Inside Football’s Transfer Market

In the space of twelve weeks, a hyper-ventilating
global football industry exchanges billions of pounds as a coterie of chairmen, agents,
footballers and their families enter a high-stakes poker bonanza to outwit one another and grasp
their cut of the winnings. It’s the transfer window, where money meets
machismo, and for which the public have an insatiable appetite. Over the past year, the
term “Arsenal transfers” has been searched 4.4 million times on Google, “Manchester
United transfers” 3.6 million times. The interest is breathless and global. Google
Trends’ popularity rankings show that the fiercest online browsing over Premier League
transfers takes place in Uganda, South Sudan and Kenya. This is a domestic gameshow gone
global and it is only getting bigger. The glamorous image flatters the reality though
and The Athletic has spoken to chairmen, executives, sporting directors, agents and players to
reveal the dark arts that take place behind the scenes and the startlingly ordinary conversations
at the industry’s heart. In the closing days of May, the pinging and
beeping of iPhones becomes relentless. With football transfers requiring steady communication,
WhatsApp provides the perfect platform, with more than 1.5bn users and 60bn messages exchanged
daily. It allows users to organise group chats and most football clubs now have a WhatsApp
“Transfer Chat” for the owner, chairman, chief executive, head of recruitment and manager. All group chats have several sub-chats. One
Football League chairman says that: “There are breakouts from the main chat for bitching
and sniping. But the real reason we use WhatsApp are the blue ticks. These tell you whether
a message has been read and whether an agent, a player or a club has seen our interest or
our offer.” The blue ticks work both ways, as agents bombard
clubs with proposals. A sporting director at a major English club described the experience
of being spammed with generic information. “The end of May is red hot on WhatsApp.
The best ones are the copy and paste agents. They don’t even bother typing your name
in or showing why the player would suit your team or your club. It just reads “Hi there…We
have ”X“ player available.” We see through it. They are sending the same message to every
club at the same time.” “It’s not only on WhatsApp”, continued
the chairman. “I had messages from 125 agents in three weeks last year. Every form of communication:
phone calls, emails, LinkedIn. I hadn’t heard of most of these people. Are they even
real? I had five agents all claiming to represent one French player. The other anxiety is screenshots.
I was worried about being scammed if I replied to people. Would they take a screenshot and
post it onto Twitter or give it to the tabloids? Then I would look really silly.” One sporting director in Scandinavia believes
WhatsApp screenshots are used to stage hikes in salaries and transfer fees. “’Bids are now made on WhatsApp between
clubs” he explained. “Only the final offer, once everything is thrashed out, will be made
on paper via email. An agent will send me a screenshot from his player to say I must
have £10,000 thrown onto this as a signing fee.’ Then it makes it look like the player
is driving the negotiations, rather than the agent. But we know it is collusion; led by
the agent to get more money out of us. And then there are the benefits they throw in…” As television rights have grown and the game
has become awash with cash, the demands of footballers and their agents have become steadily
bolder. When he moved to Tottenham from Newcastle, Paul Gascoigne asked for a sunbed for his
sister. Thirty years later, players are considerably more brazen. One agent tells a story of how he organised
a multi-million-pound transfer for his client to a top-six Premier League club, only for
the player to pull the plug when the chairman refused to include unlimited business class
flights for his family. Within contracts, many Premier League clubs
now include a handful of flights for family, particularly for those from South America
or Africa, to ensure a player can see his nearest and dearest. It is seen as a small-scale
investment to maintain morale. An English club chairman described how, even
now, he can be surprised by the entitlement on show: “Players make weird demands. They do not
just want flights for their families, they want apartments or five-star hotels for them
in the contracts. Or they want a job for their wife. One player wanted us to pay the legal
bill for his recent divorce. I just screamed an expletive down the phone.” At one Championship side the club’s policy
is to provide every player with four complimentary tickets for a game. Their sporting director
told The Athletic that : “You will get family members asking for sixteen tickets. If we
said yes, it would destroy the dressing room by treating people differently. These are
requests that often come in right at the end of the deal.” It is not only at the highest level where
the benefits roll in. Fourth-tier Exeter are sponsored
by the airline Flybe and one recent transfer included air mile vouchers for a new signing. On the field, clauses and requests are becoming
more peculiar. Traditionally, centre forwards would benefit from generous goal bonuses but,
increasingly, players in different positions have sensed opportunity. Clubs in the top
four divisions of English football now frequently include assist bonuses for playmakers and
wingers. “It does not stop there,” said one agent.
“We got set-piece bonuses added into a contract recently, which means the entire team get
a bonus when someone scores from a corner, because so many players are involved in making
decoy runs and finding space for team-mates. Why should only a striker get the bonus? “There’s more” added the agent. “A
lot of clubs do big early seasons bonuses. They will triple individual bonuses for the
first six weeks of the season. This will be for winning games, scoring goals, creating
goals, clean sheets, the works. Clubs know that a fast start defines the season so it
makes sense to further inspire the players.” The agenting profession is coloured by the
reputations of the notorious few, but – inevitably – it was the source of some less than flattering
anecdotes. In the most disturbing cases, agents take
players where they would not wish to go. One chairman explained: “Agents can dictate to players. The player
can have a better salary offer from one club but the agent chooses the club that has a
higher agency fee. I heard in 2018 about a player who was on the brink of joining Leicester
but instead was told to go to a club abroad. He didn’t enjoy it at all, found out the
truth and was absolutely furious.” “There are some good agents, some bad ones,
some really horrific ones. There was one who was an absolute nightmare, it was all about
what he was getting. And he was quite clear on the phone – if you don’t pay me a £100k
then the player won’t come to you. Years later, I was speaking to the player at the
EFL Awards and he never knew we were in for him. The agent hadn’t told him and he said
if he had known, he would have moved heaven and earth to come.” It characterises the subversion and self-interest
within the transfer market’s ecosystem, the dirty truth about the emblem of modern
football’s opulence.

42 thoughts on “Inside Football’s Transfer Market

  1. When you say the story originally appeared on the Athletic, do you mean that the script is directly taken from those stories?

  2. It’s all daft isn’t it… unlimited business class (Emirates)

    Club should declare interest via agent/person who looks after the player. Club should at least in contact with the player to let them know of interest ie Maddison we would love to have as part of our project you will be playing attacking mid NOT left inside forward etc etc

  3. This is incredibly insightful. There should be a minigame on fifa where you spend 4 hours scrolling through whatsapp bots to find real agents.

  4. Neymar has a contract clause that allows him to miss games so he can go shag his sister on her birthday, it's why he always gets "injured" at the same time every year

  5. As a Kenyan I can tell you our country is absolutely nuts about the premier league… we’ve actually had some suicidal events as a result of Arsenal and Man Utd’s failings over the years…as crazy as that sounds…

  6. Love the content as always. Transfer stories are only going to get better given that in a few years the current crop of players post-neymar transfer will start retiring and telling funny stories.

  7. I feel sad for the 4.4 million people that searched "Arsenal Transfer" in recent times.
    (Not counting this season though)

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