Agents may often drive the biggest stories in sport but they're rarely seen as good for the sport. The world in which they operate is often viewed as mysterious and opaque. It consequently breeds mistrust among many around sport as the inhabitants advise and influence publicly visible and loved figures (players, managers, clubs) from a position of relative anonymity. Some are just in it for the money, a sadly inescapable fact of modern football given the riches on offer and partly a consequence of FIFA's decision to deregulate the industry in 2015.
With no barrier to entry, anyone in England possessing £500 and no criminal record could register as an "intermediary" with the FA. This led to an explosion in numbers in recent years, with around 500 agents in operation prior to deregulation, a figure that exploded to almost 2000 by 2017. This pattern was replicated in many other countries including Spain and Italy.
Some of these newly registered intermediaries were family members of players seeking to take matters into their own hands. Others were people looking to profit off their links to a player but regardless, the vast majority of new arrivals had something in common: they did not possess the requisite skill-set to understand the complexity of contracts or a sufficiently broad network of contacts to broker a player transfer elsewhere.
The Professional Football Agents Association (PROFAA) aims to change this. The brainchild of leading Australian agent Paddy Dominguez and Dr. Erkut Sogut, representative of several leading players including Arsenal midfielder Mesut Ozil, PROFAA has two ambitious targets: to educate the next generation of agents while also uniting a disparate industry under one organisation that can facilitate representation at FIFA and UEFA.
"Agents are not enemies of football, but the industry needs more education," Sogut told ESPN. "What I hear from younger agents who want to break through into the business is 'Where can we learn something? Who can we learn from? And how can we become one voice?' We want to guide them given them the ethics and the opportunity to meet experienced people and improve their understanding to help raise professional standards across all agents. We also need to safeguard players, who can be led astray by bad agents."
Around 30 agents have signed up upon launch with members from several countries including England, Italy, Nigeria and Germany. Sogut believes that number will swell to 150 over the summer, and 500 by the end of the year.
Based in Zurich, the same city as FIFA's headquarters, the day-to-day running of PROFAA will be handled by general secretary Turgul Aras, a recent graduate from Germany's Foundation of Integration programme, organised under the patronage of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Upon receiving a scholarship for Merkel's scheme, Aras contacted Sogut to ask if he would become his mentor. Two years later, the pair are in business together, forming an association that purports to uphold principles of democracy and transparency in an effort to improve the worldwide reputation of agents.
The reality is there are good agents and bad ones. Some operate with a mixture of bad practice and malpractice, therefore benefitting from existing in the shadows. But those of a more altruistic persuasion have for some time sensed an opportunity to create a more standardised framework.
A plethora of agency associations already exist. For example, in the United Kingdom, the Association of Football Agents was created in 2005 as a representative body for English agents and has done plenty of work trying to formalise the industry. The AFA has been in regular dialogue with the Football Association, attempting to develop a better mutual understanding of the issues in governance and the realities of modern-day player representation.
Similar organisations exist across the world and the European Football Agents Association (EFAA) was founded in 2007, and now has 17 national associations as registered members. However, Sogut was one of a select group of agents attending FIFA meetings in recent years designed to implement stricter rules regarding the conduct of football agents, and he insists the level of representation was insufficient due to the number of vested interests.
"I was at FIFA, going to the agent workshop meeting, and there were representatives for certain agent associations but I checked them and none of them were truly democratic," he said. "You need to have a structure where anyone can be elected to become president. It should not be a show run by the same agents for 20 years, or an agency controlled association. Most of them from the past are founded by one agent and run by them. It doesn't do any research or help its members. It just organises an annual meeting. I think that's why FIFA wants something else."
For the time being, members will be asked to pay a small annual fee for access to online classes, webinars and live events -- once restrictions ease in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak -- which will give agents from all over the world a chance to share ideas and build up their contacts.
The coronavirus outbreak has led to fresh issues for players and clubs the world over. Negotiating extensions to deals expiring on June 30 -- before the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A have completed their delayed seasons -- is just one new phenomenon, as is discussions over wage cuts and deferrals. Even experienced agents with extensive legal qualifications have had to pore over force majeure clauses in insurance contracts to see if COVID-19 applies, and the widespread fear of a second spike or future pandemic adds a fresh layer of complexities that make expert advice even more valuable to players and clubs alike.
The longer-term aim for PROFAA is to become the organising body that enables agents to have a clear voice in shaping the future of the game.
Change is coming. FIFA confirmed in January they had voted through a reform package which includes capping commissions "to avoid excessive and abusive practices", limiting multiple representation to avoid conflicts of interest and increasing transparency in transactions by introducing a FIFA Clearing House.
"If someone is changing agent regulations, all agents should feel like they are at the table in those discussions," said Sogut. "For that to happen, we need an organisation.
"Until now, FIFA can say 'they all say something different' or 'there are too many of them'. And we can be proactive. We have to stop being reactive. This is the time for agents to say 'someone doesn't decide something for us and then we go to court', No, we sit down, work on our regulations and then we can discuss what we want to be changed.
"This association wants to get everyone under one umbrella. To do that, you have to create something and you need time. It won't be tomorrow. It might be two or three years and I'm totally fine with that. The goal is to become stakeholders in a couple of years and to prove to the football world, this is a proper democratic organisation. I hope this association will change the reputation of agents for good."