Dr Dan Parnell




Football agents should not be sent off – they just need a better set of rules

Originally published on The Conversation.

The war for talent is raging across the world. From Silicon Valley to Zhongguancun, organisations and institutions battle to recruit the best the world has to offer. So why is the football labour market viewed any differently to that of other industries and sectors? Surely demand for star players should be no different to the demand for product designers, data scientists and programmers.

Yet in light of the current controversies surrounding issues such as third-party ownership (TPO) and accusations of greed, and due to its mass market global appeal, football is different.

It seems strange then, that so little is known about the inner workings of the football machine – and in particular, those mysterious agents who grease the wheels, move the cogs and, apparently, make vast sums of money in the process.

Agent Jorge Mendes (left) on the red carpet. PA

Football agents make some of the biggest deals in football, sometimes profiting hugely from the talents of their superstar clients. Their role can be defined as “representing clubs and players within the context of contracts or transfer negotiations”.

Essentially, they are middlemen. But their role is increasingly growing to include responsibilities traditionally undertaken by the football club, such as being sold to another team. This raises the significant possibility of conflict of interest, when agents and clubs disagree about the player’s career path. Muddying the waters further is a hierarchy of power and division of labour within the role of agent so that some smaller agents work under the orders of the more powerful few.

So where do these agents come from? In a report on the big five leagues, just over half of agents had already worked in the football industry. Of these, 23% had a playing career, 13% scouted for players, 7.5% worked as a football manager and, 5.5% were sporting directors.

At the top of the profession, are the powerful few described by the media as “super agents”. Jorge Mendes is considered by many to be top of the pile, with clients including Cristiano Ronaldo, Diego Costa and Jose Mourinho among the £625m worth of contracts he has secured.

But given the current lack of transparency and regulation, all the agents and their dealings are difficult to identify, although they are viewed as the most powerful men in football.

Despite the significant number of people registered as agents in professional football, their presence is not evenly spread. A recent report highlights that representation in Europe’s five big leagues (England, Spain, France, Germany and Italy) is so highly concentrated that half of those leagues’ footballers are managed by only 83 football agents or agencies.

These increasingly powerful upper hierarchy of agents operate globallyacross divisions, leagues and continents.

Agent Jorge Mendes and the number of his transfers (thickness of lines) between clubs (circles), up until June 2016Widdop, Parnell and Asghar, Author provided

Public and industry opinion towards football agents remains hostile – Napoli’s owner, Aurelio de Laurentis, has described them as the “cancer of our world”. The media frenzy often directed at agents is adding pressure across the football industry to better regulate them. But football intermediary Jonathan Booker claims that it is those in football leadership, not the agents themselves, who have stood by and let this status quo continue.

And what about the agents themselves? Despite the fact that they should have a key voice in the debate about their role, you rarely hear from them. As part of our research we have interviewed football agents and intermediaries operating across the UK, Europe and beyond.

One of them explained that TPO has become common practice as a direct result of the economic recession, which led to financial institutions withholding loans, overdrafts and other financial benefits to clubs. He also argued that “the advantages [of TPO] can be multilateral”, explaining:

The buying club can obtain a player who will make their team better without having to pay the full amount the selling club is asking for. And the investor, whether that is an agent or consultant or company, will look for a return on that investment.

Addressing concerns about the impact of agent deregulation by FIFA in April 2015, he continued: “What does football expect? To become a coach in a professional club you need a relevant, often nationally accepted qualification. To become an agent you need to simply pay a small [£500] fee. This has created a context whereby a huge influx of agents have appeared, lacking due knowledge of regulation and impacting upon the system by continually approaching players with misplaced promises whilst trying to gain a living.

“It has opened the gate to the rogue agents that give all agents a bad name.”

FA as agents of change?

In the UK, the picture appears bleak, contradictory and dominated by big money. While we have strong calls by the FA for tighter local regulation, the Premier League is pushing for an easing in youth (aged 14-15) player regulation. This will no doubt heat up the chase for younger and cheaper players and will open up the disturbing reality of child trafficking and exploitation, when agents arrange ownership of very young players from developing countries. There’s no suggestion that the Premier League condones trafficking or exploitation of young players.

While agents call for global leadership and governance from FIFA to get rid of the rogue elements from their industry, many observers (and insiders) are treating this is a long-term aspiration (given they have enough to deal with already!). In the interim, the FA has an opportunity to lead and demonstrate a gold standard of practice, by heading up a coalition of stakeholders including the Association of Football Agents, the Premier League, English Football Championship and leagues, Players Football Association and government.

Complete transparency on all transfer and financial sensitivities, a formal and enhanced accreditation process and a national programme of education and training would allow the FA to protect its assets, repair its integrity, and position itself as a leader in football regulation.



This article was published on the site Futsal Focus here.

The article to download is here: 2016-fifa-futsal-world-cup-legacy-112196259_739999556131762_7308753463433976654_n


European Association for Sociology of Sport, Copenhagen

img_2104Just spent a great couple of days at EASS, meeting with colleagues from Play the Game, IDAN and the University of Copenhagen to progress collaborations on sport policy, research and an edited book on sport and health with Professor Peter Krustrup. A big cheers to Simon Whitmore and Jonathan Manley from Routledge for their ongoing support and to Mark Turner from Southampton Solent University who is doing some fascinating research on safe standing in football. My colleague Dr Kathryn Curran also presented our recent article on the role of professional football clubs delivering on the mental health agenda. To top things off, we also managed to make the Aarhus vs Copenhagen Dutch Cup Final, which was a top experience. Great people, great event and great city. 

FIFA: the men, the myths and the money

Peter Millward and Dan Parnell recently reviewed Alan Tomlinson’s book: FIFA: the men, the myths and the money.  The book review was published in the Journal Leisure/Loisir.

For a link to the full article please click here. 


World Cup 2014: festival of football or alcohol?

Following the World Cup 2014 a number of journalists and academics highlighted and discussed the controversy of corporate influence the balance between sponsorship requirements and corporate social responsibility. Below is a rapid communication we, Stephen Zwolinsky, Jim McKenna, Andy Pringle and Dan Parnell had published in the British Medical Journal.

Re: World Cup 2014: festival of football or alcohol?

Gornall [1] highlights that ‘intangible benefits’ and ‘lasting legacies’ emerging from major sporting events like the World Cup are seldom clear. Yet, the widespread assumption of many lay individuals, and some government representatives, is that major sporting events represent a form of fairy dust – a panacea – for a nation’s ills. These perceptions are often wholly inadequate given the scale of the problems facing many hosting countries.

Worse, these assumptions may be toxic; they can blind us to the existing risks that are difficult to manage whilst also introducing further risks. The tensions between sponsors – whose products can negatively impact on wellbeing – and organisers need to be balanced against the interests of consumers. Ignoring the complexities of commercial ‘influence’ supports crude and ill-founded approximations about the universal benefits of major sporting events.

Yet there is something virtuous about the power of specific sports. In football, and specifically community-based health interventions, this is clear especially when commercial influence is absent. While health care systems typically struggle to engage ‘at risk’ groups, interventions linked to these football clubs readily engage groups previously abandoned under the label of ‘hard-to-reach’. These interventions have demonstrated statistically significant reductions in alcohol consumption, while increasing physical activity and improving diet [2]. They can also generate clinically significant reductions in weight [3].

Whilst there can be a tangible positive legacy from mega sporting events, the bulk of this benefit must not be felt by – amongst others – the alcohol industry [1]. Mega events certainly have potential for improving health, but at this point, that is all it is, potential. Hard evidence is needed to confirm the lasting positive effects of mega events. In the meantime, we already have persuasive evidence that justifies deploying a bottom-up approach and building on the work undertaken at a community level.

References –
1. Gornall J. World Cup 2014: festival of football or alcohol? BMJ (Clinical research ed) 2014;348:g3772 doi: 10.1136/bmj.g3772[published Online First: Epub Date]|.
2. Pringle A, Zwolinsky S, McKenna J, et al. Health improvement for men and hard-to-engage-men delivered in English Premier League football clubs. Health education research 2014;29(3):503-20 doi: 10.1093/her/cyu009[published Online First: Epub Date]|.
3. Hunt K, Wyke S, Gray CM, et al. A gender-sensitised weight loss and healthy living programme for overweight and obese men delivered by Scottish Premier League football clubs (FFIT): a pragmatic randomised controlled trial. The Lancet 2014;DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(13)62420-4

For the original article please click here.


Over the past 15 years football medicine research has developed significantly. The FIFA Medical Assessment and Research Centre has played a significant role in developing and collating information and addressing a variety of medical issues such as injury prevention, protecting players’ health and promoting health within communities and society as a whole.

The transparency of FIFA continues to be questioned and, more explicitly, it has been challenged as a corrupt organisation. It’s not a great time for FIFA. But it is doing some things right that also deserve a place in the spotlight.

FIFA Club World Cup 2014

Power to reach

FIFA has been playing its own role in response to the Ebola outbreak. FIFA’s chief medical officer, Jiri Dvorak, recently spoke at the European Healthy Stadia Conference in Geneva, Switzerland. He was keen to champion FIFA’s responsibility to society and to applaud the impressive (and wholeheartedly positive) response of professional football players to FIFA’s request to support its Ebola campaign.

The campaign – #togetherwecanbeatebola – was organised within two weeks. Players including Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale and Bayern Munich’s Philipp Lahm delivered simple messages such as: “avoid contact with wild animals and bats” and: “wash your hands and disinfect” to help tackle the Ebola outbreak.

FIFA’s quick response has helped translate key information, using the mass appeal and reach of the brand of football to a global audience through social media and a more traditional media campaign in the countries hardest hit by Ebola.

Reducing injury

FIFA is also looking to help the 265m people – and rising – who play football around the world. This includes a programme to reduce injury in amateur football.

Each year, almost 6m people need treatment in hospitals due to sporting activity. Importantly, “team ball sports” account for 40% of all hospital-related sport treatment – and football, which is responsible for 74% of that figure, makes up the majority of these hospital submissions.

FIFA’s medical research centre (F-Marc) has developed and tested a programme that has been trialed in different areas of organised football to prevent and reduce injury among those playing the sport at amateur and grassroots level. In one study, 5,000 coaches of the Swiss FA were educated on the new injury prevention programme and a result, injuries nationwide were reduced by 12%.

The programme includes a new warm-up protocol, which was also tested in female football in Norway and where there was a 30% reduction in injuries within a one-year period.

Still open to scrutiny

Critics have challenged whether mega-sized sporting events are able to deliver real health legacies, among often unscrupulous sponsor-driven decision making. Others feel FIFA could to do more, try harder and up its game. This includes calling on FIFA to focus on and invest in promoting health.

Amid all the bad news about corruption and scandal, it is worth taking a moment to offer some credit to FIFA for its valiant health promotion efforts but also to keep up scrutiny of FIFA and its social responsibility. We shouldn’t become complacent, especially given the amount of money invested in the beautiful game by sponsors. This is the ideal time to step-up our challenge and call on FIFA to realise further opportunities that use football to help promote health in communities around the world.

Please note that this post was originally published on ‘The Conversation’ –

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