Speaking to Get French Football News, football author Romain Molina discussed his experiences with the world of agents.
Could you tell us about PSG’s very particular relationship with their agents? Since QSI’s arrival, there seems to be an oligopolistic relationship with them. Be it with Mino Raiola, Jorge Mendes or Pini Zahavi.
Before addressing PSG, it’s important to talk about the world of agents and football at all levels. One must know that 99% of the time, players cannot represent themselves. Firstly because they don’t have the necessary legal, administrative or financial training and background to understand what’s at hand. Secondly because they can’t contact clubs directly. It puts them in a weak position because they are the seeker. So they need an intermediary. Many industries require that. The agents act as conduits for all parties.
PSG’s case isn’t different from what is done elsewhere. The world of football is filled with agents, whether they’re official or unofficial. When you reach larger clubs, you find super-agents. They’re not like the regular agents of normal players who don’t make a living from their profession. There’s a huge disparity between these agents, with around 80% of agents making a living from their profession. Except that those who do make a living from it earn very good money.
When you reach a certain point, the agents can advise players, but there are other types of agents. Agents who represent coaches. Agents who represent owners and act as advisors. The super-agent isn’t on the market, he creates a market. Italian sociologist Pippo Russo (who wrote a book on agents) came up with this idea that the super-agent is the one who has an influence on non-football matters. Vis-à-vis the media, the industrial, entrepreneurial, political and diplomatic side of things.
The super-agent is the one who will bring others to buy the club. Mino Raiola isn’t an agent in this case. He’s a dealmaker. He’s one of the best in the world for that. Jorge Mendes is a super-agent. Just look at what he’s done at Wolverhampton. In the case of Pini Zahavi, he is everything but a super-agent.
He’s the quintessential super-agent. He’s not a player agent. He’s like Paco Casal, the Uruguayan entrepreneur crazed for TV rights in South America, like Juan Figer the first notable major football agent (used to represent Neymar). We know very little about Juan Figer (his age, where he’s from etc.).
These super-agents have an influence on everything. So when someone like Pini Zahavi comes to PSG, you have a lot of on-the-pitch matters, but a hell of a lot of off-the-pitch ones too. Pini Zahavi does not reason like everyday people or agents. Compared to someone like French agent Moussa Sissoko who is a classic dealmaker. Zahavi won’t think purely in terms of money.
He’s like Napoleon who rules his empire. He places his pawns wherever he wants. So he’s both interesting and scary to study. These people are geniuses in human relations amongst other things. And obviously the agent who represents the most bankable player will be influential in the club.
Does the world of football for major clubs require this?
PSG is aiming for the Champions’ League. And to get there, they hired a Sporting Director (Antero Henrique). He’s intelligent and discreet. He started out as a storekeeper, and ended up as the second in command at the club at Porto.
But when you look at the kinds of matters that have taken place in world football during these last ten years, they usually took place in Portugal and FC Porto. For example, Lucho Gonzalez and Lisandro Lopez did not belong to Porto. They were owned in part by Porto and in part by Rio football service Ltd, a company based in Israel with many affiliates in Hungary, Malta, the Netherlands etc. But who does it really belong to? Who really owned Lucho Gonzalez and Lisandro Lopez? Well, one of the FC Porto executives chose not to give their name to the Portuguese justice. He preferred to lie to the Portuguese justice and end up in jail, than reveal who was in charge.
The world of football is a real cartel now, with ties to the world of arm dealing, drugs, human trafficking. Football is a strategic way to hide this. It’s not to say that PSG and Antero Henrique are laundering or whatever, not at all. You have people in the world of football who are criminals. But it’s proven that more and more criminals are going into the world of football for reasons of public image.
Since PSG wanted Neymar, they had to go through Pini Zahavi. As simple as that. The only person able to satisfy all parties was Pini Zahavi. That’s the particularity with super-agents, they can please everyone. At least it seems that way. When Kia Joorabchian placed Coutinho in Barcelona, the Liverpool owners were happy with the money they received, and he was also able to help them find a replacement. They create the market and the dependency.
With PSG, it’s not particularly shocking because the club knew what kind of network he had. Antero Henrique’s network consists of Pini Zahavi, Marcelo Simonian (Pastore’s agent), Giuliano Bertolucci, Mohamed Azval, Jonathan Barnet, Juan Figer. And on the French market, he works nearly exclusively with Moussa Sissoko (French agent).
With PSG, players are often encouraged to sign with him as an agent. He made Dan-Axel Zagadou leave last year, had his say in Yacine Adli staying in PSG. Plus when you know that he is negotiating with N’Golo Kanté’s long-time agent Karim Douis for Kanté coming to the club, you understand the games that agents are playing. If you want Kanté to come, you have to go through Chelsea. And from there, they can pull the Pini Zahavi lever, which can open all doors. Especially the non-football related ones.
Does he have too much power within the club hierarchy?
Internally, you have people saying that Pini Zahavi is the Sporting Director, which wouldn’t please Antero Henrique. Henrique can thank Zahavi for still being in his position. The conflict that Hernique had with Jean-Martial Ribes (the head of communication and Nasser Al-Khelaifi’s advisor) was bad.
Zahavi has even placed people within the club. Most notably, Humberto Piva, Mouscron’s former Sporting Director, who was involved in matters relating to Neymar’s image rights. He isn’t paid by PSG, but he’s still seemingly heavily involved in the club. One could ask why is he involved in rumours around São Paulo’s Militão?
Zahavi is the best in the world because he’s been the most consistent. Plus, he’s the most discreet. Nowadays, he’s all the talk in France even though there’s still a lot of uncertainty around him, but in England, he’s well-known. In France, a lot of people don’t understand the extent of his influence. It’s not really a matter of him having too much power at PSG.
It’s that you can’t say no to him when Neymar belongs to him. Plus, he always finds solutions to your problems. When the problem was with Lucas, who found the solution? Pini. What about Aurier? Pini as well. He’s very efficient in what he does. It’s also about understanding who you’re working with. People need to be aware of this.
How discreet is he really though if people are talking more about him?
In the press, his name can always come up. But his signature is pretty much never on the deals, he’s always the middleman. Compared to other agents like Mendes and Raiola who have had legal issues, Zahavi has never been caught for anything over 30-40 years. He’s the king of discretion. Mendes can be traced, but Zahavi can’t. His life is a mystery. Everything we know about him could be false. The only thing that we know is that no one truly knows who he is.
His empire is untraceable essentially. He’s a ghost. He’s linked to a multiplicity of things, but you can never prove anything. It’s genius. He’s been involved in the most important football transfers ever (e.g. – Jaap Stam, Juan Veron, Roman Abramovich to Chelsea). And very strangely, he has an empire in the Balkans. Why would a 70 year old guy have anything to do there?
He never speaks out, avoids the public eye. Zahavi remains a man of discretion and mystery. Just to come into contact with someone who has collaborated with him is nearly impossible. Zahavi sometimes comes across as the godfather in the media, but when he hears that kind of stuff, he finds it laughable, trust me! He’s so ahead of everyone and powerful. Plus he knows everyone.
He wasn’t just involved with someone like Roman Abramovich in Chelsea, but also Boris Berezovsky. He has an unimaginable contact book of Russian oligarchs. It makes you wonder if he’s really a football agent… In a The Guardian interview, there’s a really outlandish segment, about him lighting up cigars with his associate and talking to other Russian oligarchs. Almost movie-like! No other agent in the world is at his level. He’s 20 years ahead of everyone.
The person who’s done the most in the world of football is probably Juan Figer, who hasn’t been spoken about as much. But Pini Zahavi introduced the notion of triangulation in football, image rights, third party ownership… He’s also able to split the cake evenly. The younger generation is especially greedy, but he helps people earn livings and meet ends meet. You can’t bite the hand that feeds you. So he’s clever in that respect. He doesn’t have an ego. So obviously, you can’t screw him over later.
During the economic crisis, he was one of the people lending money to clubs asking for no money in exchange, which was genius. In return, he put people in specific places, got TV rights here and there. He was key in Third Party Ownership. Just look at Gonzalo Higuain to Real Madrid.
He never went directly from River Plate to Real Madrid. He went from River Plate to Locarno, where the player’s economic rights were bought, some obscure second division Swiss club. Then Locarno to Real Madrid. Yet, he’s never set foot in Switzerland. And guess who owned the Swiss club? Some race car company belonging to who? You guessed it! That tells you who he is…
Could PSG’s special relationship with agents affect Thomas Tuchel’s preparation or time with the club?
Not really. Pini doesn’t get too involved in that side of things. He represents Neymar so of course you have to go through him. He’s one of the only ones who can calm Neymar’s father down, who always looks to meet up with his son and negotiate more money. Without Zahavi, you can’t manage the father. Nasser Al-Khelaifi thinks very highly of him.
From a geopolitical perspective, he’s also good friends with oligarchs who are for and against Putin. Honestly, you don’t really have a choice. He doesn’t have too much of an influence on football related matters, but he’s Mr. Fix It. You give him a task, he’ll get it done. Considering that PSG want to be efficient, they have to go through him. He has Neymar, so it’s as simple as that. If it were some other player, it would be a different agent.
An important to question to ask is about the behind-the-scenes of certain deals…
I believe that Gustavo Hebling is still being paid by PSG despite being sold, he hasn’t played a game for PSG or Portimonense. Simply put, Portimonense is led by Hulk’s former agent who worked with Antero Hernique on one of the biggest transfers in world football at the time, and Juan Figer who owns 30% of this Portuguese club through a company based in Rochdale, England. It’s completely illegal for agents to own shares in a club.
Nobody knew what do with Hebling, so he just chucked him there, yet they continue to pay him despite him no longer belonging to the club. People won’t pay attention to a smaller transfer like this, but things can be going on…
The whole world of football is like that now. There are matters with murders, sicarios, arms dealings, spying, diplomacy, energetics… If people don’t understand that part of the arms dealings in the world go through the world of football, it’s because the public isn’t informed on it.
So when people say PSG isn’t clean in their dealings, I would argue against that.
What are your thoughts on agent regulations in France (FFF)? France remains a country with very strict agent regulations, and is very closed for many.
The agents with the federation issued certification who can work are inspected like crazy. But the pseudo agents who don’t have the necessary certification are free to do what they want. We’re talking about people involved in drugs, arms dealing, underground poker rooms.
There are also journalists who work as agents very discreetly, but who have no problems at all. People who earn some form of commission on transfers who get praised. These are the kinds of people who are invited to the federation for events. Everyone in the field knows who the favourites are.
There are very few certifications given out to begin with. Plus there’s an exam administered, which costs money, so the federation makes profit on that.
While there are some sketchy people, I think we’re too harsh with agents in general. Admittedly, some make a lot of money, but that’s not the case for everyone. The problem in France is the pseudo-agents. A lot of them come from working class neighborhoods, so they act as sorts of brothers or cousins to them and manage their careers. They’re far from being brothers though.
A big brother is meant to look over them, yet they spend more time in a hookah bar snorting coke and partying with hookers. But no inspection for them! Why? Because they’re affiliated to certified agents or lawyers. It goes from bad to worse. It can ruin careers for some.
Jean Pierre Bernes is the agent of the national team manager, even though it’s not allowed. Bernes is by no means a super-agent though. He used to work with Paco Casal. Bernes is nothing compared to some of the guys I’ve spoken about.
Apart from someone like Bruno Satin, there are no French football agents in the top 20 agents. Mr. Satin isn’t really involved in sketchy matters like the others. But Bernes does have a certain sphere of influence in France, but internationally not-so-much. If a super-agent were to come out of France, it would be Moussa Sissoko who works a lot in England. At least, he takes care of his players.
Can agents with that much power have a significant influence within football governing bodies? For example, can an agent influence a decision vis-a-vis Financial Fair play?
No, Financial Fair Play is independent from that. However, for voting during competitions they can. There can be lobbying. Someone like Pini Zahavi is the agent of one of the Cypriot executives within UEFA (Marios N. Lefkaritis). They are people with excessive amounts of power because there are interests across many areas. Be it political, diplomatic, commercial. But in that case, the game would be decided in the stands, and not on the pitch. Agents are fascinating though. These are people with multiple passports, multiple dates of birth, who don’t go to prison…
Could you tell us about the most absurd transfer story you’ve heard?
There was another incident in Bordeaux where a player was meant to sign a contract in the club office. When he got there, there were two agents who were fighting over who would have the right to have the player sign. It becomes ridiculous because you lose track of who’s in charge of whom. They’ll insult and curse at each other, then proceed to fight!