Tap my bitch up

There are many things about football that have remained the same down the years. The fervour of the fans, the basic concept of sticking a ball in the back of the net, that fact that anyone who had old man who tried to persuade them to become a Tottenham fan would have been told in no uncertain terms where to go and what was thought of him, dodgy referees and tapping up.

The dark art of luring a player from one club to another with the promise of glory and riches but mostly riches. Letting it be known to a player that another club would be interested in signing him, offering him a higher salary, bigger bonuses etc etc. This contact happens well in advance of Club A sending a facsimile sheet to Club B saying “Dear Club B, we at Club A, who have acted appropriately at all times, hereby offer you thruppence ha’apenny for the signature of Player X”, at which point Club B sends one back saying “Piss off Arsenal, you cheap fuckers!”.

Nowadays players have their agents, their personal managers, advisors and all kinds of people who, without going through official channels, can test the water, see what’s out there. Have a good run of form? Why not cast your line and see if anyone bites? If they do, grand, if not no harm, you can always cast again later on. If there’s a nice offer, all the better, the player is made aware and in a business where money talks, and the player is the one who earns all the money, his agents will do whatever they can to make him happy because when he earns more they earn more.

That’s not to say there aren’t agents out there who genuinely care for their clients, who want what’s best for them from a football point of view, but ultimately most players are commodities and every commodity has its price. From the very top of the market to very bottom this is what goes on, what has gone on since time immemorial and what will continue to go on because there is simply no will within the game to fix this.

When FIFA discovered that up to 70% of international transfers were completed by non-licenced agents they didn’t decide to tackle the problem, they simply deemed it unworkable and according to the FA ‘it’s possible from October 2011 requirements for people becoming licensed agents will no longer apply’. So what is already something of a problem within the game is likely to get worse. The vast sums of money agents generate for themselves mean it will attract all manner of shysters, above and beyond what we have already.

So when people call for clubs to punished for publicly tapping up a player it’s a nice idea but one which is pretty much a pipe dream. There’s been the odd action against an agent but generally those are on points of law as one has out-sharked the other. Clubs use agents, representatives, media, their own players, everything at their disposal to let a player they want know how much they want him. We hardly need examples of that, do we? Yet here’s Patrice Evra talking about Samir Nasri, linked with both Man United and Man City:

Of course I’ve talked a lot with him in the holiday and also when we met up for friendly games with France at the end of the season. I told him how great it is to play for United and how important it would be for him to become of the biggest players in the world.I just told him how good it would be for him coming here. He will have a nice welcome, and I can help as well because I’m French.

What’s most telling about that article is that they say ‘Evra risked further upsetting City …’. Upsetting City?! Isn’t it an Arsenal player he’s talking about? An Arsenal player, under contract, who has clearly been subjected to ‘advice’ from his agents who have been talking to other clubs who have told them to tell Nasri how much they’ll offer him. So much so that the contract Nasri had agreed with Arsenal has remained unsigned for months and months. Don’t buy the spin from Nasri’s agents that the contract wasn’t presented in time, it was. He, under advisement, simply didn’t sign because he was tapped up by other clubs.

Speaking yesterday Arsene Wenger was asked about the ‘interest’ of Man City and maybe if they’d gone too far. He said:

I would like to return the question to you – what do you think? We live in a realistic world. I do not want to assess what I cannot prove. I know how things happen.

It doesn’t necessarily go through the player or the agent but I think it is a rule that has to be reviewed. It’s not really respected.

And he’s right. It’s not respected because it’s not enforced. It’s not enforced because there’s nobody with the will to enforce it. As for it being reviewed, I won’t be holding my breath. The football agent culture is powerful and wealthy and would resist any attempts at change. It’s not often I agree with Gary Neville but it’s hard to argue with him when he said players ‘didn’t need people taking hundreds of thousands of pounds off them, just good advice from a solicitor or an accountant’ (link in the BBC article above).

Yet there are few top level players who don’t give away these hundreds of thousands of pounds, this percentage of their earnings. Players whose agents make decisions for them, and when it comes right down to it, if there’s a choice between more money in the short term or a better career in the long term the agent generally goes for the former. Emmanuel Adebayor and Alex Hleb two prime examples of that in the last couple of seasons at Arsenal.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that Arsenal are whiter than white in this regard. The ubiquity of the practice is such that we’ll have spoken to, or listened to, agents/reps of players we might want to sign. Our players will have chatted with their countrymen on international duty about how great Arsenal is. We might be a little less grubby than some, not launching sustained media campaigns via newspapers willing to act as mass market PR journals, but to say we’re not involved at all would be wrong.

You could argue that one way of preventing players being tapped up is to be the best, to win things regularly, to pay the best wages, and to a certain point that’s true. You won’t hear of anyone publicy tapping up Messi because he already plays for the best team in Europe and is probably as well paid as any player on the planet. Yet successive league titles and a Champions League weren’t enough to keep Ronaldo happy at United. The lure of more money and glamour at Real Madrid was too great.

To me, and I could be wrong, it seems that Arsenal suffer more than most with this issue. I suspect it has something to do with Wenger’s ability to take players and make them better. And while we were winning things it was easier to hang onto them, despite huge interest along the way. Now that we’re in a more fallow period it’s proving to be a bit more tricky.

There’s no doubt Nasri has been tapped up, had his head turned by the huge money on offer at other clubs. He had a fine offer on the table from Arsenal and he refused it. Yet what good would a review do at this stage? Unless somebody comes in with rigid new rules and regulations the system is what it is, and we have to cope with it as best we can. Not that I want Arsenal to go down the grubby road but we ought not to be the standard bearers for morality within the game.

Let’s focus on the things we can change, and can affect. Let’s look after our own business, make the most of the market (in both directions) and if somebody, sometime decides to make the industry of agents a better place then we can be happy about that.

Till tomorrow.

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