Football agents are playing a more important role than ever in transfers, in representation and with football clubs, and the influence of these important negotiators has never been greater.
Here, we look at five of the biggest moments in the history of the profession and how they still reverberate around the footballing world to this day.
1893 – The introduction of the Retain and Transfer system
In the early days of Association Football, football agents represented clubs rather than players and largely played a scouting-type role for these institutions we know and love today.
At this time, agents would act as advisors to football clubs, recommending players and earning a commission if they joined.
However, and whilst an over-reliance on agent recommendations wasn’t sustainable nor always successful, the biggest issue of the era concerned clubs who sought to retain their best players.
In 1893, the introduction of the Retain and Transfer System redressed a power balance and gave clubs greater power over the movement of those players registered to their teams.
In the years running up to this landmark move, players could move freely between clubs, but they could only be registered with one side a season under Football Association rules.
Effectively, at the end of each campaign, the best players could move freely without clubs being protected in the deal.
There was a growing fear that the top talent would move to a handful of clubs – therefore diluting the competitiveness of the division – so clubs were handed more powers over contracts despite apprehension surrounding the game becoming professional.
Under the new system players could not move without the permission of their teams – unless to enter other employment away from football.
However, this led to the acceleration of transfer fees for players and was the catalyst for the professional game as we know it today. It hasn’t exactly slowed down either!
Even then agents were negatively regarded in the press, but given the rise in transfers their expertise, knowledge and talents were becoming more and more important to the players and clubs themselves.
Often agents would masquerade as close friends or confidants during meetings with clubs, with the players viewing their advisors as important allies in their own careers.
There were major issues regarding this system – player power was replaced with club power and clubs could retain players with no intention of playing them even if they were not sold.
For footballers, a maximum salary cap introduced in 1901 in the English Football League – initially set at £4 per week – was another sizeable issue in a game becoming more popular, and financially powerful, by the season.
1961 – Abolition of maximum wage cap in England
By the early 1960s players and their representation were beginning to highlight the discrepancies in the value of their services and how much they could be paid via the salary cap.
This resulted in players and their agents taking advantage of other commercial opportunities which ranged from public appearances, to advertising, to friendly matches, and a whole host of other creative ways to make money.
But footballers railed against the cap and got together – with their agents and other stakeholders – to rewrite the rules in England and thus the course of football history.
With the help of the Professional Footballers’ Association, the wage cap was abolished in 1961 and by the end of the 60s the archaic Retain and Transfer system was replaced with a more suitable fixed-term contract system – this is similar to the model we still see today.
Naturally, the role of the agent became more important than ever as players finally earned the right to renegotiate new, more lucrative deals.
Between 1960 and 1964, wages of players in the old English First Division rose by over 60%!
This was a landscape-altering time for football intermediaries, who now sought to represent players first and foremost having previously been more associated with working on behalf of football clubs.
Across Europe in particular different nations employed different models and agents quickly had to get a grasp on the legal nuances between countries.
Their expertise was invaluable in the negotiating of contracts but also in the understanding of the new rules and getting the best possible deals for their clients.
Now, the players themselves would benefit more than ever from their abilities on the park – something which heightened the need for good football agents.
1994 – FIFA introduce official regulation over agents for the first time
As football began to transform and transfer fees began to rise, FIFA intervened and introduced new rules for football agents for the first time.
This was a seminal moment in the world of football agency after decades of unregulated behaviour largely went unchecked by the footballing authorities.
This led to a rise in “bung” culture with many agents, players and clubs either victim of or party to unethical behaviour surrounding the transfer of players, their contracts and their representation.
The new FIFA rules – called the Players’ Agents Regulations – transformed this in an instant.
For the first time FIFA and football formally recognised agents and this new licensing system – accepted by all footballing federations – transformed the world of football agency from a business, to a profession.
Whilst the rules were not without their own hurdles, this move recognised agents as legitimate and legally recognised stakeholders.
The rules introduced strict licensing criteria – with licenses needing to be obtained from individual Football Associations – and placed the burden on clubs and players to engage with only those who had been certified.
Prospective agents had to have a clean criminal record and also make a deposit of £100k in order to operate, something which would theoretically shrink the profession at a time when agents were more needed than ever.
These regulations would be tightened or relaxed over the course of the next few decades but they would stand as the building blocks of the professional world of football intermediaries as we know it.
1995 – the Jean-Marc Bosman ruling
Whilst the FIFA Players’ Agent Regulations of 1994 professionalised the world of football agents there were still plenty of issues regarding global transfers.
One of these concerned club compensation for transfers at the end of contracts and which party had the rights when it came to player movement after fixed-term contracts had come to an end.
Enter Jean-Marc Bosman, a largely unassuming footballer in the global arena whose name would become synonymous with the sport and the world of football agents long after he stopped playing.
Belgian midfielder Bosman was playing with Royal Football Club de Liege in his home country when his contract expired in 1991 and he lined up a move to French side Dunkerque.
However, Dunkerque refused to meet Liege’s transfer demands which meant the deal fell through.
Thing went from bad to worse when the Belgian side reduced Bosman’s wages by 70% with the midfielder no longer considered an important member of their squad.
Bosman would take the case to the European Court of Justice on the basis of “restraint of trade” (that is the prevention of a person’s right to carry on their trade or profession), citing FIFA rules regarding football in a legendary case.
The ruling in 1995 also judged that the previous system constituted a restriction on the free movement of workers within the EU and footballers were given the right to a free transfer on the expiration of their contracts.
This was a monumental moment in the transfer of footballers and Bosman tread the path for a string of high-profile transfers in the years following the decision.
Agents – or players themselves – could now negotiate deals in the final six months of their contracts with different clubs within the EU without the need for a transfer fee.
Edgar Davis (Ajax to Milan) and Steve McManaman (Liverpool to Real Madrid) were perhaps the biggest initial beneficiaries of the new rules which altered the landscape of contracts.
Agents could field proposals to players from across Europe when deals began to run out whilst clubs put a great impetus on negotiating new contracts with players at earlier points in their existing deals.
This is something which allowed players to demand greater salaries for their abilities given they could effectively leave for nothing with clubs no longer protected by letting deals for their top players run down.
2015 – Deregulation of the industry
Little over two decades after FIFA first officially recognised the role of football agents in the game, the global governing body deregulated the industry in a move you might initially think is a backwards step.
This de-regulation had begun in 2008, where FIFA changed the rules regarding who could become an agent to those with an “impeccable reputation”.
Now, the notorious agents exam had finally been scrapped, and Football Associations could award practising licences much more freely after meeting with anyone interested in practising, with FIFA putting the emphasis back on national associations to regulate their own intermediaries.
This evolved how the role was regulated in football but before long FIFA acknowledged these did not work, largely on the basis that only between 25% and 30% of transfers were actually conducted by licensed agents.
Instead, what the governing body has sought to do with these new regulations is to open up the field of agency so much than anyone can become an agent.
The biggest change is the dropping of the need for agents to have an FA awarded license, this replaced with a registration system which is handled on a transfer-by-transfer basis.
However, this is not without its difficulties.
Removing the license and the subsequent character test means that whilst anyone can become an agent, not all of them have the right intentions, character or know-how to make transfers work.
It is here that expertise and knowledge become vital in the world of football with more people than ever trying to break into the profession, but only some of them being properly equipped with the right knowledge, experience and support.
This is where the John Viola Academy can prove an essential resource and support network in your ambitions to break into the world of football intermediaries.
With over 40 years of experience in the business, we provide you with the tools to become a practising football agent.