Here we are, knee-deep in another transfer season. And every transfer season, it seems, the signal-to-noise ratio gets
higher and higher worse. If you've read TSF for a while, hopefully you know that we try to cut the noise as much as possible, and bring as much signal to the table as we possibly can. We try to understand - and to help you understand - how the sausage is made, at least as much as we can, so that we can better know which sausage is delicious, and which sausage is that eight-hour-old pile of Lil' Smokies in the crock pot marinating in that red goop.
One of the biggest question marks about any transfer is the black box it seemingly goes into when it gets into the hands of the agent doing the negotiating. Some deals, like the Cech deal, seem to get done fairly quickly, while some seem to drag out for what seems like - and often actually is - months. In order to try to shed some light on that side of the process, I reached out a couple weeks ago to an Actual Football Agent in order to ask him some questions about how the transfer process actually works.
The agent that graciously agreed to speak with us, Ted Philipakos, is a player agent and a professor of sports business at New York University. He is the author of On Level Terms: 10 Legal Battles That Tested and Shaped Soccer in the Modern Era.
I started out by asking probably the dumbest question possible, but he graciously continued the conversation anyway. Away we go!
TSF: How does a player initiate a transfer request - this may sound dumb, but is there a form that gets filled out or anything? Does a player-initiated request differ from how a club would initiate one?
TP: A transfer request may be made verbally or in writing. The latter is the more formal, more drastic measure. There's no standard form.
TSF: If a player strongly wants to leave a club but his club wants to keep him, what will the club typically do? Do they just tell you "sorry, no deal", or is there more to it?
TP: There's no "typical" response. It depends on the general philosophy of the club, the importance of the player in question, and his contractual situation. Some clubs generally don't respond to pressure, while other clubs are more sensitive to the problems with carrying an unhappy player. Either way, whether and to what extent the player is important to the team's plans is a determining factor. And the player's contractual situation can also be an important factor -- specifically, the years left on the contract (for instance, if the player has just one year left on his contract, the club may be more inclined to get something for him now rather than risk losing him for nothing later) and whether his wages are in line with the market (say a player is underpaid relative to the market, a new contract could be a solution).
TSF: In those situations, what do you find most helpful in breaking down a club's resistance and finding a new team for your client?
TP: An unhappy player can be a cancer. If the player starts showing up late to training, going through the motions in training, showing disrespect to the manager, and the like, the club may be moved to get rid of him. I certainly don't advocate doing such things, but it happens, and sometimes it works.
TSF: While no two transfers are identical, what do you find to be the most common reason(s) that one transfer takes longer than another?
TP: It's hard to say; a number of factors contribute to these things taking time. Sometimes it's the transfer agreement (besides the amount of the fee, there are other considerations, too -- how will the fee paid out, whether there's a share of future sale, etc.). Sometimes it's the personal terms (years, wages, bonuses, other ancillary benefits, and so on). Sometimes one party is being deliberate as a negotiating tactic, in an attempt to draw desperation out of the other side. Sometimes there are multiple agents involved, which is inherently complicated. Sometimes one agent or another is stringing along multiple parties.
TSF: In any given summer transfer window, a team like Arsenal can be linked (however tenuously) to up to 20 players. What percentage of transfer rumors would you estimate are generated by parties with little or no knowledge of the transfer market?
TP: It's 80 percent noise. Maybe more. Most of that noise comes from agents.
TSF: Thinking specifically of Arsenal, there were rumors last summer that Arsenal's German internationals were lobbying to bring Sami Khedira to London. Do other players have any influence at all in transfers, or is that just a media construct?
TP: This doesn't happen all the time, but, sure, it happens on occasion. Players are human. They have relationships. If you were making a career move, and you had a few different companies to choose from, and you had a couple of friends at one of those companies, and they told you it was a great place and you should join them, all else equal, that might make you feel a bit more comfortable about going there, no? Of course, that "all else equal" part is the key, because in reality that's usually not the case. Obviously Khedira didn't end up at Arsenal, so there were more important factors for him. But I'm making the point that players talk and personal relationships matter sometimes.
I'll say this, too. Transferring from one club to another is a big deal. It's fraught with risk and uncertainty. I don't think I need to start listing situations where a quality player went somewhere new and it just didn't work out. So, if you have some friends at a club that you're considering joining, it's only natural to feel better about fitting in and being successful. Most players have some insecurity deep down. They know how quickly things can change -- one day, you're a star; the next day, not so much. And it doesn't take much change -- a new manager, a new formation, a slight dip in form or confidence. As I pointed out, a new club is a huge change, and it can be somewhat scary.
TSF: Without getting into specific clubs, are some clubs easier to deal with than others? What makes that so?
TP: Sure. Every club has its own culture. And each individual they employ has their own personality and style. With some clubs, I know we're going to stay within the bounds of reason. I can focus on the facts, I can make proposals without fear that it's going to get emotional, and that's really great. That's all I ever want.
Unfortunately, with other clubs, I feel like we're never in that space. I feel like we're speaking a different language (when in fact we're not, just to be clear), and then whether there's just a little friction, things may get heated, which I hate.
I believe that negotiations don't have to be adversarial. If you're respectful and reasonable, there's always a way to balance the best interests of both sides.
TSF: What's harder to negotiate, generally - the transfer fee or the wages?
TP: Well, the transfer fee is a club-club negotiation and the wages are a club-player negotiation. It's tough to compare the two.
Thanks again to Ted for taking time out of his busy schedule to chat with TSF.