There are few areas in the football industry as maligned or misunderstood as the murky world of football agents.
There was a time in the not so distant past where football fans would be hard pressed to name a single intermediary, but with the increased commercialisation of the sport and the resulting rise in wages and transfer fees commanded by footballs biggest stars, players representatives have become a regular fixtures of the back pages.
With “Super Agents” like Jorge Mendes and the outspoken Mino Raiola courting controversy in the media and regularly demonstrating the power they hold over clubs, this world of major transfers and tense negotiations has never seemed so accessible to the everyday fan.
But how much do we truly understand about the work of the intermediary?
One of Australia’s most experienced and well regarded management representatives, Leo Karis, joins Kick360 to give us an unparalleled insight in to the football market.
“I look at the total management of a player, not just his or her football contract.” Says Karis.
“I have one eye on where is the best playing opportunity, and obviously the commercials and the financials around that are very important, but I like to create a long term plan with players and to map out a plan that is going to help them achieve their playing goals.”
Since the early 90s, Karis has helped manage the careers of some of Australia’s biggest sporting icons, including cricket legend Mark Waugh and football icons such Mark Bosnich, Paul Okon and current Macarthur head coach Ante Milicic.
During that time, he has handled their playing contracts, commercial opportunities and ensured that they are ready for life after football.
“At some point along that journey, I like them to start thinking about what life after football looks like, and that’s a difficult thing for them to confront because it may be a conversation I raise with them at the age of 28 or 29 and they’ll think ‘I’ve got years to go, why are you asking me to consider what I might be doing post career?’
“I like to do that because if they want to pursue a career in coaching or media, there are skills that they can develop towards the latter part of their playing career that will put them in a good position to transition.
“I don’t just have my eye on the next transfer, the next deal, it really is a long term plan.”
Rightly or wrongly, the preconception that a player’s representative is always looking for the next contract or next deal has become a popular one amongst football fans, who are growing increasingly convinced that they are just out to move their favourite players on for a big payday.
For Karis, this is a direct result of the changing outlook of players.
“The preferred model for most agents or intermediaries is a long term relationship with players, but what I’ve noticed in the last decade is there’s a reluctance from players to make a commitment to a representative or intermediary long term.
“They’re very much a generation where it’s ‘deliver me this wonderful contract or transfer abroad now’. There’s been a lot of churn between one intermediary to the next. Players move around a lot and they don’t commit. In that instance, can we question an intermediary who appears to have a very short term business approach? We can’t criticise them when the player is not prepared to make a long term commitment and to stick it out with an intermediary.”
This short-term mentality is one of the biggest changes he has witnessed during his time in the industry.
“The misconception is that some agents are simply brokering a deal and moving on, but the players are driving that commercial activity because they are not making long term commitments. “I see it all the time, where I thought that an agent was still representing a player and that player has subsequently moved on to three other agents in the last three years.
“I’m not saying players or talent should stick with someone if they’re not performing. You must perform. You have a role to deliver outcomes and those outcomes need to be clearly stated. Both parties need to sit down and work out what is the plan. This is not a business where you go day to day, see how it goes approach. I like to have a strategic plan with all my clients.”
He uses one of his long standing clients, commentator Simon Hill, as an example.
“Simon Hill was out of a job last year. His contract with Fox Sports ended last year and his contract ended. He could have elected to find another representative to find him another contract or stick with me, with a plan we have, and we’re pretty close to activating a new opportunity for him.
“What would have been the better outcome for a Simon Hill? Does he stick with a guy he’s apparently happy with? Feels comfortable with? Is very satisfied with the service that’s been provided over 15 years? Or does he move on? They are the decisions talent have to make from time to time.”
In Karis’ opinion, this short-term outlook, chopping and changing for short term gains, is not beneficial for either party.
“It’s not good for them [the client]. It’s certainly not good for an intermediary who invests a lot of time and effort. You’re building relationships with players at a very young age, supporting them in those early years and once things are starting to look very positive there are many outside influences, a lot of people trying to pitch for that players business and now they move around.”
While long term relationships between client and intermediary possess immense importance, very few representatives can do it all alone, so an ability to build and maintain relationships, not just with clients but with other intermediaries, is vital.
“What is common, sometimes players have a representative exclusively in an overseas market that is looking for opportunities in Germany and another representative in Italy and another in the UK. There are very few agencies that have a global footprint and it’s very common that players mandate agents in certain territories.
“I believe that needs to be managed centrally by an individual that they are close with, maybe a local agent that has a strong relationship with that particular Italian agent for example, because players dealing with five or six representatives in different parts of the world can be a distraction.
“Every intermediary in Australia has partners or agents in foreign territories that they collaborate with. They may have the odd direct relationship with a club but it’s having good relationships with agents in other territories.”
Building these relationships takes a lot of time, and a lot of travelling.
“Pre-Zoom and Teams calls and pre-pandemic, and even twenty years ago, you had to jump on a plane and meet people. From Australia, which is far away from everywhere, it’s cost prohibitive, but if you’re serious about this industry you’ve got to go and build these relationships and do it annually.
“That’s what I did. And I still have partners, if I could call it that, in all parts of the world. The Brazilian agent that I did the Juninho deal with at Sydney FC in 2007 is a guy that I still do business with today. The guy I did Paul Okon deal at Leeds United in 2002 is a guy that I still do business with today. They are relationships that I’ve built over many, many years.
“The partner I have in China, that I’ve done ten or twelve transfers with, is still a guy that will only do business with me in Australia, even though there’ve been a number of Australian agents who have tried to contact him over the years to try and build a relationship with. That’s because I trust him, he trusts me, I’ve been to Beijing five times, it’s not because we have a WhatsApp relationship.
“It sounds very glamorous, but it’s not, and it wasn’t twenty years ago. It’s a hard slog to meet people and to build relationships. This is a relationship driven business, no doubt about it.”
All of this comes in to play when the time arrives for a client to move clubs.
“The majority of business done within Australia, the majority of transfers, are players who are off contract who don’t want to be renewed by their clubs because we do not have a transfer system between A-League clubs.
“In terms of the transfer of Australian players to international markets, I’ve always had this approach that when you know a player that you’re representing has the ability to play abroad, in a bigger football market, what you’re doing, ultimately, at the right time, whilst he’s under contract with his Australian club is talking to that Australian club about the players aspirations.
“Sometimes there are very specific clauses in the players contract that says if a club abroad pays a specific amount as a transfer fee, then they must release him. Players like to have those clauses in their contracts because there is certainty if an interested club comes in for them then you can quickly articulate the number that is in the players contract to buy him is X. But what intermediaries do is actively pursue opportunities for those players.
“If the intermediary is doing their job properly, it’s not a scattergun approach where you send out videos and highlights and CVs to every corner of the globe.
“A players has certain characteristics, those certain characteristics suit a certain football market and the intermediary who is doing his or her job properly is targeting those one or two football markets which may be a good stepping stone for a big opportunity in the future.”
This is where the long term planning truly comes in to play. However, it’s important to remember there’s no one size fits all approach.
“There isn’t a certain set of sequential steps that you go through to become a professional footballer. Tim Cahill, one of the greatest exports of this country, was almost rejected as a young fifteen, sixteen year old here in Australia.
“He was deemed to be too small. He goes to Millwall and spends many, many, many years at Millwall, before he gets his crack at the English Premier League at Everton. There’s different pathways, but, the intermediary needs to find the best pathway to achieve the players objectives and goals.
“The challenge these days, and I’m speaking generally here, is the players want it now. They don’t want to play 300 games in the A-League and then go to a second tier football market before going to a top tier football market. That’s why we probably see too many returning and too many false starts with international transfers.”
Knowing where to move their client and when to do so is a the real challenge; one that becomes easier with experience and an in-depth knowledge of the client, built up over time.
“There are some good football markets, like Belgium, Holland which are ideal for Australian players. There are many, many examples of players who have gone in to those markets and kicked on.
“The flip side of that is there are there are plenty of others, I’ll use Danny De Silva as an example. Perth Glory debut at sixteen, signs a long term contract at Roma, never kicks a ball for Roma. Is loaned out to many clubs and you could probably say the same for Daniel Arzani.”
As he speaks, Karis is keen to state that he is not critical of these players or their moves in any way, but feels that they perhaps highlight the importance of playing opportunities and the continued development of young players when looking at prospective transfers.
“Would it have been better for either of those players to go in to a second tier league and play football? That is the key. You must play football and every week, you must be clocking up nearly ninety minutes. That is the key to a players development.
“The player needs to understand that it’s the best pathway, and that’s the biggest challenge. I think that’s why we see this churn. If a player doesn’t like what he’s hearing, he’ll quickly go and find someone who’ll tell him what he wants to hear.
“It’s very tempting when you’re a young kid and a big club comes in for you. I like to slow the whole process and figure what’s the best move. And I’m not saying I haven’t made mistakes, we’ve all made mistakes in this game because there’s no set of sequential steps that you tick off to guarantee success in this game. But it’s about minimising risk and creating the best opportunity.”
For over 25 years, Karis has looked after some of the biggest names in Australian sports, both on and off the football pitch.
From bringing marquee players to the A-League to helping facilitate international friendlies and sponsorship opportunities, but from the long list of career highlights, his selection of one of his proudest moments says a lot about the man.
“A big opportunity for some of the more mature Aussie players have been the opportunities in Asia, particularly China, Korea and the Gulf region. A lot of guys who haven’t been quite able to carve out a high level careers in Europe.
“I’m thrilled for them because it’s really been a life changing experience for them financially. They’ve done the business on the park [for years], but now they’ve been rewarded financially for that.
“I’ve been thrilled where I’ve been involved in some transfers that have been life changing financial decisions for these guys.”
Speaking to Karis, even for a short while, instantly dispelled many of the myths surrounding the football agent.
He may be a successful businessman, but he also very clearly cares about the people he represents, and it quickly became very easy to see why so many of his clients stay with him for so long, why so many of those he sat across the table from in tough negotiations hold him in such high regard, and why so many of them regard him as a friend.