Everyone agrees, even Sepp Blatter President of FIFA that sports should be clean and like Caesar’s wife above suspicion. Many of us may not believe that Blatter means what he says as the utter mess his organisation has made of the probes into the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids show. Blatter’s supporters argue what can the poor man do? He appoints a US attorney, evidence is taken under conditions of secrecy and the full report cannot be published because FIFA may face legal actions from the persons named in the report.
That argument has some merit in the sense FIFA is a private organisation not a state body with none of the judicial power a state has. The state can compel those within its jurisdiction to give evidence, cases are heard in open court and when it comes to pronouncing judgement judges are like stage artistes savouring their moment in the sun.
But even when we accept sports bodies can never have such authority there is much they can do to make themselves and their workings open to scrutiny to demonstrate they have nothing to hide. And this is one area where FIFA, and all its member football associations, can show the way. The most obvious way is to fully disclose football transfer fees.
It is one of the most astonishing features of football that the sport which claims to be the world’s greatest sport, with a unique power to bring peoples and cultures together, is in the field of transfers the most closed, secretive, organisation in the world. Very simply there is no way of knowing how much a club has actually paid or received for a player.
Now you may think I am spinning a yarn.
Well, listen to what Steve Parish, co chairman of Crystal Palace, told me recently, “When it comes to transfer fees it’s a very, very difficult landscape because you have no knowledge of the values of the players. We all [the clubs] basically rely on what you guys report as transfer fees.” But the media is not reporting the actual figure since this is never disclosed. It is making what is at best an educated guess as to what club X has paid or received for a player. Yet secrecy over transfer fees means this guess is taken by the football world at large as the actual transfer fee. So while much has been made about the £90 million Tottenham received for Gareth Bale from Real Madrid that was an approximation-figures in the Spanish and British press varied with the Spanish media giving a lower figure. There is no way of ever knowing the exact fee Tottenham received.
Or as Parish put it, “Since the reported transfer fee is a guess it can often be the most that possibly could be paid. This would be based on every possible contingency: how many times the player may play for the club, if the club is in the European Cup, if the player plays for England or his country. And when clubs leak a figure it depends on who leaks it. If it is the buying club it wants to make it sound like they’ve got the bargain of the year. So they’ll give the fee as the lowest possible amount they could ever pay. And, of course, the selling club will make it appear as if this is the highest ever price that could be received. Ironically, if the player never plays or never achieves anything then the selling club will make it sound like they got the most amazing fee ever. Transfer fees are a difficult landscape for everybody and sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you”.
In this jungle many chairmen have established a fearsome reputation not least Daniel Levy, chairman of Tottenham, widely considered to be the most ruthless negotiator in English football. Parish also has a reputation for being a difficult negotiator but when I asked Parish whether he was better than Levy his answer was revealing, “I have negotiated with Danny Levy, yes, he’s very good. Is he better than me? I don’t know if there’s any better or any worse. In football, the art of negotiation is to set your limits. I don’t really play games during negotiations. I start more or less where I intend to finish. I’ve got a view on value and that’s what we’re prepared to pay and that’s what we kind of go to pretty much.”
Parish who, along with threeother Palace supporters, bought the club at a time when it faced extinction has had to learn quickly how very different and treacherous this transfer secrecy makes the business of football.
“Having come to football from a totally different business background I have realised it is difficult. There’s no profit principle in football so there’s no bottom or top to anything. Everything’s for unlimited value. Once you have no profit principle in a business it’s just about how much you’re prepared to lose. There’s no backstop, there’s no sensible point of negotiation, there’s no point at which you say we can’t do that because we won’t make enough profit. And then there’s no benchmarks or anything. Everything you buy you buy with a complete and utter vacuum of knowledge. Only agents have all the knowledge.”
And Parish points how odd this is by comparing it to house purchases, “Imagine buying a house and as you go and try to buy a house you find there’s no public record anywhere about what the price per square foot is. Or should be. What the houses sold for in the street. Nothing. No term of reference. You don’t know what a fair rate for an estate agent is. There’s just hearsay.”
Parish’s solution is simple, “I would publish the details of every single deal. I would make it all transparent.”
And that would not be difficult. Clubs have to disclose all the details of the transfer to the leagues and the FAs. And all international transfers go through FIFA. And, of course, the football authorities also know what agents are paid on every deal. Disclosure of such fees would give club chairmen like Parish some benchmarks, a guide to judge what agents are demanding.
But as Parish says, “I don’t think that it will happen because they would have to get a majority of clubs to do it and I think some clubs think they beat the system. Well, I think effectively they think that by paying the agents more that they get players at better value, so they don’t want individual deals disclosed. I think for every deal that you win like that you lose four. The clubs may get the deals but they overpay the agents or overpay for the player because there’s no sense of what fair value is.”
Parish’ call for openness is a bit like the historic call Ronald Regan gave to Michael Gorbachev, the then Soviet leader, while standing on the western side of the Berlin wall, “Mr Gorbachev pull down that wall”. And Blatter would not need hammers to break down this particular football wall. All he would have to do is log on to the FIFA computer, go to the file marked transfers and put on the internet the exact fee paid for every deal done including the amount that the agent had received on that deal. Just one simple click. But do you think he will do it?