They say bad things come in threes. Well, so do terrible things. This week saw the emergence, or at least the reporting, of three of the most pernicious evils of the modern game of football: agents; away goals; and, for want of a better word, “Isco-ism”.
That agents of all kinds are widely, and often entirely justifiably, regarded as the spawn of the devil is demonstrated by their widespread depiction in many film, television and stage plays over the last 20 years or so. Perhaps the agent par excellence in this regard is Bebe Glazer, Frasier Crane’s agent in Frasier. As Frasier, her own client, memorably says to his brother, Niles, when Niles describes Bebe as a “barracuda”: “Yes, but that’s what you want in an agent”.
However, even the immortal Bebe would have to bow down before the sheer bare-faced barracuda-ry of Mino Raiola, the agent of Paul Pogba and many other high-profile players. The publication this week in Germany of “Football Leaks: The Dirty Business of Football”, by Rafael Buschmann and Michael Wurzinger, has attracted global interest, because of the allegation in the book that Raiola made nearly £40 million from the world-record £89 million transfer of his client, Paul Pogba, from Juventus to Manchester United last summer.
What is particularly galling about this story is that it highlights the most pernicious practice of football agents. He appears to have been paid by both Manchester United and Pogba himself. Indeed, it is even alleged that he was paid by all three parties involved in the transfer, with Juventus, the selling club, apparently also paying him for arranging the transfer of a player who wanted to join the club to which he was moving. God knows what fee Raiola might have demanded for his client and for himself if Pogba had been at all reticent about returning to Old Trafford.
It is this particular practice, which is completely widespread, indeed so universally accepted, in football, that is so galling. In no other field of sporting or artistic endeavour is an agent paid both by their client and the organisation that they are negotiating with on behalf of their client. It is, at the very least, a flagrant conflict of interest, and yet it appears to be de rigeur in the beautiful game.
Wednesday’s Champions League semi-final second leg was a perfect example of why away goals are absolutely and unequivocally anti-football. Atlético Madrid were on the brink of a comeback to eclipse even that of Barcelona against Paris Saint-Germain when they stormed into a 2-0 lead at the Vicente Calderon against their hated city rivals.
That comeback was stopped in its tracks when Real scored a goal just before half-time, which, being an away goal, meant that Atlético had to score not twice but three imes in the second half to win the tie. Another potentially great match was ultimately reduced to the status of a non-event.
The beauty of football and the biggest single reason for its global popularity is its simplicity and that includes the simplicity of its scoring. Quite simply, most goals wins; except when it comes to away goals. If a team scores an away goal in a European competition, it counts for double if the overall scores are tied, and consequently an away goal counts for far more than any other type of goal.
Away goals are often thought to be an unfortunate legacy of the early days of the European Cup and other European competitions, but not so. In fact, away goals were only introduced after nearly an entire decade of European competition had passed, first being brought in for the 1965-66 season. Consequently, even the only possible justification for their continued existence—namely, that they have always existed—does not stack up.
The Real Madrid midfielder has certainly been in the news this week, and not just because he scored that crucial away goal for Real Madrid. Even before then, he had made headlines for his crass, if not downright cruel, mocking of Tony Adams, the recently appointed Granada manager, allegedly for wearing a waistcoat that made him look like a “waiter”.
On the surface, Isco’s actions, or rather words, may not appear as appalling as the actions of agents or the continued existence of the away goals rule, but in a way they are even worse, because they exhibit both a basic lack of professionalism and a basic lack of respect for a fellow professional.
Isco may not be familiar with Tony Adams’s legendary status in England and may be more aware of his failure to make the transition from player to manager. Nevertheless, he is, as it were, a co-worker and demands a certain basic level of recognition and respect.
The real, underlying irony of Isco’s taunts is that they took place from the relative safety of the substitutes’ bench. If Adams had actually heard him saying those things, he could have reminded him that he was almost never a substitute during his long career for Arsenal and England.
Of course, Isco is not alone in adopting this attitude. It is emblematic of the manners of many modern professionals, who, unlike most fans, have apparently little or no interest in the history of the game that has given them so much material wealth. And that is why in its own petty, small-minded, ill-mannered way, “Isco-ism” is every bit as appalling as the actions of greedy, gouging agents and the entirely unjustifiable existence of the away goals rule. All of them are evils of the modern game, and utterly unnecessary evils at that.