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Football Transfers - The Responsibilities of Footballers’ Agents

Image © BBC

About The Author

Thomas Horton (Former Writer)

Thomas studied Law at the University of Birmingham, and graduated with a 2:1 in July 2013. In the elapsed time, Thomas has worked for law firm HowardKennedyFsi LLP as a paralegal in the property department. Thomas has also been awarded a Major Scholarship by the Honourable Society of the Inner Temple and will begin the BPTC with City Law School in September 2014.

As an avid Aston Villa FC supporter I may not always be able to celebrate in the excitement of a new multi-million pound signing. Nevertheless, most football fans will appreciate the excitement around the transfer window, particularly on transfer deadline day and the expert commentary from, Jim White of Sky Sports News.

Excitement and whomsoever you support aside, have you ever thought about the logistics behind that signing that your team has just made? Who determines the wages, the length of the contract, incentives for player achievements, or add-on fees being paid to the transferor club? All of these matters are determined through negotiations between the two football clubs involved, and the respective footballer’s agent. In light of yesterday’s transfer deadline day, and for those interested in sports law, this article will provide an outline of the transfer process, which will highlight what football agents do to facilitate these transfers.

The process can be summarized thus:

  • Football Club A tables an offer for a player, and the selling club (Football Club B) will accept or reject this offer
  • The transferring player’s agent negotiates personal terms on behalf of the player i.e. a signing fee or bonuses for achievements
  • The player’s agent will negotiate their own with the buying club
  • Documentation is lodged with the relevant footballing authorities, e.g. the player’s contract and player registration being lodged with the Football Association

(Further details as to the anatomy of a football transfer deal can be found here and here).

The negotiation process (the third-point stated above) is seen as the most crucial point in the transfer process. For example, during the summer of 2013, Willian, the now Chelsea FC midfielder, was on the verge of signing for, firstly, Liverpool FC and, secondly, Tottenham Hotspur FC, before finally signing for Chelsea. Although a fee had been agreed between the two latter clubs respectively, it was the negotiations between Willian’s agent and each club that meant that Chelsea could offer the best-available terms. By being able to better the terms than what Tottenham could (financially and with the opportunity of Champions League football), Chelsea clinched the deal. This is an example of the role that the agent is there to play in the transfer process: securing the best deal and career move for their clients (the football players).

Whilst the football agent is simply carrying out their role as a negotiator and earning a fee as a result, they must not, on the principle of having fiduciary duties to their clients, put themselves in a position where their own interests conflict with those of the client, and nor should they profit from their position to the detriment of their client. 

An example of the agent’s fiduciary duties were seen in Imageview Management Ltd v Jack, an agent had made an undisclosed side deal with the purchasing football club (Dundee United) to obtain a work permit for his client, a Trinidadian footballer (Jack), to be able to play football for Dundee United, in the United Kingdom. The footballing agent was to take 10% of Jack’s monthly salary for securing this contract. However, once, Jack realized that the side deal had taken place he stopped paying this 10% fee. The Court of Appeal determined that an agent’s interests come second to those of their client; a conflict of interest was apparent from the agent’s lack of good faith in the side deal for the work permit. If the agent had disclosed the side deal to his client then there would be no breach of fiduciary duty; the client had used his position as the player’s agent to obtain a benefit for himself.  Jacob LJ stated in his judgment:

[T]he interest of the agents here was adverse to that of the principal. A principal is entitled to have an honest agent, and it is only the honest agent who is entitled to any commission. In my opinion, if an agent directly or indirectly colludes with the other side, and so acts in opposition to the interest of his principal, he is not entitled to any commission.

Accordingly, the agent had to account for the commission received from the deal, and was not entitled to the outstanding commission that would have otherwise been paid. Whilst it could be seen that obtaining the work permit was beneficial to Jack in allowing him to play for Dundee United, the fact that there was a surreptitious deal involving work that Jack was not expecting to pay for meant that this was not an instance of “harmless collaterality”:

The law imposes on agents high standards. Footballers' agents are not exempt from these. An agent's own personal interests come entirely second to the interest of his client. If you undertake to act for a man you must act 100 per cent, body and soul, for him. You must act as if you were him. You must not allow your own interest to get in the way without telling him. An undisclosed but realistic possibility of a conflict of interest is a breach of your duty of good faith to your client.

(To understand the basis of the development of this fiduciary duty, see the House of Lords’ decision in (coincidentally being a Scottish case on appeal!) Aberdeen Railway Co v Blaikie (1854) 1 Macq 461.)

Given such examples of football agents that Imageview Management demonstrates, the dogmatic understanding of football agents is that they are an add-on to the signing of a much-needed football player for which the club reluctantly has to pay out for. For high-profile players, it has been seen that their agents have taken a sizeable slice of the transfer fee; for example, this report by BBC Sport shows that in the summer of 2013, Chelsea FC spent £13m on agents’ fees alone.

However, there are regulations that football agents have to act in accordance with, of which The FA neatly detail here. In accordance with these regulations, the only agents that can be used are those that are authorized to do so. These regulations also determine a prohibition on the conflict of interest of the sort seen in Imageview Management. Moreover, these regulations receive guidance from FIFA’s players’ agents’ regulations, which sets out a rigorous process by which one must adhere to become a football agent. One of the stages of this process even includes an exam requiring knowledge of civil law and law of obligations.

The imposition of these regulations, as this article demonstrates, show that there is a generation of footballers’ agents that are working with the correct knowledge and ethics in acting on behalf of footballers for the development of a successful footballing career. Footballers’ agents are much more than intermediaries that have ‘football knowledge’; footballers’ agents are a tool equipped with expertise in negotiation, marketing, sponsorship, financing, and legal knowledge. By applying these qualities to their clients’ careers, the career of a footballer is seen as a valuable business opportunity, of which the respective footballer should be able to capitalize on. As long as footballers’ agents are able to understand their duties and adhere to them throughout their time representing their clients, then their role in their clients’ careers and throughout the transfer process will continue to be a much-needed and beneficial role.

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Tagged: Commercial Law, Sport Law

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