x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Agents find Facebook bonuses

Predatory football agents have discovered social networking. As if the internet was not already packed to its virtual rafters with all manner of spivs, scammers and assorted ne’er-do-wells, we must now be on guard against vultures circling Facebook et al in their hunt for young prey to “tap up”.

Well, poke me sideways. Predatory football agents have discovered social networking.

As if the internet was not already packed to its virtual rafters with all manner of spivs, scammers and assorted ne’er-do-wells, we must now be on guard against vultures circling Facebook et al in their hunt for young prey to “tap up”.

Neil Bath, the head of the Chelsea FC academy, says unscrupulous agents are so eager to get their grubby hands on these future cash cows that they are using social networking sites to send messages to youngsters, thus bypassing protective clubs and parents.

This despite English Football Association rules which ban any player under 16 from having an agent, and any agent from making approaches.

I can see why this story made the news. The image of a stereotyped agent learning to use the modern online lexicon is inherently comical.

Just imagine those nicotine-stained sausage-fingers prodding the keyboard as this old-school oaf pushes back his Fedora and scratches his greasy head, trying to make sense of the alien territory on screen. What is a Rofl? Is it the same as “ruffle”? When is it appropriate to Lol? And who is this Lmao character? Is he Senegalese?

But we should not be surprised. This is a classic example of new technology facilitating old habits.

It reminds me of the gasping awe with which newspapers reported football hooliganism in the late 1990s, utterly astonished that “high-tech” thugs were arranging fights on internet chat rooms and mobile phones.

Everyone else in the late 90s was using mobile phones and the internet. Did we expect football hooligans to arrange their tear-ups via telegram? Carrier pigeon, perhaps?

Of course rogue agents will use Facebook. They will do anything to gain the edge over their rivals, and pinging out a few e-mails surely beats loitering outside a park changing room on a wet Sunday morning.

This is not Facebook’s fault, nor the internet’s in general, but an inevitable consequence of something much more old-fashioned: a legalised human trade in which staggering profits can be made.

Clubs paint themselves as the good guys for wanting to fend off such rogue agents, but they are protecting their own interests as well as the boys’ careers.

This Facebook panic reminds me of a court case I covered as a news reporter in 2004. Paul Stretford, the football agent, was not accused of any offence – he was the alleged victim of one – but the court heard allegations, never disproved, that he poached a young Wayne Rooney from his first agent by asking a long-term friend and business partner to pay the family a home visit.

The plan worked. Not surprisingly, considering the business partner was one Kenny Dalglish.

Nothing was illegal, but the case provided a glimpse into a very murky world. In comparison, the idea of sending out a few

Facebook messages seems rather tame.

The Stretford story was picked up by a few media outlets but never really discussed at length, perhaps because of the legendary status of Dalglish himself. Well, we would not want to Rofl any feathers, would we?

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It was easy to mock Gennaro Gattuso's spectacular tantrum in the Champions League match against Tottenham Hotspur last week. I should know, having devoted most of a page to that purpose on Saturday.

The general opinion in the United Kingdom was to dismiss the AC Milan man's antics - furiously pounding the turf, shoving Peter Crouch in the chest (or as close as he could reach), and that ineffectual butt on Joe Jordan, the Spurs assistant coach - as being "typically Italian". Fiery, passionate and hot-tempered, yes, but not exactly scary.

The implication was that you would not find British players spitting out the dummy like that. (Have you ever tried spitting a dummy while maintaining a stiff upper lip? It is practically impossible.)

I would hate, however, to leave such lazy racial stereotyping unchecked. In Saturday's FA Cup match between Birmingham City and Sheffield Wednesday, Roger Johnson, the City defender, had a fantastic tantrum of Gattuso proportions.

After being booked for an innocuous challenge, Johnson appeared to suffer the red mist and was substituted for his own good. He will be invaluable if Birmingham stand any chance of beating Arsenal in the Carling Cup final this Sunday. (Which they do not, by the way, but I will still be attending Wembley for my once-in-a-decade slice of crestfall pie.)

Once sat in the dugout, Johnson pummelled the plastic glass with the sort of frantic backwards-elbowing he normally reserves for visiting centre-forwards.

This frenzied assault on defenceless transparent plastic might have ended in tragedy were it not for the intervention of a member of the coaching staff, who cooed soothing words into Johnson's ear.

It was hard to lip read what he said because his lips were practically buried in Johnson's cochlea, but I am certain I saw "naughty" and "step".

Kick racism out of football, they say. OK, let's start by admitting that dour Brits can be just as "fiery" as their Latin cousins.