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Saudi millions ‘creating two-tier system’ for football agents

Ronaldo Al Nassr Reuters
Ronaldo will earn an estimated $220m a year for his stint at Al Nassr
  • Saudi Arabia spent $700m on transfer fees
  • Agents may receive no more than 10%
  • ‘Super-agents’ will benefit most

Saudi Arabia’s football investment spree is tempting top-flight players to its teams, but is also creating a two-tier system among agents, industry observers have warned.

Brazilian superstar Neymar’s arrival in Saudi Arabia this week boosted the coffers of his former employer Paris Saint Germain to the tune of a reported $110 million.

The latest big-money deal involving clubs from the Saudi Pro League is also believed to have netted Neymar’s representative a sizeable sum, reinforcing Israeli Pini Zahavi’s reputation as one of the elite global super-agents.

Read Frank Kane’s opinion of Saudi Arabia’s football fiesta

In what is the most high-profile signing since Cristiano Ronaldo joined Al Nassr in January, Neymar penned a deal to join Riyadh-based Al Hilal, the most successful club in Saudi Arabia and Asia.

His two years in the kingdom will earn him a reported €320 million, according to football website Footmercato, which could go up to $400 million based on add-ons and commercial deals.

Neymar signs for Al Hilal
Neymar, left, with Al Hilal president Fahd bin Saad al Nafel Saudi

Zahavi will be licking his lips, yet there are limits as to how much of these fees football agents can receive.

Article 9 of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation’s Regulation on Working with Intermediaries says: “The total amount of remuneration due to an intermediary who represents the player in negotiation must not exceed 10 percent of the total value of the player’s contract.”

The top 20 stars purchased by Saudi sides Al Ittihad, Al Ahli, Al Nassr, Al Hilal and Al Ettifaq since January have cost around $700 million in transfer and signing fees, as well as a commitment to spend more than $1 billion per year in wages.

The Saudi transfer window does not close until September 7, so that figure could still rise.

“I think a very small number of globally powerful super-agents just got even richer,” Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitical economy at Skema Business School in France, tells AGBI.

The original super-agent, Portugal’s Jorge Mendes, named Best Agent of the Year at the Globe Soccer Award 10 times, has also been key to a number of the mega-deals involving Saudi clubs.

These include the transfers of Fabinho from Liverpool to Al Ittihad and Rúben Neves from Wolves to Al Hilal.

Alan Nixon, sports reporter with The Sun newspaper in the UK, says some of the top agents were “ahead of the game” when it comes to Saudi's interest in football and they have taken full advantage.

“Only a few will profit, but they will do so spectacularly,” he says.

Former Rangers, Newcastle and Crystal Palace defender Craig Moore, who since retiring from playing has become an agent, says: “There’s a lot of excitement. The money is obviously off the charts. It creates a bit of an edge.”

However, while Moore has spent the past five years trying to bring players over from his native Australia, he admits it has been “hard to get the right connections” in Saudi Arabia.

“When you go into these markets, you need to make sure you go through a well established local. Only the very top [agents] don't, as their marketing is done just by who they are and what coverage they already have,” he says.

Saudi football fans buy Neymar shirts after his signing to Al HilalReuters
Saudi Arabia's spending on football's biggest names is drawing in fans – and making agents wealthy

Skema's Chadwick says that the culture of building relationships is key. “My personal experience is that if the Saudi Arabians are going to deal with anyone, they’re going to deal with the very top professionals.

“What we’re therefore seeing is they’re not going to deal with a low-level agent from a small business, or a country that doesn’t even have a league.

"You’re talking about agents with a global track record of dealing with big clubs, big talents, achieving success over a period of time, delivering clients, delivering solutions – and that’s who Saudi Arabia wants to work with.”

Clubs in the English Premier League paid almost £320 million in agents’ fees between February 1, 2022 and January 31, 2023, according to figures from the Football Association.

This was up from £273 million the previous year, and much higher than the £47 million reported in the first transaction details published by the FA, covering 2015-16.

While the fees paid to agents have been the source of much consternation for many years, Chadwick said such astronomical sums should not be expected from Saudi Arabia, despite the millions being spent on transfers and salaries.

“We know that Saudi Arabians like to drive a hard bargain and football agents have met their match in Saudi Arabia in terms of these cultural traits,” he says.

“Saudi Arabians are challenging agents and player representatives not just to sell players, but also to ensure that, written into the contracts of these players that they must essentially prove their worth.

"They must be open to helping Saudi Arabia add value, be it financial value, commercial value, economic value, geopolitic value.”

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