little odd that the latter are not allowed to get paid for their work? Basically, FIFA is making intermediaries invest money and postpone the financial reward that may come with it. They’re allowed to work with minors, but not to get paid for it.
Would FIFA sanction agents breaking the rules?
David Manasseh was accused by the FA of trying to sign an underage player to his agency. He runs the Stellar Group, which represents global stars like Gareth Bale, Kieran Trippier, Luke Shaw and Jordan Pickford. FA Regulation B8 of The FA Regulations on Working with Intermediaries states that contracts between agents and players can only be signed from January 1 in the year of the player’s 16th birthday. Manasseh is alleged to have entered into a contract to represent an unnamed player who was under the age of 16. Manasseh denied the charge, but it was found proven at a hearing. An FA statement read:
“Registered intermediary David Manasseh has been suspended from all intermediary activity, commencing today (October 1, 2018) running up to and including December 31, 2018, and fined £50,000 for misconduct relating to intermediary activity.”
Yes, FIFA demonstrates a strong – and fair – concern about professional relations beginning too early in football. It is, indeed, something to be taken into account; if there were no rules clubs will probably sign professional contracts with 10 year old children. But, knowing that intermediaries are, in fact, working with minors (and they won’t – nor should they – stop), wouldn’t it be less problematic to regulate, instead of prohibit, payment for services?
A good idea would be to establish a limitation on the percentage of potential commission paid to the intermediaries, as a result of negotiating an athlete’s first professional contract. This way, agents would be paid for their work (without the need of it being a hidden deal, as it is today), and minors would be protected by the regulations. In fact, regulations might encourage agents to be more present and take their work with minors more seriously. Furthermore, considering the proposed regulatory changes by FIFA (ex: clearing house for intermediaries), it wouldn’t be a problem for them to monitor these transactions.
Another possible solution would be to create an intermediary passport, similar to the player passport used for the calculation of training compensation and solidarity payments. That way, it would be easy to keep track of who has done their part of the work during the athlete’s development, and those involved could be entitled to receive a percentage of future commissions paid to future intermediaries, once the player is no longer a minor. The only conflicts to arise from this system would be in countries that prohibit intermediaries from working with minors even if it’s for free.
Maintaining this prohibition seems a bit pointless. It keeps the status quo of competitive imbalance between agents intact and demonstrates that some important issues are being ignored. Everyone knows – including FIFA – that in practical terms, intermediaries are working with minors, and will continue to do so, regardless of any prohibition. Intermediaries are desperate to find the next Messi and won’t stop looking – why should they? Maybe it’s time FIFA turned their attention to this and started talking to agents. Why not reach out and try to get a good deal like an agent would?