Transfer to Dubai? The life of a football agent with Middle East connections

People may think football agents are the rock stars of sales, but the reality according to John Viola of Viola FC, is that they are simply the realtors of sport.

John Viola talks about players and transfer deals in the world of football.  Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
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John Viola is the executive director of Viola FC, an international football agency with a 20-year track record which regularly uses Dubai as a hub to bridge relationships between players and clubs of the Gulf and the rest of the world. Fresh from signing a deal between two Venezuelan international football players and the Saudi Premier League club Ittihad FC, the Scotsman explains more about his profession and debunks some myths along the way.

How many agents can be involved in one transfer deal?

Dealing with agents in South America has been a big eye- opener. We represent a lot of European players directly, but clubs in the UAE have a desire to fill their foreigner quota with Brazilians and countries with higher perceived entertainment factor. Brazil can be one of the trickiest countries to deal with, as sometimes several interested agents will march into the room to conclude a multi-agency deal. This means we’ve had to split commissions with several parties – it is reminiscent of some of the goings-on with Dubai real estate agents, where a big villa is sold and several agencies are lining up waiting for a cut of the commission. People think football agents are the rock stars of sales, but we are more like the realtors of sport.

Just how wealthy are football agents?

Some lucky agents are indeed very wealthy when representing superstars exclusively, but it is a common fallacy agents receive 5 per cent of the transfer fee. In reality, it is an open negotiation by all parties – supply and demand at its purest. Sometimes we will receive a set fee, often it is a percentage of the player’s annual salary. It can also be any percentage of the transfer fee – if you are the exclusive agent of Ronaldo or Messi, you are in a much stronger position to receive a bigger percentage than an agent trying to take a young English player over to the UAE, for instance. There are so many agents involved in some deals that the proverbial pie can be sliced very thin. There is nothing better than when you take on a young boy and he becomes captain of his national team and a huge success. It’s not all about money.

How can someone become an agent?

It is now effectively open to anyone to try since the profession was recently deregulated by Fifa. We are officially called “intermediaries” now. It is incredibly difficult to become an agent, as the industry is nearly a closed shop. It is nigh on impossible to get important decision-makers to pick up the phone unless there is trust established. Why would a club deal with an agent with no track record and why would a player put their career in the hands of a rookie? I know someone whose father recently gave him $600,000 to follow his dream to set up an agency – the operation closed within a couple of years. The bottom line is even if you have all the money in the world, being a success in this business is largely about connections, which can take a long time and hard work to establish.

How does the process of transferring a player generally happen?

A club will let some agents know it is looking for a player with certain skills – a strong left side, or an ability to hold up play for instance, and it’s up to the agents to source this player. In the most recent case I contacted an agent in England I had dealt with before who has excellent South American players on his books. The club was interested in signing two Venezuelan internationals, so I was soon on a flight to Istanbul to meet the players. The club will then do due diligence on the players with their own scouts and often use Wyscout – an online network with facts and video on most professional players. If all the boxes are ticked, the club will let the agent know which steps it wishes to take next to progress the deal.

Is bringing players to clubs in this part of the world any more difficult?

Visa considerations are a big part of the job and can be incredibly time-consuming, particularly in Mena countries. We had to pick up and bring the Venezuelans individually from Istanbul – four flights for two players and the entire running around with paperwork in between. It’s certainly not all glittering press conferences and luxurious dining. The legwork that goes into a deal is immense and, like any contractual agreement, it can often fall flat on its face – especially when it comes to the player’s final medical before signing.

Do the players always visit the club before they sign?

Not always, but in the recent deal with the Venezuelans, Ittihad FC wanted to showcase its incredible new 60,000-plus stadium and facilities, which puts them in a stronger position. Nothing was announced, but word must have spread on social media, as we were being ushered by bodyguards through hundreds of supporters at King Abdulaziz International Airport. It’s the first time I’ve felt like one of the Beatles.

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