In the iconic sports movie Jerry Maguire, embattled American football star Rod Tidwell (played by Cuba Gooding Jr.) utters an impassioned plea to his agent Maguire (Tom Cruise) to “show me the money.”
This clarion call seems to have resonated well with Israeli soccer agents who, with a blend of skill and fervor, have moved their clients into the lucrative European market in record numbers and have presented them with opportunities in countries previously deemed unreachable by Israeli players.
Local soccer has been dominated by a half dozen agents who control the lion’s share of business affecting Israeli players. Topping the list is Pini Zahavi, whose name is widely recognized by European soccer executives.
Zahavi struck it rich on the English scene by steering the likes of Israeli stalwarts Ronny Rosenthal, Avi Cohen and Yossi Benayoun to England. He also played a pivotal role in the development of the career of the young Nigerian striker Yakubu Aiyegbeni and his transfer from Maccabi Haifa to the English Premier League and then cemented his global image with his role in the sale of the celebrated English defender Rio Ferdinand from Leeds United to Manchester United.
Zahavi’s critics complain that he wields far too much influence with Maccabi Haifa in the process of selecting its foreign players, since he has been closely connected to Haifa boss Jacob Shachar from their childhood days in Ness Ziona. The relationship restricts the ability of rival agents to place foreign players on the team without obtaining the requisite approval from Zahavi.
I can recount one incident which vividly demonstrates this problem. I represented the colorful Polish striker Andrzej Kubica in 2002, during which year he played for Beitar Jerusalem. In a game between league champion Maccabi Haifa and Beitar, Andrzej scored two incredible goals in a lopsided 4-0 Beitar win. This dramatic show of force spurred a great deal of interest in Kubica within the ranks of Maccabi’s managers, coaches and players.
In the days which followed I spoke with former coach Itzhak Schum, general manager Itamar Chizik and team leader Giovanni Rosso, all of whom enthusiastically endorsed the idea of Kubica’s transfer to Maccabi, but the transfer of Kubica hit a snag, which I learned resulted from Zahavi’s veto of the move.
The agents who have dominated the transfer of Israeli players for well over a decade, especially on the domestic front, have been the Katzav brothers, Ronen and Gilad. It is estimated that during the course of the past decade, they have handled nearly 1,000 players. Their list of clients includes a mix of highly prized veterans, as well as budding young prospects.
Moreover, they have at times controlled almost half the roster on a single team, notably Hapoel Tel Aviv and Beitar Jerusalem of recent years.
This type of presence on a team affords them considerable leverage in the area of contract negotiations, and gives them a clear competitive edge against other agents who seek to place their own players on these teams. In addition, it raises a conflict of interest issue among the players themselves when two or more players represented by the Katzavs on a specific team play similar positions on the pitch.
The Katzav brothers have placed numerous players in Europe over the past decade, usually in cooperation with European agents by doling out exclusive mandates to local agents for various countries.
The risk factor for other agents is that the Katzavs often pursue their own agenda, sometimes leaving the mandate holders out in the cold. I am still smarting from my failed effort to bring the promising national team player Omri Afek to the LA Galaxy of the MLS, when the Katzavs, who were Omri’s primary agents, foiled my bid by steering him to Spain.
There has been a surge in the numbers of Israeli players in Europe over the past few years, which has virtually doubled the number of our legionaries abroad to around 50.
The agent who deserves major credit for this amazing growth is Dudu Dahan, a flamboyant former scout and coach who has turned Belgian soccer into a haven for Israeli émigrés which now number over 20, almost all of whom are his clients. Dahan observed that Belgium is a nation which contains a wide variety of ethnic groups and is also not noted for breeding many elite soccer players of its own, so he combined his fluency in French and promotional travel to the various clubs in Belgium in a campaign to market his players.
He also correctly sensed that Belgium provided a promising market for Israelis, because its standard for admission of foreign players was far lower than that of Europe’s top leagues; i.e., England, France, Spain, Germany and Italy, and even that of neighboring Holland. In addition, the payroll structure of most Belgian clubs is much bigger than that of their Israeli counterparts, so many gifted Israeli players jumped on the gravy train and signed with Dahan in the hope of getting a fat paycheck from Belgian clubs like Standard Liege and Anderlecht.
While a few have returned to Israel, most have stayed on for several years and some have become huge fan favorites.
When I joined the Israel Football Association in 2003, there were 23 registered agents.
Today that number has nearly tripled, although most Israeli agents spend only a portion of their time on soccer-related business because of its fierce competitive nature and pursue more lucrative opportunities in other areas.
Further, many others have dropped their agency business entirely out of sheer frustration due to their inability to sustain themselves because of the dominance asserted by a handful of their peers.
Still, a few have displayed great perseverance and have stayed the course in the hope of discovering a “diamond in the rough” with a raw but very talented teenage player, typically in Africa or Latin America and navigating him to prominence as he matures.
An example of the foregoing is Nir Karin, who emulated the Zahavi model when he discovered the brilliant Zambian forward Emmanuel Mayuka and brought him to Maccabi Tel Aviv, then hit the jackpot when he navigated him to Southampton of the English Premier League after a brief sojourn in Switzerland.
The real payoff with player moves for the agents involved, and often their clients, is that they not only earn a fee for the seasons that they are under contract, but also reap a slice of the transfer fee paid by the buying club to the seller. Alas, Israeli agents can now “show the money” as they get ever closer to reaching center stage of European soccer.
Don Barnett is an IFA player agent who currently resides in Munich. A native of Jerusalem, he grew up in the US where he practiced law and mediation. Barnett also coaches soccer and basketball in various youth leagues and writes sports column for several Jewish publications.