Football agents are often thought of as a mystical group. Speaking multiple languages, having an enviable contact book and a steady nerve to lay down the law are all desirable characteristics for those who broker big-money deals for some of the game’s most sought-after players.
Legendary intermediary Mino Raiola had run-ins with several top managers including Sir Alex Ferguson, Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp. Jorge Mendes is often seen lurking in the shadows with his lucrative stable of primarily-Portuguese stars playing regularly in the Premier League.
De Fanti fits the stereotype in many ways, as a man who favours being cool and calm during the heat of negotiation, and, of course, one that speaks four languages fluently.
“In the beginning of my career there was lots of adrenaline,” he admitted. “I remember when some transfers didn’t happen, I was shattered and put a lot of blame on myself, even when it’s not needed. The novelty has passed away now. I try to approach each negotiation as clear-minded and focused as possible, knowing that there are so many variables that can crash a deal.”
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Negotiating with the world’s biggest teams is no easy feat when the interests of both sides are so polarised. Players and their representatives naturally want the biggest and best contracts possible, while the clubs themselves are incentivised to keep costs down. Sophisticated transfer teams are becoming a common factor at the top level as the days of managers controlling who comes and goes fade further into memory.
Take Chelsea, for example. Co-owner Todd Boehly has led a transfer blowout the likes of which we have never seen before, with almost half a billion pounds spent in a matter of months. Graham Potter manages the team but former RB Leipzig transfer guru Christopher Vivell has recently been recruited as technical director, and Paul Winstanley has been nabbed from Brighton to become Director of Global Talent and Transfer.
In other words, transfers are big business and the upper realms of football agency remain tough to reach. “Technically, anyone can do it,” added De Fanti. “Years ago there was an exam and it was very tough. Some countries like Italy still have an exam, but since FIFA de-regulated agents in 2014 you just have to pay £500 and you can register yourself in the FA as an agent in the UK.
“You have to be competent in the football world, I think, even though there are many agents who aren’t experts in football. Mostly, you have to understand about strategy. How to create leverage, and sometimes, to encourage competition between clubs. Understanding the person you’re in front of because every player wants something different.”
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The Italian went on to explain that some players are naturally more focused on taking their career as far as possible, while others are intent on using their talent to earn maximum financial returns. The stakes are high on both fronts due to the swift nature of a football career, the devastation that injury can cause and the lofty rewards on offer, which makes hostility inevitable.
Leandro Trossard found himself in a sticky situation this month after a falling-out with Brighton manager Roberto De Zerbi saw him banished from the team. The Belgian’s agent went public with a statement requesting that the Seagulls allow him to leave, and he was quickly snapped up by Arsenal in a £21million deal.
Yaya Toure’s former agent, Dimitri Seluk, infamously called out Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola for his handling of the Ivorian’s situation, publicly stating: “If Pep Guardiola wants a war, then he can have one.”
On the issue of hostility, De Fanti added: “There are agents that suggest players not to show up to training, to be unprofessional, start to get hated so they want to make you leave – some pretty famous agents do that sometimes, I don’t have this habit. The players are paid well so they have to behave like a professional all the time. I try to be friendly and professional all the time and I do believe that I’ve built my credibility and been respectful towards every club.
“At the same time, respectful doesn’t mean that you work for the club. It doesn’t have to be aggressive, a no can be a no. Being hostile can start when a club makes a promise to sell a player and maybe they don’t keep up with it. These situations can become hostile. I had some tricky situations when deals became a little bit more difficult. Maybe the tone of voice was raised a little bit but I think that’s just in the nature of things.”
The sense of drama, stress and intensity only ramps up when the transfer window approaches deadline day – a 24-hour period that grips the nation with twists and unpredictable turns virtually guaranteed. During the summer, Marseille striker Bamba Dieng was supposedly waiting to board a private jet bound for Leeds United before a last-minute phone call from OGC Nice changed his mind, only for both moves to fall through after he failed his medical at the French outfit.
Former West Bromwich Albion striker Peter Odemwingie believed that he had secured a deadline-day move to Queens Park Rangers back in 2013, driving himself to Loftus Road and partaking in an interview from out of his car window, only for the transfer to collapse as Junior Hoilett rejected a move in the other direction.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, De Fanti prefers to conduct business well in advance of the deadline and sees the mad dash to the finish as an almost exclusively English phenomenon.
“I try to do my deals earlier than deadline day and I’ve been pretty lucky, in my career, not to go to deadline day,” he explained. “There are a few deals when I did them 24 hours ahead, so most of the time deadline day is just me watching TV and seeing what looks like a dramatic kind of comedy sometimes. I can imagine it’s very stressful. I can’t understand why clubs leave it until that point. As a former director, I think there are ways to do them before. You don’t have so much leverage on the last day of the window, you’re a little bit choked.
“None of that craziness happens in Italy of players flying or driving. It can get very, very silly. I dread those kind of situations and I try to avoid them all the time. I remember one instance with Fabio Borini and his move from Liverpool. We had to decide between Sunderland and Inter Milan, 48 hours from the deadline. He had a great season and Sunderland wanted him back. Since he had already had a brilliant spell there, I suggested that he follow his gut. And when we found out that Inter Milan was in advanced conversations with another player as well, we knew that a deadline decision would have been dangerous.”
De Fanti spoke with Express Sport after featuring in ‘Deadline Day: Football’s Transfer Window’, which aired earlier this month. “I received an email from the production team and I thought it was a prank because I didn’t understand why anybody would be interested on a documentary on agents,” he said.
“I said if we’re going to do it, it has to be real. The premise is to show what our work really looks like 24/7. I just wanted to be myself and demystify and humanise the role of an agent.”
Deadline Day: Football’s Transfer Window aired on Sky Documentaries and NOW on Sunday January 15th. You can see the trailer HERE
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