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When Soccer Is a Family Business

The list in the files at the headquarters of England’s Football Association is peppered with surnames familiar to soccer fans: Rashford, Alexander-Arnold, Pulisic, Özil, Gundogan. But this is not a list of Premier League players. It is a list of the people who can represent them in negotiations.

Dane Rashford, the brother of Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford, is on the list. So are the brother of Liverpool defender Trent Alexander-Arnold, the fathers of Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic and Bournemouth’s Jordon Ibe.

In recent years, the number of family members acting officially as agents or intermediaries on behalf of professional soccer players in England has increased considerably. Industry experts said the shift is predominantly rooted in recent changes in regulations that have made it easier for relatives to register and to represent — more transparently and more directly — the interests of their siblings, sons and cousins in transfer and contract negotiations.

“You only have one career,” Bournemouth’s Ibe said. “And it’s not anything too deep to have my mum and my family look after me.”

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The influence of family members in the transfers and commercial dealings of players was hardly new, of course; the goal of the rules changes, soccer officials said, was to formalize and add transparency to an increasingly chaotic landscape. So in 2015, the Football Association complied with a series of FIFA rules changes that were billed as an attempt to reduce the large number of transfer dealings that were undertaken without the use of a licensed agent. As a result, all agents became referred to as intermediaries, a switch in classification that now allows those who weren’t previously qualified as agents but represented players to oversee contract negotiations for their clients.

Registration became easier after the change. Previously, agents were required to pass a difficult exam. Now, to become an intermediary, a representative must merely complete a registration form online, pay a fee and, if dealing with minors, pass a criminal-background check.

Since the changes went into effect four years ago, the number of registered representatives with the F.A. has risen from a few hundred practicing agents to more than 2,000 intermediaries, leading experienced agents such as Mel Stein, the president of the Association of Football Agents, to use terminology such as “free-for-all,” “bunfight” and “Wild West” to describe the current landscape.

“We’ve got loads and loads of members, and they come to meetings and are very willing to commit, to participate, to get knowledge,” he said. “But it’s the ones that don’t come that worry me; the ones that are out there battling away on their own and don’t know what they are doing.”

Stein acknowledged that while family members who register as intermediaries are arguably more likely to have a relative’s best interests at heart, he said that he still thinks there should be an entry bar of practical experience before someone is qualified to oversee what are often multimillion-dollar deals.

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West Bromwich Albion forward Hal Robson-Kanu agreed. His older brother, David, helped him navigate the pivotal summer of his career in 2016, when, out of contract, he turned a strong performance for Wales at the European Championships in France into a move to the Premier League. Robson-Kanu said that the personal connection — as well as prior experiences with agents who he felt placed their interests ahead of his — was important to him, but that if his brother had not passed the earlier version of the agents’ exam, he would not have employed him purely on family ties.

“Being in a position where you are on a free transfer, where, really, you have to trust the word of who you are entering into an engagement with, it was key for someone like my brother to be overseeing that,” Robson-Kanu said. “Would I have trusted other agents out there? Probably not.”

But with a system that now puts super agents such as Jorge Mendes and Mino Raiola on the same list as a family member who has merely registered online, the line defining the role played by an “agent” — and the experience required to fill that role — has blurred.

For Tottenham midfielder Dele Alli, it was essential that a family member became the point person when he signed with a major agency in 2017. At age 13, Dele Alli had moved into the home of Alan and Sally Hickford, whose son Harry was one of his youth teammates at Milton Keynes Dons. He has since referred to the Hickfords as his adopted family, and has empowered Harry, whom he refers to as his brother, to serve as his main representative.

“One of the huge advantages was, as I’m his brother, Dele would always be completely honest with me about vocalizing any issues or concerns,” said Harry Hickford, who registered as an intermediary. “Another huge benefit to having such a close relationship with him is that you are able to read in between the lines and understand his moods and emotions, even if nothing is explicitly being said.”

Acknowledging that he may not have the industry expertise or contacts of a traditional agent, Hickford assembled a team around Dele Alli that includes a law firm, public relations experts and a sports agency.

“Many people without experience will struggle to navigate negotiating contracts and building opportunities for the player off the pitch,” Hickford said. “Legal and P.R. advice is indispensable, and I believe every football player should outsource for services like these, as there is only so much that can be offered by a family member with little to no experience in these areas.”

Ibe is another Premier League player who has opted to keep such decisions at home, an approach he has championed in interviews throughout his professional career. When he was 10 or 11, he said, his parents decided they would oversee his career, which led him from London’s heavily scouted youth leagues to Liverpool and, now, to Bournemouth on England’s southern coast.

Today, Ibe’s mother, Charlet Livermore, is the first port of call for those who want to do business with him on or off the field. Ibe joked that he is “not David Beckham,” and so his mother is hardly playing a managerial role that involves giant sponsorship deals or contracts, or even fielding calls on a daily basis. Instead, when an offer comes in, Ibe said he and Livermore will first discuss it before seeking the input of others with the necessary experience, a group that can include former players like Rio Ferdinand and Ian Wright. The family then makes the final decision together.

“Help is free,” Ibe said. “I can always get help from teammates here, ex-teammates, ex-players that have been in the game, and I can speak with other agents and get their advice. But I’m always going to stay in this position of keeping it in-house with my family.”

ImageCreditMatthew Childs/Action Images Via Reuters

The more open system for agents and intermediaries is not without its flaws, however. In some cases, family members inexperienced in complex negotiations simply overvalue or, worse, undervalue their relative’s worth. David Seligman, a sports lawyer who advises clubs, players and intermediaries, gave one example in which a player’s family member negotiated a contract extension that appeared great on paper: The player got a raise in pay, and the family member received a commission.

A year later, though, the player’s improved performances merited a wage that should have been double his renegotiated salary. A seasoned agent, Seligman said, would have included a release clause to account for such a possibility. But without one, the player had no bargaining power for the next three years.

In another example, Seligman said a player who had seen his relationship with a club break down was advised to walk out on the team by his cousin, who informed him that his contract had been canceled. It had not. As a result, he blundered into six months of purgatory: unable to return to his old club, and unable to join a new one until the next transfer window — and only if a new team first met the old club’s price for him.

“It’s little mistakes,” said Seligman, who acknowledged such horror stories remained rare at the elite level. Yet he said that he still views family involvement as a positive, provided those involved know its limits.

“I’ve stressed this for a number of years: The best intermediaries are those that ask for help, in any business,” he said. “If you’re not an expert in something, ask for help in relation to it. So, as a family member, you are an expert in the interest of the welfare of your family member, because that is paramount.”

At least one player’s relative, though, keeps his family at arm’s length. George Shelvey, the brother of Newcastle midfielder Jonjo Shelvey, became a registered intermediary four years ago, after being asked by an agency to look into talented youngsters who might require the firm’s services. Now able to oversee deals — and technically on the same Football Association list as Jonjo’s longtime agent — George Shelvey said that, for now, putting family first meant not getting involved in his brother’s career, despite working in the industry.

“I know he’s well represented, and he has been for a while,” George Shelvey said. “We have a brother relationship, we have a football relationship, but we don’t have a business relationship. That’s for other people to sort out.”

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