The transfer window is open. This is their time to shine.
Depending on who you believe, agents are either the lubricant that keeps the transfer market moving efficiently, ensuring clubs and players aren't exploited, or the parasites who suck money out of the game.
The truth, obviously, is somewhere along that spectrum.
But first, we really shouldn't be talking about agents because, technically, they no longer exist. As of April Fools' Day, there is no such thing. There are only "licensed intermediaries." FIFA abolished the figure of the "player agent" for a number of reasons and replaced it with the far less regulated "intermediary" role.
Why? I know you've probably been conditioned to think anything and everything FIFA does is motivated solely by corruption and thievery, but in this case it's a bit different.
Before the change, FIFA gave licenses to agents who met certain requirements, such as passing a test and taking out mandatory insurance. Some football associations had further hoops to jump through, but FIFA found that its regulations were generally ignored and difficult to enforce. Indeed, some 70 percent of international transfers were conducted by folks who were not FIFA agents.
Two main loopholes explain why. First, in most jurisdictions local law allowed lawyers and player relatives to do deals. In other situations, unlicensed people did the deals and then got FIFA agents to act as front men. FIFA simply didn't have the resources and manpower to police this, nor did it necessarily want to get involved when parties fell out. Its ominously titled Dispute Resolution Chamber was badly overworked, underfunded, slow and, in any case, subject to legal challenges.
So FIFA opted for deregulation. Individual FAs would now be responsible for registering intermediaries. Anybody with a few hundred bucks (less in some places) and who meets the most basic requirements (convictions for fraud are frowned upon) can become an intermediary. In fact, if you feel like it, you can become a colleague of Jorge Mendes (who represents, among others, Cristiano Ronaldo) and Mino Raiola (who represents players such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic) in just a few clicks. Here's the link for England's FA, for example.
What effect will these changes have? Probably not that much, to be fair, other than the fact that FIFA will be less involved and have fewer headaches.
The issue will remain the same: agents will be forces for "good" or "bad" to the extent that clubs allow them to be. It's just that now we won't be able to point to that veneer of respectability or the little "FIFA agent" icon on people's business cards.
In 2013, FIFA released the findings of a study that showed that some agent fees and commissions made up some 28 percent of the value of all international transfers. If that seems like a lot -- well, it is, though it's worth putting into context.
Commissions and fees don't apply only when there is a transfer fee; they often are paid when a loan signing is made or when a player signs as a free agent. So, for example, Radamel Falcao joining Chelsea on loan would likely mean the representatives involved got some kind of commission. If David De Gea sees out his contract and leaves United on a free transfer next year, then again, whoever he signs for will end up paying a commission. Yet, in both cases, the value of the transfer is zero. That's why that 28 percent number is somewhat misleading.
That said, it's fair to ask why two big clubs doing business with each other need to involve intermediaries to act on their behalf. You'd think if Manchester United wanted to buy Bastian Schweinsteiger from Bayern Munich, for example, all that would need to happen is for Executive Vice Chairman Ed Woodward to call up CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and make an offer. If they agree a price, Woodward can ring up Robert Schneider, Schweinsteiger's agent, and negotiate a contract with him. If Schweinsteiger agrees, it's all done.
No agent fees or commission paid to anybody, other than Schweinsteiger's paying Schneider for negotiating his new deal with United. Simple, right? Except real life doesn't work that way.
United wouldn't want to make a bid for Schweinsteiger unless they're reasonably confident he'll agree to join them. Otherwise it would make them look bad because it would reveal how much they can spend on a central midfielder and unsettle United's current players in Schweinsteiger's position.
But United have no way of knowing whether he wants to come unless they talk to him or, at least, Schneider. Except they're not really supposed to talk to Schneider about Schweinsteiger without Bayern's permission because of tapping-up regulations. What's more, they don't necessarily want to show their hand. They don't want Schneider running to Rummenigge the second they get off the phone with United and saying: "Look, my client has a job offer!"
So United would employ a trusted agent to act on their behalf and talk to Schneider. He would also find out the terms of Schweinsteiger's current deal, which United need to know if they are to make a reasonable offer. The agent acting on behalf of United also allows them to keep some level of distance and plausible deniability. It also allows United to employ other agents to pursue other deals for guys in Schweinsteiger's position. (After all, talented as Woodward might be, he can't be in three places at once talking to three clubs about three players.)
If the response from Schweinsteiger is broadly positive, United can talk to Bayern directly, but here too it's best to send an intermediary as an advance scout because you don't want Bayern leaking the fact that you've made a bid, alerting other potential buyers and possibly creating an auction.
In fact, at this stage, Bayern might want to employ somebody to act for them as well. It could be Schneider (if they want to get rid of Schweinsteiger) or it could be somebody else. But having someone not connected to the club fielding Schweinsteiger inquiries helps maintain plausible deniability -- "No, it was never our intention to sell Schweini! Bist du verruckt?!". If you're Bayern and you think United's interest is genuine, that agent acting on your behalf can help drum up business in the form of other bids.
All of the above, of course, costs time and money. Agents don't act for free, and they generally get paid only if a deal goes through, which means they have to front a lot in terms of time and resources. When they do close a sale, they want to make sure they get paid.
I'll stress that the above is a purely hypothetical example. But hopefully it shows why even big clubs who talk to each other might employ folks to represent them, even over name-brand players. There are plenty more situations in which clubs turn to intermediaries, like, for example, selling a player they no longer want, particularly abroad. Or moving for a player in a foreign league where they're not well connected.
Then there are other less savoury reasons. Sometimes an intermediary might be involved solely to get a cut of the transfer. He acts as a "bag man," taking the money and channeling it back to whatever club official approved the transfer in the form of a bribe. In other cases, in which third-party ownership is illegal, it might be a way to divert funds back to the folks who funded the transfer in the first place.
So does this mean agents are necessary to make a market more efficient?
Yes and no. You'd think that in many cases, clubs' justifications for using middlemen is weak and that if they were a bit more grown-up and transparent, they could do business with one another directly and save themselves money. On the other hand, it's a bit like selling a house. You can either pay a commission to a Realtor who does it for you (and in secret), or you can approach folks who you think might be interested in buying your house. The former will probably fetch you a better price, despite the commission.
What's obvious, though, is that now that we've had further deregulation and more money splashing around the game, clubs will need to be even more clever and careful in terms of who they deal with. And maybe some will realize there are more efficient ways of doing business.