Far from seeking to mystify their activities, many agents welcome the introduction of regulation, openness and dialogue with players, clubs and governing bodies such as UEFA and FIFA. So says Roberto Branco Martins, General Manager of the European Football Agents’ Association (EFAA), who recently delivered a public lecture at the University’s Centre for Sports Law Research (CSLR).

He claims agents are as keen as anyone else involved in football to rid the game of unscrupulous colleagues who tarnish the reputation of the profession, making their job all the more difficult.

“We are recognised by the European Commission and its national members as part of the national football structures, and seek to participate in the sound regulation of agents and to combat corruption and criminal activities in sport,” says Roberto.

“Efficient and enforceable regulation is only achievable with the support, participation and consent of the organised collective of players’ agents, in a spirit of transparency and collaboration with all relevant stakeholders in football.”

Richard Parrish, the CSLR’s director, welcomes an open and rigorous debate on the role of agents in football. “Roberto’s speech was very much from the agent’s perspective, but nonetheless he didn’t deny that there are problems with agents,” says Richard. “This is why they have got together. They want tighter regulation so that the good agents aren’t perceived negatively by the public.

“But their main objection with the current state of affairs – and this is something I agree with – is that you can’t have regulation without first having a discussion with all the stakeholders on what the issues are, and how best they can be resolved.”

At present, FIFA, the global governing body, simply imposes a regulatory system on agents, which does little to solve problems and, in some cases, makes matters worse. “This is an unusual situation because you have agents, who are a group of private individuals, being regulated by another private body. Usually, only the state, or an organisation with a state mandate, can regulate a professional group,” says Richard.

“These regulations are not necessarily a bad thing in themselves, but they are counterproductive in that they don’t resolve the issue of unlicensed agents, who can still operate.

“There are licence exemptions for lawyers and family members of players, which means an unlicensed agent can carry out all the negotiations for a transfer deal, then simply pass the file across to a qualified lawyer to complete it. This looks above board, when in fact it’s doing anything but tackling the root causes of the problem.”

Challenges against FIFA’s right to impose regulations – notably the 2006 Piau case in the European Court of Justice – have failed, partly due to a presumption that the football agency profession is inherently corrupt. However, Richard believes the situation has moved on and there are now grounds for a negotiated settlement between FIFA and the agents.

“Another reason why the Piau case failed was that the court found that there was no professional body for agents which could be consulted. Now, we have the EFAA and it’s time agents were properly consulted,” says Richard.

“The ethos of the EU is that all stakeholders in an industry should be consulted and the EU is promoting its social dialogue agenda, which represents the employment provisions of the European Treaty and is a way of enabling employers and employees to get together to discuss common problems.

“In terms of professional football, there has been some real progress with a formal social dialogue committee set up in 2008. It is chaired by UEFA and comprises representative bodies for the clubs and players. I believe it’s entirely possible for agent-related issues to be discussed in the dialogue committee in a way that would satisfy all parties, and comply with European law.”

Sports law expertise has global reach

Set up only two years ago, Edge Hill’s Centre for Sports Law Research (CSLR) has already established a strong international reputation as a source of legal expertise and academic excellence.

As well as advising organisations in the EU and beyond, the CSLR has published four books, contributed numerous journal articles and sent representatives to international conferences on various aspects of sports law.

In the teaching arena, the centre offers a postgraduate LLM degree in international sports regulation.

“The Masters degree is principally for people who work in sports administration, for football clubs, or sports lawyers” explained CSLR director, Richard Parrish. “Since many sports have professionalised themselves, there is a corresponding need for organisations and sporting bodies to be much more professional administratively and legally.”

One of the CSLR’s most high-profile roles has been advising the European Commission on social dialogue in professional football and professional cycling, as well as the European Parliament’s internal market inquiry on UEFA’s ‘home-grown’ players rule.

“Our report to the European Parliament was controversial because our comments on home-grown players was picked up by the media. We looked at incompatibilities between European law and governing bodies and the report was debated in the European Parliament, which led to a counter-report called the Belet report.”

The CSLR report suggests that UEFA’s rule on home-grown players, which stipulates eight of a 25-player squad must be locally trained, is at odds with European law because it constitutes ‘indirect’ discrimination.

UEFA’s legal point is that there is no discrimination on national grounds because, say, an English club could locally train a Spanish player. However, there would be a residency requirement because commuting would not be possible and we believe this is indirect discrimination because it privileges one group above another,” explained Richard.

“To be fair to UEFA, they have presented a strong case as to why there should be home-grown players and they have made an effort to engage with European law. This is more than can be said for FIFA’s ‘six-plus-five rule’, which says club teams must have at least six players qualified to play for their country, which is blatantly discriminatory and directly in conflict with European law.”