Pep Guardiola is wrong about Yaya Toure’s agent

Labor lessons from the Premier League’s latest controversy

Image via Wikimedia
Here is a list of things that can all be simultaneously true:
  • Yaya Toure’s chances of playing for Pep Guardiola at Manchester City are only slightly better than mine
  • Yaya Toure’s agent, Dimitri Seluk, has a long history of absurd statements. Recall, if you will, the time he started a major incident because his client had not received a birthday cake.
  • Seluk said some very silly things about Guardiola on Tuesday, including questioning whether he had “the balls to say that he was wrong to humiliate a great player like Yaya.”
  • Pep Guardiola is not a fan of Seluk’s behavior.
  • Pep Guariola was not going to give Toure much of a role before Seluk’s latest outburst and is just as unlikely to do so now.
  • Pep Guardiola has demanded that Toure apologize for his agent’s actions. “If he doesn’t,” The Guardian quotes him as having said, “he won’t play.”
  • An agent’s job is to represent a player’s interests, a pursuit that is likely to create tension with the club.
  • The representation of labour vis-à-vis management is a normative good.

Okay, truism time is over. It is, however, necessary to list all these points, because the latest Seluk-Manchester City snafu has prompted much of the soccer-verse to suggest that Pep was in the right. Seluk may be generally absurd figure (and quite possibly bad at his job) but making players’ involvement contingent on rebuking their representation is a horrible practice. More to the point, tacit acceptance of this approach to labor relations sets a bad precedent for future incidents — and, make no mistake, there will be future incidents.

Let’s start by noting that an agent’s job is, in short, to annoy clubs. The agent shouldn’t be too annoying, because there can be blowback, but the pursuit of a player’s interests is inherently antagonistic. Seluk, for what it’s worth, is perhaps the most antagonistic of agents. But his particular brand of antagonism is less important to this story than the fact that he’s an agent; his job, in large part, is to push clubs to give his clients as much as they are possibly willing to offer. It is also worth noting that Seluk is pretty good at this: The birthday cake episode, while absurd, worked out for Yaya Toure, who continued to be a well-paid mainstay in the team thereafter.

What Pep Guardiola is asking Yaya Toure to do is, in short, tell his agent to pressure the club less if he wants any chance of playing for the club. This may seem like no great loss because he is unlikely to play anyhow and Seluk’s pressure isn’t going to help, but it is nonetheless a coercive demand for a player to act against his own interests. Such demands are not unheard of in soccer: players are made to train on their own until they accept pay reductions and it would hardly be surprising if similar demands had previously been made behind closed doors. But the public nature of Guardiola’s demand is particularly troubling, because soccer fans are being asked to add to the pressure on a player to disavow his representation. Don’t be that person.

It is, perhaps, more helpful to think of this situation in abstract terms since too many of its participants bring with them baggage that muddies the water. Imagine that a player is negotiating a new contract. He wants more money. His agent says the club has insulted him with their latest offer, which is a normal enough soccer agent thing to say but also undeniably chippy. The club takes offense. The club’s manager therefore goes to the press and says that player will not touch the pitch until his agent apologizes. Maybe he’ll even need to fire his agent if he’s to be certain of getting in the manager’s good graces. The press will be relentless: doesn’t he want to play? Fans will pile on, as they always do, not recognizing the incongruity of siding with management. The clock is ticking on the player’s career. He is still getting paid, but he is being left out to rot. Maybe, he starts to think, he should fire his agent. Out of desperation, the player caves in and weakens his representation. This allows the club to make a more favorable deal, because it has all the leverage. Aren’t you glad you sided with management?

That may sound dystopian — and, to an extent, it is — but the same principle underpins both of these stories. Player representation exists to make up for imbalances of power: clubs have lots of businesspeople and your average player cannot be trusted to negotiate a good contract on his own. When clubs use their power and, more perniciously, the forces of fandom, to pressure a player to disavow his agent, they are weakening his potential representation. Soccer perversely asks fans to side with business all the time, but here, even when the participants are unlikeable, the situation demands that we side with Toure and Seluk. A principle is still a principle if it protects the fundamentally unlikeable.

David Rudin is an editor for Howler Magazine. When not tweeting as this fine publication, he can be found at @DavidSRudin.