Sofian Soltani did not start out his professional career planning to be a sports agent. And the 39-year-old French son of Tunisian immigrant parents certainly had not foreseen himself becoming the first – and so far – only European sports agent to represent Israeli women football (soccer) players.
But as fate would have it, Soltani – who comes from the world of finance and economics and still continues to teach at the University of Lyon – left his small financial consulting company after the world financial crisis of 2008 – and eventually turned to his passion for football (soccer) for his next professional chapter.
Many of the people he had worked with through his company had been CEOs and chairmen of football clubs, so half of the work was already done, with plenty of contacts and potential clients, he explained. Soltani founded his recent agency, Shengli Sports Consulting Group, in 2015, after a Chinese investment. (Nowadays, he says, “fresh money” for investment in football clubs is more than likely to be based in controversial countries.)
“I love football and I used to play football when I was young,” said Soltani, who grew up in Lyon.
Perhaps an anomaly among sports agents, Soltani also has numerous academic degrees under his belt, having received his BA in managerial studies from Rice University, and a double MA in Economics and African History, as well as a double PhD in geo-economics, finances, and African history, from Université Jean Moulin (Lyon III).
“As my mom said: if you have nothing in your brain, you can’t succeed in life,” says Soltani. “My parents are from Tunisia. I don’t come from a rich family, but we were always made aware that knowledge is the only thing in life that will help you succeed, so all my life I seek knowledge, to study.”
In 2019, after his scout saw her playing, Soltani took on Israeli football player Eden Avital as a client, and most recently helped her clinch the contract that now has her playing as a midfielder for the top division ASJ Soyaux-Charente football club in Soyaux, France.
Of the 29 international athletes he represents, 19 are Israeli – including seven women football players and one coach from the Israeli women’s football league.
He emphasized that his representation of Israeli athletes has no connection to the Abraham Accords that were signed on September 15, 2020, between Israel and Bahrain and the UAE.
Soltani leaves the assessment of players’ skills to his Peruvian scout who recommended he approach Avital. Once he does take on an athlete as a client, his job is to get them the best deals possible with the best teams possible, he said.
“It is not me especially looking for Israeli athletes,” he said. “I have a Peruvian scout who works for us who saw her (Avital) playing, watched her on the national team. I don’t care whether an athlete is Israeli or not. Tunisia is the country of my parents. I am French before everything. Tunisia is my roots, but that is it.
“My parents are very tolerant and I grew up with Jewish people, my best friend is Tunisian Jewish and there is no problem. Religion is something private that should stay at home – and I hate politics.”
Avital’s first stop in France was on the second division Albi Club, where she played for one season and was voted best foreign player of the French League in the 2019 season.
“Eden is very well-liked in France, everyone loves her,” he said.. “She is doing great. Personally I love and respect her. She has excellent technical skills, she is smart, and hungry for victory.”
He also believes in another of his athletes who he signed last year: striker Rachel Steinschneider, a former player for Bnot Netanya in Israel, who after a year in the Danish women’s league just signed with Yzeure Allier Auvergne, the current leader in the second division of the French women’s league.
“Sofian believes in the players he represents, which is a very important thing for the players,” said Steinschneider, who said she had been unaware of his Tunisian roots. “He ultimately brings results in the field and... actually works, and works long hours, for his players. Plus he is always thinking about the next step and how the upcoming season at a particular venue can lead to the next season at a higher level. Sofian is a very funny person, and even in more stressful moments he conveys calm and manages to be funny and bring a smile.”
It has taken some convincing to get French clubs to consider Israeli players, Soltani noted, since most prefer to go with the safety of the known quantity of African or South American players. But they are slowly opening up to the idea of signing Israeli athletes. He said the main quality Israeli players bring to the table are their technical skills, though the game of football in Israel is played slower.
To get more Israeli players into European leagues, other countries “need to have good agents like me.”
He believes that teams should avoid choosing players by the “nationality thing.” Right now, in general, if a French team has a choice between a player from Cameroon or from Israel, they will still go with the Cameroon player because they speak French, and there are many Cameroon players already in the French league.
“But when you take a risk sometimes you succeed,” says Soltani, and that getting people to take that risk “is the job of an agent, and I succeed in what I do or I would be bankrupt. I will not reveal my tactics, because I want to stay the best. You never ask a chef for their recipe, you just enjoy the food. So you just enjoy the fruit of my labor.”
His players are not just “customers” for him, they are like a big family.
“I don’t want to push them into a big trap,” said Soltani. “I am not afraid to earn less if I send a player to a team where she or he will be earning less. I don’t care because I know later she/he will earn more money. The most important thing is the happiness of the player. If the player is happy she will always play well on the ground. If you push them only to have more money for you, she will not be a good player and that can promote injuries. We always have to think about the happiness of the player. If I only thought about the money I probably would be richer today.”
In 2020 Soltani also signed Gabriel Burstein, coach for the Maccabi Hadera women’s football team.
“Sofian is interested in the person,” said Burstein. “He looks for the best player or best coach so he can take him to a place where he will progress. He doesn’t throw him into a corner and say his job is done. He is always attentive and seeing how (his client) can improve, move to better teams, to take a bigger step. As an agent, it is important that he have the same character as an agent as he does as a person. Usually, when an agent finishes his work he is not interested in you, but Sofian is always there.”
The fact that he is Tunisian doesn’t ever enter the equation, Burstein added.
“I was born in Argentina and I don’t think race, religion, color or whatever should be important or taken into account in football,” Burstein said. The important thing is that there are people who want to advance the game and the players. “Knowing more about more cultures and more people with different ideas can only improve and open horizons,” he said.
When Soltani first started working with Israelis, he knew very little about Israel and Israelis and was very curious to learn more about them.
“If I don’t know about something, I don’t judge,” he said. “When I meet Israelis I ask many, many questions because I don’t know anything about the country. I discovered many things, many clichés. Like at first I thought Israel is very religious like the Vatican, but then I saw that no, it is a country just like European countries where you have some people who believe in religion and some who don’t.”
His impression of Israelis, he said, is that while some people judge you by your nationality, Israelis judge you but what kind of a person you are and what you can provide them.
“They see me as a simple man who does not care about politics or about religion,” says Soltani. “They are also curious about me and ask me about my roots. I answer politely but they see I don’t care about those things. One time a guy asked me my position about the Middle East and I stopped him and said I didn’t know.”
If someone asks him about his religion, he answers “football.”
Though he does not like to talk politics, he indulged a few questions on the topic.
He believes that sports and politics should be kept separate, and that it is “completely stupid” for athletes to refuse a match against someone because of their nationality and they should be penalized for that.
“The beauty of sports is that you can see an Israeli athlete competing against an Iranian athlete and an Iranian athlete competing against an American athlete,” he said.
As for a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics in China, he says that while he agreed that there needs to be protests against human rights abuses in China, sports should not be involved in political protests. If that is done, countries will always find reasons not to compete against one another.
Regarding Iranian wrestler Navid Afkari Sangari, executed in September 2020 by the Iranian government who accused him of having killed a security guard during anti-government protests, Soltani said his death was not only against sports but also against human rights.
“I am not specialized in the Iranian case but... nobody in the world should be executed, killed, tortured or anything because he has a different opinion, gender or skin color,” Soltani said.
Sadly, far-right political groups have found football as the best place to promote their racists agendas, which he can’t abide by, and this trend needs to be opposed.
“For example, with Eden I told her that with any clubs she is playing against, if she hears any racist or anti-Israeli things to tell me,” he says. “I will not play around with that.”
Soltani has yet to visit Israel, but that trip is on the top of his list once he feels it is safe enough to travel in light of corona.
“From what I understand, Israel has the organization of Europe but with the mentality of the Middle East,” he says. “It will be very interesting to see that.”
Soltani wants to see a Tel Aviv derby match between Tel Aviv Maccabi and Hapoel Tel Aviv.
“That will be fantastic,” he said. ■