Former agent says football corruption investigation has shone light on "dark corners"
Jon Smith previously represented players like Diego Maradona
Smith says stories of subtle backhanders have long been around in football
It’s the sting that snared one of the world’s highest paid international footballer managers, accused unnamed coaches operating in England’s Premier League of being open to bribes and filmed an agent bragging about how he takes advantage of greed within the game.
The Daily Telegraph’s undercover investigation into football corruption has dominated sporting coverage in the UK since it published footage earlier this week of England boss Sam Allardyce appearing to advise undercover reporters how to circumvent controversial third party ownership rules.
Allardyce quickly fell on his sword as a plethora of commentators and ex-professionals lined up to criticize his naiveté and the often shady characters that insert themselves into the world of football transfer dealings.
According to Jon Smith, a former soccer agent who represented the likes of Argentina superstar, Diego Maradona, the Telegraph has shone a light on some of the “dark corners” that still exist in football.
“We don’t like people buying themselves into deals but they are … and I’m very happy for them to be exposed,” Smith told CNN in a phone interview.
Yet Smith, like many within football, is quick to assert that he is uncomfortable with the way reporters induced the likes of Allardyce with promises of speaking fees and potential business deals to get them talking.
The UK based Association of Football Agents, an organization that Smith co-founded, made clear in a statement earlier this week that “recent media reports involving possible misconduct in relation to player transfers remain unproven.”
Smith also says that other countries around the world have different ways of doing business.
“When you get into areas of Southern Europe, Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, South America, the corporate governance is just different,” he says
“I don’t want to just criticize people for that, it’s a different way of dealing with life. And who says we think our way is the best because it’s the cleanest?”
‘That’s a nice watch’
However, Smith concedes that subtle backhanders and corruption have long been around in football and recalls some colorful episodes from his own career as an agent.
“I’ve sat in rooms with southern European football executives who have said as we get very close to closing a transaction, ‘I like your watch Jon, where did you get that?’ And you know what’s coming: Bye bye watch.”
The English businessman, who is now chairman of British Taekwondo, believes football is essentially “decent and clean” but he adds that he often sees tell-tale signs of corrupt deals and characters.
Underhand transfer dealings are “never that overt,” Smith explains, and are normally “done through a third party … someone who is brought into gatekeep the deal so the coach isn’t that involved.”
By way of example he cites situations where managers use the same agents to conduct transfers even when the agent does not represent any of the parties taking part in a specific deal.
“You kind of suspect that’s because the agent is being put into it for a payment (ostensibly for carrying out some minor service) which is going to be shared around amongst a few people,” Smith says.
“You don’t know that to be the case – and I’m not accusing anybody – but it doesn’t take a lot to come to a conclusion.”
Smith also adds that the people the money goes to might not always be corrupt agents and managers, it could also go to the players and their families.
‘That’s bribery and corruption’
Events of the past week have proven to Smith how little has changed from his days as an agent in that it often takes only a relatively small amount of money to turn people’s heads.
Allardyce reportedly had a per-annum salary of £3 million ($3.9 million) as England boss but was filmed negotiating an extra $520,000 fee to act as a keynote speaker for a fictitious investment firm created by the Telegraph.
After stepping down as England manager, Allardyce told reporters it was a “silly thing to do.”
On Thursday, the assistant coach of a lower-tier club Barnsley was sacked after being filmed accepting a $6,500 cash bribe from Telegraph reporters to help a fake firm profit from transfers.
A spokesman for the coach, Tommy Wright told the BBC: “Any suggested acts contrary to criminal law or those of the Football Association and Fifa are categorically denied.”
“Rates have changed over the years,” Smith says. “But it’s just very easy to have your head turned.”
Bribes can even come in cashless form, Smith continues.
“Even if you’re saying to somebody, if he’s a club player liaison manager, and you want to get close to the player, and you say … ‘do you like playing golf? There is a great tournament in Portugal, if you want to go down there, we’ll look after you. We’ll take you down there. We’ll take you and your wife down there and you can have a week in the Canary Islands afterwards.’”
‘Sit agents at the table’
Most top clubs have directors of football, who are in charge of transfers, which Smith says has helped the sport clean up its act.
“You have things like directors of football (today) who never existed before. So you’ve got another layer of complicitness. It was just the manager and the owner (previously),” he says.
Smith says that bringing in agents associations to help explain to football’s governing bodies how deals work and how processes such as third party ownership have developed around the world could help reduce the grey areas where unscrupulous operators look to bend the rules to their favour.
“Sit us at the table, because we know what’s going on,” Smith says.
After all, he adds, the biggest victims of corrupt agents, alongside fans and the clubs whose money is being diverted out of the game, are often the agents who play by the rules and want nothing to do with backhanders, bribes or chicanery.