When it comes to football agents, Giovanni Branchini isn’t just old school. He’s the proverbial rock that was quarried to build the old school, way back in 1986.
Well before that now-famous friendly against Sporting CP, he told Sir Alex Ferguson that Cristiano Ronaldo would make a fine replacement for one David Beckham at Old Trafford — and then advised an up-and-coming agent named Jorge Mendes that, while other clubs were offering more money, Manchester United was the right place for his star client to develop.
When Pep Guardiola was taking his sabbatical after leaving Barcelona, it was Branchini — with Bayern Munich‘s blessing — who traveled to Manhattan’s Upper West Side and convinced him that if he wanted a challenge at the highest level, he needed to speak to Uli Hoeness and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.
So when Branchini talks about agents and intermediaries, as he did on a recent episode of “Gab & Juls Meet,” he does it as an insider who knows and understands the system. He knows what he’s talking about; he thinks there should be clear rules for agents, and that FIFA made a terrible mistake when it deregulated the business in 2015.
FIFA feels the same way, especially after their figures revealed that more than half a billion dollars was paid to agents and intermediaries in international transfers in 2021. It’s particularly staggering when you consider that this represents a slight increase over the previous year, despite the fact that the total value of international transfers declined by 13.7%.
Its latest set of regulations, expected to come into force in 2022, focuses on capping fees paid to intermediaries and agents, and bans the practice of a single agent representing all parties in a deal. It likely won’t surprise anyone that Branchini isn’t on board with various aspects of the new rules and the consultation process that led to them. But it might be a surprise that, as an agent, he’d love it if every detail — from transfer fees to contracts to fees paid to intermediaries — were made public.
“What would really help football would be if everything was fully transparent,” he says. “We’ve been begging FIFA to make mandatory the publication of all detailed aspects of a transfer. We need to know exactly how much has been paid for every transfer, every intermediation, every representation … Everything should be public.”
He’s arguing what I’ve argued for years: make everything public. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, but right now, football operates in darkness. Individual player wages and contracts, transfer fees, commissions paid to agents to facilitate deals are all shrouded in mystery, except for a mere handful of clubs that are listed on the stock exchange and are thus required to disclose information.
When you do see figures out there, in the vast majority of cases they’re either educated guesses or they’re based on media reports. And because everything is shrouded in secrecy, not only is there plenty opportunity for malfeasance — if not downright criminality — there’s also no accountability.
If we knew how much our club paid an agent for a particular deal or why they involved a certain intermediary into a deal (often, there are more than one) or even simply how much, exactly, they paid to secure their new striker, we could hold them to account. We — those of us in the media and the fans — could ask uncomfortable questions. We could compare individual decision-makers to those at other clubs. We could have some level of accountability, beyond simply results on the pitch — which, by the way, always end up on the heads of the managers and players, not those who choose to employ them.
Branchini says it’s clubs who don’t want transparency, mainly because it’s easier to simply point the finger at agents as the source of all soccer’s problems.
“There is a point everybody misses here,” he says. “When an agent receives an exaggerated commission, it’s because a club is willing to pay it. When they complain that an agent is forcing a move or not respecting his contract, it’s not because the player is moving to Mars, it’s because there’s another club who is willing to offer certain terms that his current club is unwilling or unable to offer. But, of course, it’s never the club’s fault, it’s always the agents’.”
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Branchini agrees the current system of transfers is broken, murky and dysfunctional. But the regulations address only one part of that system: agents.
“If a system isn’t working, you need to look at the entire system and fix it,” he says. “Not just one component. And funnily enough, the one component that gets all the blame is the one part of the system that is not considered a stakeholder and not sitting at the table where decisions are made: agents.”
FIFA say they consulted a number of agents, both individually and via agents’ associations around the globe and they still welcome input. Branchini, however, feels they’re merely going through the motions and that some measures, like capping the amounts paid to agents, were “decided before the task force” was even formed.
To be fair, the cap on the amounts paid to agents does feel like demagoguery. If you believe in free markets, you probably believe that an intermediary can charge whatever one is willing to pay, provided there is transparency.
If sporting director A at club B wants to pay agent C $10 million in fees for the $5 million transfer of player D to club B, it ought to be his business, provided he is willing and able to justify it to supporters and stakeholders. Except because we don’t have any transparency, nobody other than a few club officials and maybe the owner will know about that $10m payment.
That lack of information not only sets up for all sorts of shenanigans — from money laundering to kickbacks — but it also means there’s no accountability from supporters for bad decisions. If everything were transparent, we would effectively crowd source that vigilance. Because that $10 million in fees might be an absolute bargain if player D goes on to win the Ballon d’Or and score 40 goals, or it might be a colossal waste of money due to incompetence — or worse.
Here’s the thing: FIFA says it would love greater transparency. In fact, its new regulations have strict reporting requirements for international transfers. For a transfer to be approved, you need to provide details of who is getting paid, what they’re getting paid for and how much they’re getting paid. The problem? Only FIFA gets to see that information.
When I asked FIFA why it doesn’t simply make all of it public, it told me it would love to have it all be public and accessible to all, but in Europe, where the bulk of international transfers take place, there are very strict privacy and data protection laws. Effectively, information is on a “need-to-know” basis.
FIFA is arguing that it needs to know, and it figures European courts will accept that — though it has already been sued over this and anticipates more lawsuits — but right now, there is no chance that the rest of us — media and supporters — have a prayer of a court agreeing that we also “need to know.” So, we’re ending up with a system that’s “transparent” for a handful of FIFA officials. It might be better than nothing, but in the long term it does little to address the core issue.
Clubs complain about agents and intermediaries demanding outsized fees and wielding too much power. But clubs are unwilling or unable to regulate themselves by, for instance, not paying those fees and not bestowing the power on the superagents. Clubs are also unwilling to introduce genuine transparency into the system, which would certainly mitigate the problem; instead, they rely on FIFA to do things like capping fees and limiting multiple representation.
Are these popular solutions they can sell to the media and fans? Sure. But do they address the underlying problems? No, they do not — especially if there’s no genuine transparency to go with them.