Behind the football: the uncertain role and influence of agents in the A-League

Richard Parkin on 13 March 2019

Less than two months before the A-League regular season concludes, it’s a time of great anxiety for many within Australian football. Fans check their phones nervously to see results elsewhere as clubs compete for a finals berth, to host a home final, or to win the premiership itself. Players – as many as two-thirds of whom according to the PFA’s most recent annual report could be off-contract come 1 June – fight to be re-signed by their clubs or to put themselves in the shop window with a run of solid late-season performances.

Clubs, especially those out of finals reckoning, urgently look to refresh playing rosters for next season, competing among themselves from the limited pool of established Australian professional players. And liaising furiously between both players and clubs are the agents, or intermediaries, who know that this is the time of year when anxiety provides opportunities and good money is there to be made.

It’s a potent cocktail of conflicting interests. And in a microcosm as small as Australian football, it’s a huge drain on the collective energy of a game looking to better situate itself within football’s global marketplace. When parties show mutual respect and an understanding for each other’s interests it can be a laborious, but manageable process. But when relationships break down, interests conflict or egos clash, it can all go spectacularly wrong.

A cautionary tale

A stark illustration of this has played out this season in Gosford – where the Central Coast Mariners’ faltering campaign sunk to a fresh nadir on Saturday night, with an 8-2 drubbing by Wellington Phoenix that culminated in the early hours sacking of coach Mike Mulvey.

After four consecutive seasons of underperformance the two-time premiers and four-time A-League grand finalists had high expectations for 2018-19. Before the season started, the club let it be known they wanted an experienced A-League coach with a proven track record domestically. Championship-winner Mulvey was signed, in a deal facilitated by agent Tony Rallis. Coach, agent and club put their heads together for the project of rebuilding, in came Jack Clisby, Corey Gameiro, Jonathan Aspropotamitis, Mario Shabow, Matt Millar, and a return for club legend, Matt Simon, all clients represented by Rallis.

Then came the scarcely believable news: one of the world’s most recognised athletes, global icon Usain Bolt was keen to make his mark in football and might be available – and Rallis was the man to help bring the Jamaican to Gosford. Some responded with scathing critique, others with open-minded positivity. Whether a masterstroke or a gimmick, the publicity put the Mariners on the map.

Instead of the club being dogged by perennial claims of underinvestment and poor on-field performance, there was tangible excitement once more along the corridors in Gosford. In came prolific striker, Ross McCormack, another deal facilitated by Rallis. Fringe Socceroo Tommy Oar and Manchester United legend Mike Phelan jetted in.

But as the season unfolded the wheels quickly fell off. Rather than a boon the Bolt circus became a burden before he eventually called time on his football dream. And by January, following a 10-game losing streak, the Mariners’ season was well and truly sunk as relations rapidly soured between coach, agent and club. Eyewitnesses tell of heated conversations between Rallis and the coach he had helped install. It is claimed Rallis tried to persuade Mulvey to give preferential treatment to players from his stable – something the influential agent emphatically denies as a “false allegation”.

Mike Mulvey and Usain Bolt all smiles
Mike Mulvey and Usain Bolt all smiles after the Jamaican’s first training session on the Central Coast in August. Photograph: Tony Feder/Getty Images

Then came what one insider has called “an act of betrayal” – one of the brighter performers in the Mariners’ otherwise disappointing season, promising right-back Millar, was spirited away before the club could secure his re-signing, joining rivals Newcastle instead. Rallis again strongly refutes the interest came as a shock to the club, outlining a paper trail of communication that existed weeks before the contract with Jets was signed.

Precisely what has transpired in this and other instances is enveloped in uncertainty. But for football fans operating on the basis that results are affected predominantly by player or coach performance, it’s an illustrative look behind the scenes – where indefinable concepts like “team culture” or “dressing room harmony” can be affected hugely by off-field factors.

Influential operators

A variety of factors contribute to make a disastrous season, as they do a good season. The record books will show clearly how the Mariners fared in 2018-19, with innumerable determining factors including the owner’s level of investment, the calibre of the coaching, and the recruitment of both staff and players, all having a critical influence.

But as an illustration of the extent of influence one agent can have over a football club, it is revelatory. And it’s by no means an isolated example. According to Football Federation Australia’s own reports on intermediaries, last season Rallis represented eight players from Western Sydney Wanderers, in 2017-18 agent Zeljko Susa had seven players with Adelaide United, in 2015-16 Dragan Jevtic acted for six players from Sydney FC.

Furthermore, it is understood that expansion club Western United, in addition to having influential player agent Lou Sticca heavily involved in the operation of the new franchise, has Rallis currently brokering for their head coach to be and as many as five of the club’s new signings.

An experienced operator in the Australian market, Rallis is a figure that divides opinion. Some have described him as “one of the good guys”, “an operator who will always fight for his players”. Others have described him to Guardian Australia as “aggressive” or “belligerent”. One insider captured this seeming duality: “He likes to antagonise people and get under their skin, but he’s probably very good at what he does – he’s aggressive, but effective.”

Rallis himself makes no apologies for his reputation. “Am I upfront and direct and not your new age metrosexual guy? I didn’t believe being upfront and direct was a crime. Opinions don’t interest me, facts are what matters. There is a reason someone has a large client base in any form of business – it usually means they work hard and have ethics and principles.” It’s a strong point and in true Rallis fashion, one forcibly made.

In none of the illustration above is there any inference that Rallis has operated beyond the bounds of legality, nor indeed is there any merit in debates over his professional reputation. The fact remains that he is a hugely influential operator working well within the bounds of the parameters that currently govern the industry.

‘Brokers or agents?’

But do the rules of the game that are currently drawn need to be revisited? For Professional Footballers Australia, the players’ union, at the heart of the Mariners saga lies a fundamental conflict of interests that should not be allowed under the legislative framework that governs the actions of agents operating in the A-League.

“This is a really big issue in our game, and it goes back to an agent’s fundamental role,” PFA chief executive John Didulica tells Guardian Australia. “We call them agents, but are these people brokers or agents? A genuine agent represents an individual, say a player, and has fiduciary duties to that player, which means they can’t then countenance any agreement at the same time with a coach – the interests of their two clients may not be compatible.”

It’s a current arrangement that will necessarily produce adverse outcomes, but the roots of the issue lie far from Australian football, with Fifa radically altering the regulatory framework surrounding agents ahead of the 2015-16 A-League season. Pitched as a positive “reform” of the player agent system, the shift from formal “agents” and a complex licensing system to a deregulated world of “intermediaries” was immediately met with condemnation, from clubs as well as peak agent bodies, with concerns around lower barriers to entry, absence of proper person checks, and generally looser guidelines around a code of conduct for intermediaries operating in the industry.

Football Federation Australia was contacted for confirmation as to how many agents are currently active in the Australian game. Concerningly, there is no precise figure. Whereas once, under formal agent licensing, this was better known, current estimates range from between 40 to 60, with some suggesting as many as 80 intermediaries now operate in the Australian space. Given the incredibly narrow pool of full-time professional players domestically it gives rise to the remarkable circumstance where there is one intermediary for every three or four male professional players, competing and acting against each other to secure lucrative contracts.

As former Perth Glory CEO and experienced football administrator, Peter Filopoulos, points out, for many outside the professional environment the pathways for aspiring players are incredibly narrow. “We’ve got 1.8 million players in Australia,” Filopoulos says, “but only nine professional clubs, so naturally our ecosystem is small. It’s narrow with few opportunities – and sometimes agents feed on this.”

The challenge presented by intermediaries

With an intimate knowledge of the process of assembling an A-League squad – from a small professional playing pool, and within a salary-capped league – by Filopoulos’s assessment there are two distinct calibres of operators.

“There are two types of agents: some are transactional, they like to move players on every one-to-two years to keep making fees; on the one hand they’re trying to help, on the other they’re working against the club’s interests,” he says. “Others are more strategic – they prioritise the relationship with the player and the club and look to come up with solutions that are win, win, win.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by PFA. “Overwhelmingly, yes, there is a transactionary culture across the game in Australia, as opposed to one anchored in building values in clubs, in players, in the game,” says Didulica. “The best agents makes a genuinely positive contribution to the game here – they can help drive revenues back to Australia [through overseas transfers]. Those guys doing a great job are an asset – the challenge you have is that the proliferation of intermediaries now undermines the ability for these guys to do their job.”

An A-League ball
Over one in four of the 147 legal cases brought by PFA last year involved an agent. Photograph: Ashley Feder/Getty Images

At a professional level, clubs and administrators should be experienced enough to deal with a more competitive and less-regulated agent environment. More concerning for PFA is that the regulations have created a minefield at the sub-professional level, especially for young talented players coming through the NPL system. “Due to [Fifa’s] deregulation a lot of these agents are working at a sub-professional level, advising parents of kids aged 12-18,” Didulica says. “There’s an incredible deficit of information at that level, and there are some malevolent operators who trade off that information deficit.

“You hear of agents signing up a raft of young players, who don’t know enough to know otherwise, and then not proactively progressing their careers but they end up shackled to a three or four-year contract. This is where the PFA tries to help players.”

It’s a story far too prevalent in Australian football – the talented player who dreams of going pro, the family who sacrifices so much, and the intermediary who promises the world, but delivers a cul-de-sac. As one former professional says, “when even the family itself is surprised at the talent the kid has, and the smooth-talking agent shows up in your driveway with the flash car, of course you go for it”.

Over one in four of the 147 legal cases brought by PFA last year involved an agent – disputes between players and agents, disputes between agents in multi-party transactions – with the players’ union looking to expand its work advising young players before they enter into agency agreements.

Calls for legislative reform

Both club representatives and the players’ union were at pains to point out to Guardian Australia that the vast majority of interactions with player agents are conducted without dispute or rancour – but also that better regulation of the industry would help weed out those that operate in an unscrupulous manner.

After widespread condemnation of the 2015 changes, Fifa has confirmed that it is in discussions with the worldwide players’ union Fifpro and other stakeholders to reintroduce a more formalised licensing system for agents. And Australian football administrators are also calling for reform domestically.

“We need to bring back a formalised system of accreditation, with agents accountable under a code of conduct,” says Filopoulos. “There has been a deterioration of agents’ standards, not just here but worldwide, and there’s a real need for authenticity around this.”

As one current club administrator explains it’s not just a question of ethics or values, but technical proficiencies. “There is a lot of documentation that goes into any signing, documents around third-party-ownerships, TMS [Transfer Matching System] which come with potentially big fines if you don’t get it right. You want to know the guy at the other end is across all that.

“Agents need to know the full rules and regulations, the processes surrounding this need to be pretty robust. And you can’t have agents breaking transfer stories – it hurts the clubs, it hurts players, it hurts the game.”

FFA was contacted for comment but gave no indication of intention to lead a process of overhaul, with a spokesperson confirming it as a matter for Fifa. “FFA notes that the regulation of intermediaries is a matter of ongoing review and reform by Fifa and FFA will continue to monitor these reforms, and to implement such reforms in due course.”

The issues surrounding the operation of agents inside the Australian landscape are complex and multi-layered. The cautionary tale of the rogue operator at the sub-professional level is very different to that of the vastly experienced intermediary, whose list of glowing testimonial from current and past players shows a successful track-record operating within the parameters currently set by the regulatory framework governing the industry.

If one positive can come out of the illustrative example of the Mariners’ season, it’s a reminder of the need for tighter regulations around the actions of intermediaries. Not brokers, acting as intermediaries between clubs, coaches and players, not operators using media platforms to advance their private commercial agendas, and not intermediaries representing both coach and player, in scenarios that necessarily give rise to conflicts of interest that become potentially corrosive inside dressing rooms.

It is the least that fans deserve – especially those most loyal of fans, who spent hard-earned money and braved swirling storm clouds around Gosford Stadium on Saturday night to witness their club’s abject capitulation. And it’s the least that parents deserve – who pour thousands of dollars and untold hours of emotional labour into the development of their children as footballers, in the distant hope of one day becoming a professional.

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