Sports agents—legal representatives of sportspeople—facilitate contracts and generally consult players and act as middlemen dealing with club management. Globally common, these actors would like to dab into the growing largess of money circulating in Ethiopian football. Yet, reluctance from both players and club management has made their situation difficult. When properly done, football intermediation could lift all boats in the sector, writes EBR’s Abiy Wendifraw.
In the 2011/12 football season, a 20-year-old young man, Tesfa Bihonegn (name changed to preserve anonymity), helped his team, Arba Minch Kenema, win promotion to the Ethiopian Premier League for the following season. After hearing the final whistle of the important playoff match with Ethiopian Insurance that went to penalty kicks, Tesfa was rushing to join his family members who were celebrating the success when he encountered a stranger.
He remembers how the man stopped him even before he left the field.” I first thought he was just a happy fan wanting a warm hug. I was wrong. He started whispering in my ear that he could help me play for the most established teams in the league and gave me his number written on a piece of paper.” That was not it. To Tesfa’s surprise, another guy was already waiting for him in the tunnel to the dressing room. The second person had even better preparations to finish the business on the spot. He told me he had a draft agreement ready if I want to work with him.
Even a third person was waiting for me on my way to the stadium exit, trying to lure me in to speak with him about his network with teams abroad.
“That night I consulted with my brother and declined those offers. After witnessing what happened to other players who fell in the brokers’ trap, I decided to not listen to any similar offers,” says Tesfa. Even now, after 10 years, the more matured Tesfa struggles to recognize the relevance of having an agent in his career. And according to industry observers, Tesfa’s experience is what most local current or previous footballers of the Ethiopian Premier League have gone through.
Now, this same perception is affecting football intermediaries in the country and the actors in business seem to have recently felt the burn. The number of agents who renewed their licenses at the Ethiopian Football Federation (EFF) demonstrates the fact. Almost 80Pct of agents have decided to leave the business.
After FIFA’s decision to let national associations issue agent licenses in 2015, EFF made a registration call to those interested to provide professional services in football intermediary. 193 people responded by covering the ETB100 registration fee and 70 successfully passed the exam. In the end, 50 agents got their license after managing to pay ETB20,000—half for professional indemnity insurance and a ETB10,000 registration fee.
Zewdnesh Yirdaw, Head of Players Transfer at EFF, confirms that this year only 11 agents renewed their license, out of 50. “The renewal deadline already expired on August 31,” she says.
“Studies have not been conducted, but there were issues and challenges which we observed. I can guess that some agents had unrealistic expectations on the number of clients they would secure when granted the license two years ago. And there were people who joined the football intermediary business even though they were not into it. People who never even attended football games tried to handle issues on the behavior of the footballers.”
The role of football agents in Ethiopia seems to be limited to player transfer negotiations. However, there are still few agents trying to accommodate counseling and sponsorship issues to maximize their client’s income and secure other opportunities.
According to Zewdnesh, almost all foreign footballers in the country have agents. “It is not just for the language barrier in negotiations. They believe that they need the professional support and want to pay for it.”
Local footballers showed some interest in hiring an agent after the league introduced the recently-lifted salary cap of ETB50,000. “The agents’ share was calculated from the ETB50,000 which was much lower than the actual salary of the player paid unofficially under the table. That made players comfortable even though most still do not seem convinced. When the salary cap was lifted and the official salaries reached the hundreds of thousands and millions, most players terminated their dealings with agents.”
When the players transfer window for the 2021/22 season closed last month, very few local players in the league reported of agents that represent them. “We witness players suffering from bad deals and unfair administrative issues—areas where they need agents’ support. Players sign contracts without reading. Some struggle to understand the terms of the agreement and later face the consequences,” adds Zewdnesh.
Zeray Eyasu, an Agent who recently left the business, explains that a lot has to be done if the sector is to revive. According to him, being an agent in the Ethiopian football industry is a tiresome engagement. “Football administrators, coaches, and brokers do not want unlicensed actors to influence transfer deals and the market,” says the man who followed the country’s football.
“Football administrators and players need to realize the benefits of working with agents. The more an agent fights for his/ her client, the shorter the agent’s career life span becomes. Club administrators will mistreat and boycott the agent and even discourage other players of the team from employing that intermediary. At some point, the players think they need to choose between the agent and the ones that pay them.”
EFF cannot force players to hire agents. But officials in the sport’s national regulatory body believe players should get maximum service and protection in their engagements. Agents who earn 3 to 10Pct in fees from the clients are thus under pressure to upscale their services to gain players’ trust.
Mensur Abdulkeni, a renowned football Journalist, believes the area requires a lot of work to be functional. “I think we should find a way to prevent payments from going under the table. There is a lot of interest in those transactions.”
Football in Ethiopia has slowly moved forward in the past few years in terms of marketing. Clubs are now making more money from sponsorships and broadcasting rights. Unfortunately, agents who could have better facilitated and attained even greater progress have faded out. The bitterness can be felt from Zeray’s tone when asked if he considers returning to the agents’ world. “I will never come back to this business.”EBR
10th Year • Dec 2021 • No. 102