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Fiorentina suggests new rules limiting power of agents

Perhaps no club in Italy has had a rougher year with players’ representatives, and the Viola are ready to do something about it.

ACF Fiorentina v UC Sampdoria - Serie A Photo by Lisa Guglielmi/LiveMedia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Since buying Fiorentina, Rocco Commisso has shown off quite a bit of personality. While his comments about the press have certainly ruffled some feathers, it’s not the reporters who’ve really drawn his ire. No, the opponent to whom he’ll show no quarter has been the civic bureaucracy that’s prevented him from spending his own money to repair or replace the dangerously outdated Stadio Artemio Franchi. Now, though, a new enemy has arisen, one on whom Rocco has turned the full focus of his considerable energy: the player agent.

Like everyone who runs a club, he’s had no shortage of trouble from players’ representatives since taking over. The alleged plot hatched by former sporting director Pantaleo Corvino and superagent Fali Ramadani (who’s would have seen the latter negotiate sales for some of the team’s best players at the time, with all parties involved profiting nicely while the club lost some of its top assets.

The Federico Chiesa saga offered an entirely different headache. The winger, who’d risen all the way up through the academy, decided he wanted out, and that he wanted out to Juventus and Juventus alone. While that’s what eventually happened, it’s worth remembering that Fede and his dad/representative Enrico (a Viola legend in his own right) told Joe Barone that they’d swing by his office to sign a new contract at the end of the summer mercato last year, then left him sitting there as they instead agreed to terms with the Bianconeri, although recent investigations indicate that Ramadani was again involved in some capacity.

Last summer, of course, also brought us Gattusopoli. Jorge Mendes brought Gennaro Gattuso in to manage Fiorentina, but then insisted that sporting director Daniele Pradè buy a host of his other clients for inflated prices while Mendes negotiated from both sides. After a 22-day stint as the boss, Gattuso, clearly under Mendes’ instructions, stepped down, clearing the way for Vincenzo Italiano. Everything came up purple but it was a deeply unpleasant episode.

This year, the agent of chaos is Darko Ristić, who has pushed Dušan Vlahović into refusing a new contract—the richest Fiorentina has ever offered anyone—and the whispers are that he has an agreement with (of course) Juve. That’s put the Viola in the unenviable position of deciding whether to a) enjoy another year of the best young striker in Europe before losing him for nothing or b) cash in on the best young striker in Europe even though they’ll only get about 50% of his value. It’s this last one that seems to have really gotten Rocco’s goat, as he’s spoken various times about his desire to keep the player, based largely, it seems, on their personal relationship.

You can see why a club owner would be pretty steamed off about the influence agents have over the game, as each of these issues stem from an agent looking for free money. Ramadani and Mendes are possibly the two biggest agents around, and Ristić is clearly emulating their example. By playing both sides of a negotiation, they can double their profits. By forcing clubs to hire their other clients, they assure themselves of future profits. And because all these dealings occur behind closed doors, nobody knows what exactly they’re up to.

It’s into this world that Fiorentina released 10 proposals to limit the power of agents, and it’s easy to see Rocco’s fingerprints all over them. While some observers may roll their eyes at what they’ll regard as another example of American grandstanding, the suggestions are almost all completely reasonable. If FIFA, UEFA, and the FIGC want to do something about the rise of agents, who now run clubs more than they run players’ affairs, this isn’t a bad place to start the discussion. Let’s roll through these one by one.

  1. Cap agent fees at 5% of a transfer fee. This seems like a no-brainer. Part of what scuppered a new deal for Vlahović was Barone’s refusal to pay Ristić a reported 10% commission on the extension, and Juve’s willingness to pay the Serbian rep that amount seems to have sealed the deal. Similarly, Nikola Milenković was poised for a move to West Ham last year before Ramadani’s desire for a bigger slice of the pie caused the Hammers to back out. It’s a good reminder that the fee reported for a player in the press is usually much lower than how much a club actually pays, since agents and even third-party ownership groups often get a cut too.
  2. Agents can only work one side. Again, this is glaringly obvious. For example, Mendes essentially runs clubs like Valencia and Wolverhampton Wanderers. If one of those clubs buys a player he represents, he can have them pay a higher fee to increase his own take. This is a blatant conflict of interest that even Eric Gordon would understand is in contravention of every possible business ethic.
  3. Agents represent players, not clubs. Remember that example of Mendes running Valencia and Wolves from the last paragraph? Yeah, that’s bad. Agents should rep players, not run clubs. If you want to be a sporting director, that’s a different career path.
  4. Free transfers should result in some compensation to the previous club. This is the first suggestion in which you can see some bitterness, although it’s easy to understand why. The threat of losing guys like Chiesa or Vlahović for free after spending years developing them is enough to irritate any businessman; after all, you want some return on investment. However, I don’t really think this is practical at all. If a player reaches the end of their contract, they should be free to move wherever they want. While it’d be nice for clubs that nurture young players to get something for that rather than losing starlets for nothing, there’s no way to figure out how much that would be. The suggestion here is that there should be some algebra involving a player’s valuation and next contract, but, as we’ve seen from numerous deals in Italy over the years *cough Nicolò Rovella €22.5 million cough* that’s not a thing anyone can regulate without overhauling the entire system of player transfers.
  5. Agents can only negotiate fees with permission. The idea here is that clubs should be the ones setting prices for players, not agents, unless the selling club, for some reason, decides to involve the agent directly in the negotiations between the clubs. If you’re noticing a theme here, well done. You’re getting it. That said, a rule like this would likely be impossible to enforce.
  6. Contracts should run for at least 5 years. Okay, this is pretty ridiculous. I really don’t think clubs want to have players on the books for this long. If this were a rule, Fiorentina would still be paying Cyril Thereau. More seriously, it would place an unsustainable burden on smaller clubs that lack financial resources, and even on larger clubs that require some level of self-financing. I’m pretty sure this is informed by some recent contract extensions Fiorentina has dealt with, including Chiesa, Vlahović, and Milenković.
  7. Agents get 3% of a player’s contract. Aaaaaaaaand they reeled it back in. This seems like an obvious fix to a system that sometimes sees players forking over enormous portions of their salaries to agents. It’s especially pernicious at the lower levels, where some scumbags prey on the young and uneducated to essentially enforce terms of indentured servitude. A hard cap on how much agents can make here feels good, both in business and in moral terms.
  8. Agents can still earn money from other sources. A lot of players’ revenue isn’t limited to the club contract they sign. They make money from image rights and sponsorship deals, and those have nothing to do with the club. Any financial transaction a player and an agent agree to in those arenas have nothing to do with the club so long as they don’t infringe on the club’s broadcasting deals. I think this is completely logical.
  9. A clearinghouse for agent payments. Hoo boy. While this is absolutely the correct thing to do, a clearinghouse for money in the sport is never going to happen while FIFA and UEFA and the FIGC are making money hand over fist from, uh, things. While I support this kind of initiative with all my heart, I’m way too cynical to believe that anyone would actually allow this to happen.
  10. Full transparency of agent payments. Look at what I wrote about the previous proposal and then enhance it by a factor of 1000000000. There isn’t full transparency in any aspect of soccer and that’s because a lot of very rich people want it that way so that they can get even richer. The interests of these elite are so entrenched that you’d have to tear down the whole structure of the sport and dynamite its foundations to get them out. And I, for one, would ****ing love it.

Look, I’m under no illusions about Rocco being a knight in shining armor riding in to save calcio. He wants control over his players and he wants to make sure he can keep the good ones for as long as possible. I’m not criticizing this, mind you. If you live in capitalist hell, you have to be a capitalist hellion to get anywhere; someone like Rocco, who is obviously very smart, hasn’t gotten where he is by letting go of advantages. If he can bring that tenacity to bear in Fiorentina’s favor, so much the better for us fans.

And yeah, a lot of these points are really good ones. This clearly isn’t a matter of Commisso frothing at the mouth, raging that he’s going to lose the best young striker in Europe. The Viola owner has put time and thought into these suggestions, and they are, if nothing else, a fantastic place to start a discussion about limiting the power of agents.

Also, before anyone jumps in, VN tends to be a pretty pro-labor website. We’ve gone on record time and again, both in writing and on the podcast, to express our belief that players should have control over their own careers. We also acknowledge that, given the unbelievably complex and dense nature of contracts, most players need a professional to help them navigate that, and that those professionals should be remunerated fairly. Again, capitalist hell. Welcome to it.

But c’mon. If we’re going to talk about hell, I can’t imagine a scene more suited. Agents have too much power and it’s killing the game.

In case there’s any question from the peanut gallery, we’re with Rocco (almost) all the way on these proposals. If you want the deals that govern soccer done on the level, you should be too.