Agent’s column: Middle East using sport for political influence, Football’s significant shift, the ‘new’ Super League, Mbappe’s power play and more

In his fortnightly exclusive column for CaughtOffside, Jon Smith, one of football’s first-ever agents and a man who was an integral figure in the forming of the Premier League, discusses how UEFA and FIFA need to be wary of Middle Eastern influence, how a new Super League could look, why he agrees with Kylian Mbappe’s stance and more! 


LIV/PGA golf and Boxing are the blueprint for Middle Eastern footballing influence

The fascinating thing is that I’ve been at and I am at the vanguard of some interesting conversations now with some very wealthy individuals and representatives of certain states about looking at sporting acquisitions, as well as some fascinating investors from America. So it’s kind of in my head, and it’s becoming seminal. 

UEFA have got a great product in the Champions League and they’ve attempted to square the circle for themselves in terms of broadcast rights maximisation by creating three or four lesser tournaments, even though they’re all significant. In simple form, that is the European Super League.

I actually don’t think things are going to change a lot in the next three to five years and it’s difficult to push out beyond that. The big point here is in a politically very diverse world where dictatorships seem to be able to control their states, Western politicians, including across Europe and the US, seem to be struggling to assert influence in areas where they would like to have that influence.

So, coming off the political platform for a moment, sport becomes very much an influencing factor because it dominates the thought process of the masses. The biggest one is football, boxing interest is at the top of the sport and I don’t just mean the heavyweights – because there are some very worthy challenges going on in the sport across all the weights, but broadcast and social media are sizeably title led.

Cristiano Ronaldo

You can see that the states that are in the Middle East are beginning to use sports as the influence by buying into and, to a degree, dominating some of those sports, for example like what’s happened with LIV and the PGA.

Will the new Saudi league become sensationally wonderful and will everyone follow it and drop everything else? No, because football predominantly has a tribal following at its core, at its heartbeat. 

I see that DAZN have just invested €500m in the Saudi league so it’s a good start, but unless the conditions and the tribalism begins to grow – in other words, you support Nottingham Forest and Al Hilal – there’ll be no global traction. You and I can collectively laugh at that, but in 20 years time that may be the case. 

At the moment I can’t see it, but I think the Saudi league will have its place because it can pay a lot of money to be at that head table. There are certainly players who are having their heads turned. A lot of players not just in the Premier League, but around Europe, are being ‘controlled’ by their families who have ‘discovered an oil well in their back garden.’ They seem more concerned to influence the player to move to where the big money is, so that they can all have a great retirement.

Football wasn’t the dominant emotional recreation that it is now. It was significant, but not as significant as it is now and part of that, is because of the pandemic. Football became the repository of a lot of our emotions because we couldn’t go out and do anything. Not just us, I’m talking worldwide. English football took a hugely dominant position and credit to the EPL and the EFL for the way that they managed it all during that time. 

Football’s significant shift will see European and American dominance diluted

I think what’s going to happen now is there’s going to be a really significant shift around the top of football, and just below the top as well. I’m meeting some big potential investors from the US who are looking at what what they can grow. Out of pertinently, the Championship and to a lesser extent, League One and League two. The new ownership at Charlton Athletic are significantly wealthy people for example, and I think they see that as a good investment. If they can grow it into the Championship, they’ll times their money by five or six. And if they get beyond that to the promised land of the EPL then you know it’s Christmas every day of the year. 

If you look at the political gatherings at the moment, the Middle East states are buddying up with China, who are also sizeably wealthy and influential and will become even more politically influential in the Pacific basin, and around the world. They’re politically very active in the Caribbean and various other places, and all over Africa, and it’s the political seniors that are making the decisions to buddy up over sport. 

They can go and create a whole new footballing world but that’s going to take time. The one huge caveat to all of this is the supporters, because if you grow up supporting Lille or Bayern Munich, or Newcastle United, you’re going to take some convincing that clubs in China, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and this new Super League is actually what you want. It may be what you want to watch because of the talent, but your heart is still with what is ingrained in you. 

That’s probably going to be the status quo in some shape or form for the next two generations; political influence is now being bought through sporting excellence. Is it dangerous? No, it’s revolutionary. I mean, I’m not madly keen on some of the less democratic states owning the game that I love, but if it’s a partnership between the love and experience that us folk have nurtured in football, and the money to make this game even better than it is both technically and in its presentational format, then I don’t have a major problem with it.

The world is growing in different directions and it’s evolving, as it always has done. And this is just part of that. But I think the significance is all the words that we’ve just said. I think we should be aware of UEFA having to fight to keep its home territory. FIFA has got the world so it’s going to have to do a deal with these people, and I guess there’s some significance, other than possibly it’s a nice place to live, that Infantino has moved to Qatar.

I think the reality of it – not just in football, but in life itself – is the dominance of Europe and America in all its forms has had its best days for the foreseeable future. And that the influence both politically and in sporting circles is going to come out of the Middle East and Asia. I just hope that they respect what they’re buying into and take the values that have been created over 100 odd years and evolve them into something new, shiny and wonderful that people understand and love rather than it being used as political tools of influence.

Mbappe isn’t a circus clown, he’s one of the greatest of all time

Regarding Kylian Mbappe, I was talking to some people from Saudi Arabia at the weekend it was all happening (the bid from Al Hilal) and they said to me, ‘what do you think?’ And I said ‘I think it’s terrible. I think you’re making him a circus clown. You know, he’s not there as a circus act, he’s there as one of the greatest footballers of all time. The fact that you take him on for a year to perform… it’s not how sporting excellence grows. It doesn’t just perform for the person who can pay the most money.’

I think player power has its place. I would say that because I come from a history of looking after players and I think he is a global superstar. I go back to what we were saying before. The thing that worries me is the influence of the uneducated, and I don’t mean uneducated people. I mean people who are not educated in the world of the business of football, who want to push their kids into deals that are better for them than they are for their child’s footballing growth. It’s a money grab.

That’s in all walks of life, not just football, but it’s kind of been tempered by the fact that we’ve gone from ‘would you like to win something,’ ‘would you like to play at Wembley,’ ‘would you like to play for England,’ to ‘here’s 30 million pounds a year, just come and perform.’ The problem is it’s so appealing to bank 30, 40, 50 million pounds a year in a tax friendly environment, in a really, really difficult world where people are struggling to pay heating bills and can’t feed themselves. You want to put yourself as far away from that scenario as possible. 

I’m a huge fan of all forms of media because we couldn’t achieve what we did in sport without sizeable media support, but I do find it a little churlish at times when the media headline is about the money rather than about the game that’s being played. So I think I understand where he’s (Mbappe) coming from, and I also understand that a lot of these players come from very, very poor countries where life was really tough for them and their predecessors. Suddenly they’re being thrown 20, 30 million pounds so why wouldn’t you accept that? 

Football’s delicate balancing act

Somehow, there’s got to be a balance between how do you allow the exciting dynamic of footballing excellence to flourish, rather than worry about what goes into bank accounts every week – and that that’s the dichotomy for the football industry in the next 20 years. 

How do you manage to keep whatever format a Super League may be under UEFA, and under under FIFA in a World Club Championship? How do you make that tribally exciting for real football fans? Or will real football fans ultimately die out over the over the next couple of generations and the ones that are coming through will be in a shiny new world where the virtual world means as much as the real world – and this just becomes part of it? It’s real and virtual football, and finally it’s fantasy football! 

Now, in my world, I like reality, and I’m very happy to push the boundaries as you know. I was there with Rupert Murdoch, David Dein and everyone else when we started the Premier League, and we all saw it as the way forward. I think the game needs to evolve it needs to change, and I welcome the addition of any new monies from any territory around the world. What I don’t want is for that money to buy the soul of the game, which I don’t think it has yet. Whatever we did with the Premier League has been great and it’s the most watched product on the planet. That’s fantastic. It’s where we take it from here and how we keep it as real football rather than fantasy league football.

Wenger absolutely deserves his statue

Arsene Wenger’s my friend and he’s one of of my icons. I was privileged to work with him and he was as wonderful as a human being as he is as a football coach. He should be honoured by Arsenal and he should be honoured by the game. I absolutely believe that there should be a statue of him and nobody should even consider pulling it down! He’s worthy of reverence and a piece of Arsenal footballing history for sure.

Now it all starts again this week in the Premier League and I think there’s going to be a mad scramble in the last two weeks for transfers, there always is. It might be even more mad this time because, as you know, only 18% of the English football agents passed the official exam and they’re going to have to take it again in September. If they fail, that they can’t take it for another year so they’re out the game for 12 months. 

A lot of agents are going to push player deals now – and by the way, the families have to pass that exam as well. On top of that, you’re only allowed to charge 3% for your activity as a player’s agent but can charge more if you act for the club. A lot of people get round that as it was notionally 5% before. 

They’re will be further challenges to the 3% in the coming year for sure, particularly as a restriction of trade. For all that, there’s going to be some interesting situations now – how clubs may have to work around the 3% and also those agents who are no longer agents after September. Watch this space with alacrity.

Source of the article

Author: XenBet