Paul Oberjuerge goes behind scenes in Lienz, Austria, to explore the pitfalls for the likes of Souhaib Mishmish and why this UAE Olympic football team is his favourite.
UAE trip is a match made in heaven for Emirati agent
Souhaib Mishmish is in the middle of an anecdote, and he has a million of them, eyes alight, leaning forward in his chair, as he summons a torrent of words to describe the fecklessness of a particular coach who "two hours before a match – two hours! – decides one hour and a half is too far to drive, and says he will not come, even while the other team is already on the pitch warming up."
His smartphone rings, a loud and harsh tone perhaps designed to jolt him when he tries to snatch a few hours of sleep. He glances at the caller ID and mutters, "This can't be good."
And the anecdote is put on hold as he practically shouts, with convincing enthusiasm, "Habibi!" into the phone and walks out of earshot while he solves another problem for a persnickety team manager or a capricious coach or an aggrieved hotelier.
Mishmish, a 31-year-old Emirati from Dubai, is what Fifa calls a "match agent", but the term is far too bland to describe the miracles of organisation he and other leaders in his industry achieve when football teams are training outside their home country and, specifically, in Austria, the new centre of summer camps for teams throughout Europe and the Middle East.
These are the men who find the hotels, ensure three meals a day, secure the training grounds, arrange the buses and set up matches between teams large and small. And they do it for dozens of clients, clubs and national teams.
It is suggested the job must be fun, in a heart-pounding, adrenalin-leaking, twisted sort of way, but Mishmish's face takes on a weary, "You must be kidding" aspect.
"No," he says. "It's not fun. When a coach becomes angry, believe me, it's not fun. Sometimes, it happens."
Mishmish finds himself drawn to the profession for two reasons, one logical and one emotional. He finds profit and satisfaction in the repeat business of clients, whose willingness to sign a second or third big contract with him is a mute form of saying: "Job well done."
But the bigger reward is dealing with teams from his home country, the UAE, his first clients, and clients who always will be first.
At the moment, his primary concern is the UAE Olympic team, who are preparing for London 2012 in the town of Lienz, Austria, where they use a big new weight room set up by Mishmish and ride a bus with "UAE FA" signage ordered up by Mishmish, and walk into the hotel under a 10-metre streamer that reads: "Welcome to Lienz, UAE Olympic team" that Mishmish has arranged.
This is his favourite team. He travelled to Tashkent in March for the dramatic final qualifying match with Uzbekistan. He smoked two packs of cigarettes during the first half, he says, when the UAE trailed 1-0, but he remembers someone in the UAE party telling him: "Don't worry. We will win." And they did, 3-2.
When the Emiratis returned to the UAE, at a ceremony celebrating the berth in the London Games, Mishmish was among those given a plaque by Sheikh Hazza bin Zayed for his support of the Olympic team during their campaign.
Back in Lienz, sitting in the driver's seat of his BMW 520d, the father of three tries to express his feelings towards the Olympic side. "You feel this team is very serious, very serious in their job," he said. "They come in with this national team to do something. You feel that. That's why maybe I am so attached to them.
"I like to be around them, I like to do them the job. I'm happy when I'm serving them, because at the end I'm serving my country."
His beginnings in the profession were an outgrowth of the family business in real estate and hotels; over the past decade the family's Emirates Concorde Hotel became the lodging of choice for visiting football teams, including the UAE during "internal" camps. In 2010, the senior national team because his first client outside the country, in a camp in both Austria and Germany.
After that first association, the FA came back to Mishmish in the summer of 2011, as well, and now in 2012.
For the current camp, he was one of several bidders ready to meet the requirements set out by the FA. After the draw for the Olympic football tournament was made in April, in London, Mahdi Ali, the UAE coach, and Mutrif Al Shamsi, the team manager, stopped in Germany, Switzerland and Austria to view the facilities.
Austria has become particularly busy; dozens of match agents deal with an estimated 70 teams currently training within a two-hour drive of Lienz.
When it was time for his presentation, Mishmish accompanied Mahdi Ali and Al Shamsi every step of the way. "I take care of it personally," he said. "I like to be with the team myself so I can understand what the team needs so I can provide it. I need to make sure they get whatever they want. Whatever they request, they have to have it."
During his dealings with the UAE coach, Mishmish found his admiration for Mahdi Ali to have grown, even before his bid was accepted by the UAE and the contract signed.
"Mahdi Ali, I respect him so much," Mishmish said. "I really respect him because I've seen a lot of coaches, but he is the most professional coach I know. …
"Let me tell you something: he sent me his schedule for the camp in Lienz one month before they arrived. Which has never happened with any Arabic club or team. Never.
"He's very organised. You have to respect him. You have to. He doesn't change his mind like baby coaches."
And then he related the story of the European coach who decided not to show up for a match.
Mishmish spends perhaps three months every year now in Austria, and he says he has "seven hotel rooms in seven cities" of the Alpine country.
His is not an industry for the faint-hearted or underfunded; the career of a match agent can be nasty, brutish and short. "You need to spend a lot of money, a lot of money," Mishmish said. "And you have to risk a lot of money, because some teams, not that I'm saying Arabic, but some are, they don't ever pay their bills.
"Some clubs, not with me, still owe agents money. They didn't pay the hotel. They didn't pay the contracts. It is a risk. And many of those who pay, it's a delay, always delaying with payments, and at the same time you have a lot of obligations you have to cover."
As his business - Royal Concorde Sports Management - enters its third year, he has chosen to keep a bit of distance from many of his clients; he no longer stays in the same hotel for the duration of their visit. He finds it almost too intimate.
"We have a lot of stories," he said. "We have a lot, believe me, we have a lot. We know everything about all the teams. We know what is going on inside because we live with them 10 days, two weeks. Stories happen in front of your eyes, problems with coach and players, staff with each other, players with each other …"
He remains available via phone of course. "I never turn it off; it is never on silent," and it becomes a 24/7 existence. At any time he must be ready to solve problems for a dozen teams, who can be like a dozen skittish brides in their particular preferences.
At present, he is overseeing camps for, among others, the UAE; Al Ain, the Pro League champions; Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia; and Al Sadd of Qatar, the Asian Champions League title holders.
The first priority for all coaches is the friendlies. Arranging matches takes a tremendous amount of time and energy and some teams can be very deliberate in deciding which of, perhaps, three opponents they want to play.
Some coaches prefer their friendlies to build to a crescendo, with the weaker opponents first and the strongest last. Mishmish takes all this account when he relays the names of potential opponents for any given day.
For the UAE's 17 days in Austria, he has arranged five matches. Three of them are against qualifiers for the London Olympics: Gabon, Honduras and New Zealand. "I don't think anyone else has done this," he said, of the trio of games against other London-bound sides. Matches also were arranged against a Romanian club team and a Hungary team, and all were approved by the FA.
After two years, his firm is expanding quickly. Most of his clients are in the Middle East, but he also does business with clubs in Europe, and has dealt with national federations in Africa, North American and New Zealand.
Asked where he would like to be in 10 years, you might expect an outline of a vast "match agent" empire with a huge staff dealing with scores of teams. Mishmish, however, says. "In 10 years I want to be half the man my father is. He came from nothing. Nothing. If I can be half the man he is, I will consider myself successful."