Football agents, intermediaries, deal-brokers. The perception of the movers and shakers in an ever-expanding and ever-changing industry continues to be clouded by the widely held perception that those who take a cut of transfers are having an ugly effect on 'The Beautiful Game'. One man who aims to provide a positive impact says he relishes the day when he can sit round a table with educated people negotiating a deal – and that day might come sooner than you think.
Dr Erkut Sogut is probably best known as the intermediary and lawyer of Arsenal and Germany star Mesut Ozil but sitting alongside his commitments to the assist king are also a single-minded approach to guiding, educating and incorporating the next generation of agents into the football industry.
Born in Hanover to Turkish parents, Sogut emanates from a modest background and his jobs as a teenager include cleaning factories and working in clothes shop H&M. His route to becoming a lawyer was a painstaking one which saw him eventually introduced into the sports world by the agent of Germany national team coach Joachim Low.
“I always did business law and sports law, but before my internships I had access to Harun Arslan [agent of Joachim Low]," he tells Goal, in his first interview with the English press. "That was my first step into the business. He’s also from Hanover and represented many players at that time.
"I didn’t want to be a criminal lawyer or family lawyer. I loved sports and played football at that time. I had a lot of [football] talent but my family never pushed me to sports – they always pushed me to education. My father never watched a game of mine. Even when people talking about my football talent, he said: ‘My son has to study and become a doctor or lawyer.'"
“I know where I come from. I always look back and know what kind of childhood I had. I tell all my clients they have to do charitable things. When you’re earning millions you have more than anyone else who would love to be in your position. Without giving, you will not get more. If you don’t share, you will not grow.”
Sogut, who can speak German, Turkish, English and Spanish, was rejected by Arslan at first but, after spending the next six months in the library studying and creating a tailor-made newsletter for his compatriot, the door was opened to the sports industry for the first time.
“After six months the secretary phoned me and said he wants to meet you, he needs something," he explains. "I went back to Hanover and he had dealings with one of the football federations, there were letters going in and out. I said I could try and help. I had no previous experience but I told him I’d give everything to do it. I worked on it day and night and it went well for him as he won the case.
“That was my entry into the business. He [Arslan] was a mentor for me. Our ways split but then we met again after a couple of years. I started to feel what sport business was like and while I was in Turkey I did stuff for him as a runner.”
Turkish-born Germans form the largest ethnic minority in German society yet prejudices and xenophobic attacks were rife when Sogut was growing up there.
“I’m born in Germany, I grew up in Germany and feel it’s my home but I have never felt German as a nationality or character because I never get the feeling that I’m part of them," he confesses. "It starts at 18 when you don’t get into the nightclubs because you’re Turkish. I go with my same friend from school, his name is Stefan and the other Is Tomas – I don’t get in. I didn’t have access to the nightclub or bar in my city because I’m Turkish and ‘might cause trouble’.
“When I was studying law one of the judges who was sitting on the commitment to choose the judges of the future said to me very openly: ‘You should change your name if you want to become a judge in this country.’ He said if you are not twice better than the German name then you will not get that position.
"The motivation for studying is from my family to give back to them and look after them. It’s something very special for me. I’m living here for four years – I feel more British than I do German and it shouldn’t be like that.
“My work ethic is more German but my background is Turkish so I’m in the middle of two cultures. I always took the great things of both cultures and it’s a positive thing to have different cultures to learn. It’s an amazing thing. You have to give up everything and assimilate yourself to become one of them. We integrate but don’t assimilate. That’s what Polish people or others do in Germany – but Turkish people can’t do that because our culture and religion are different.
"If you bring non-educated people somewhere, then it’s difficult to integrate them as they’re even stronger with their culture background. In the past, they didn’t need them to talk the German language as they just cleaned and went home. It’s changed now and now we’re the fourth or fifth generation.”
It's clear when discussing the wider football landscape with Sogut that he places the greatest importance on education, whether it be advising his clients on making charitable contributions or investing for life after football.
Gunners maestro Ozil, who recently celebrated his 29th birthday, revealed in his autobiography Gunning For Greatness that he asked Sogut to provide advice to his younger sister Duygu and encourage her to go into further education.
“I talked to her [Duygu] so many times," he confirms, "I went through the processes of high school, university, masters and a doctorate. He [Mesut] knows I have a different perspective on that because of my experiences. I have done the same with my own sister, who is also a lawyer and studying in Bristol. She is finishing her masters thesis and I helped with many aspects – all the mistakes I made, she avoided.
“If I could go back in time and I had the financial opportunity I would have gone to England or America to study because of the language and the opportunities. I’ve made it happen for my sister. Education opens the door to the world. If you’re not educated, if you don’t speak different languages or a broad-minded nature then you will be easily influenced to others opinions.”
FIFA's decision to devolve power over agents to individual associations has arguably only further muddied the waters of what has traditionally been known as a murky industry anyway. The FA have removed the entrance exam to become an agent and opened it up to a £500 fee. Ultimately, players can be left unprotected by unscrupulous agents, while further questions have also been raised about third-party ownership. Sogut’s own revelations about the industry provide a telling glimpse into the world that he wants to change.
“I would love to sit with educated people on one table and talk about a possible deal rather than someone who is talking about escorts and how we can give managers money back somehow, third parties or accounts in Switzerland," he says.
"What I love is to teach others and that’s why I started teaching during my masters. In the agents business, people don’t like to give knowledge to others because they keep for themselves. If young kids go for an internship in a big agency they don’t show them anything, they just sit there and bring the tea and coffee. They don’t see any contracts and they don’t go into meetings. I do it the other way round. It’s good for the business and myself if there are educated guys and girls coming into this business.
“Sports is a billion-pound business which is growing every day. There are so many areas in sport where people can contribute. It’s very difficult from the outside because of nepotism at clubs and agencies but I try to tell students they can do it. The motivational part is so important and I always give both – motivation and knowledge – at the same level. I give them examples and tell them stories of what I’ve done and tell them the people in the business today are not better than them – they just came to that place because they worked hard and believed in themselves.”
“The best thing about being a lawyer is having knowledge about contracts. Even if you don’t know certain things, you can learn them quicker. You have an advantage but you have to know how to use it.
"Some agents are not lawyers but they have very good lawyers next to them. As a person, I will approach a club or player’s family as a lawyer. It assures people that I know what I’m doing and gives them a better feeling than someone coming with a Rolls Royce – something which could give a bad impression to a poor family.”
Managing one of the world’s best footballers comes with its own challenges and Sogut is closely aligned with Ozil’s Arsenal team-mate Shkodran Mustafi too. He represents high-profile figures in football, basketball and hockey, as well as working on behalf of football clubs in commercial deals, but remains adamant that he will never have an excessive amount of clients.
“I will never have more than 10," he insists. "I say no more than yes to many players. Some agencies have 50 young players but I prefer quality over quantity. It can still be lucrative if you do your job well and believe in yourself. In no other business do you make money as quick as in the football business but that’s why it’s tight and the people who are in the business don’t want anyone to get into it. You need to be patient and never let people say you can’t do anything."
Sogut, who studied for his PhD in sports law at the University of Osnabruck, is currently leading the Sports Agent programme at UCFB in London which claims to provide 'students with a bespoke inside view of the process of becoming a sports agent or intermediary, and also aims to address some of the practicalities and realities of player representation both in the UK and overseas'. It's an exciting development in his own career and he revealed that he will invite some of the best students to football matches and meetings so they can get first-hand experience in the industry.
“In 15 years, I see myself as a professor at a university where I'll be able to teach all the things I’ve learnt during my career," he says. "We’re writing a series of books and I hope to publish the first one in March 2018. They’re about how to become a sports agent and it explains different pathways into the business. There’s nothing like that out there right now and I felt that students need something to read to see how they can get into the business. Working with managers, sporting directors, youth players and how to register as an agent. A basic book for anyone to read but especially good for the upcoming agents as the first step.
"There are 24 series of books on a range of topics: sports agents and media; how to approach newspapers, magazines; when to get a lawyer or not; how to create your network in the media.
"Sports agents and contracts is one of the key books that someone has to learn. Sports agents and families is another key book that someone should learn. For example, with family, how to get a client and keep the client and develop the relationship, bringing them to the next step. The first step going to pitch; second step talking to him or the father, friends. Then, making a contract with them, creating things with a player, contacting sponsors.
"One book is just working with sponsors – what kind of sponsors are working in sports, how do you approach and meet marketing directors. The other one is how to work with youth players, you can’t do certain things and transfer them. How do you get sports players into business?
"Sports players and charities too. For example, Charlie is going to the home game as a guest of Mesut with his mother for his birthday. You have to talk to the families and to the club to arrange this. On top of that there are topics on fashion, social media, YouTube channels, Weibo and how to merchandise the social media of the football player to make money.
"I’ve arranged to create an online education platform for agents. They will be able to go onto the website download some papers, documents, contracts and ask questions on there. My goal is one day that there will be an education programme to become a sports agent which takes one year as a masters programme. I think there will be a three-year bachelor course one day as there is so much you have to learn – law, charitable stuff, media, contracts. You need two or three years to learn everything. I hope to have weekend seminars in London ‘how to become a sports agent’, which I have previously done in Germany and Turkey."
"There are ways to get into the business which I teach as well. How to get an internship at a football club or in sports marketing companies. There are lot of ways to get into the business and to meet people. The motivational part shows as well. You have to be proactive – they’re not coming for you.
"Most don’t get into the business because they don’t believe they can. If you believe in it then you will try to find ways how to. A lot of young people get desperate and get out as the main agents in the business won’t show them the way. I want to show them the way and teach them how to become a lawyer and then they can approach players by themselves."
However, Sogut admits that there are always new obstacles to overcome in the rapidly changing world of football, particularly when it comes to dealing with the media.
On February 21, 2014, police were called to Ozil's home after a photographer claimed he had been struck by Ozil's car as the player was trying to exit his driveway.
"It was my first experience with the paparazzi," Sogut recalls, "It was after the Bayern game, when Mesut missed a penalty. He was very upset and they [paparazzi] were waiting right in front of the house. While we were driving out, we saw the photographer put his hand on the wing mirror, push his arm against it and said ‘Ow!’ We couldn’t believe it and thought he was joking.
"But the police even made Mesut an alcohol test and they checked the cameras on the street. The photographer then sold the story to the papers at a time when Mesut wasn’t playing well.
"But this is how it is with Mesut: some people love him; some hate him. He’s a very polarising footballer but you have that with a lot of footballers."
Therefore, Sogut makes no apologies for always doing his utmost to protect his clients, just as he did when he said Ozil was made out to be a "scapegoat" following Arsenal's 5-1 loss to Bayern in February of last year.
"I was watching the game and Bayern had 77 per cent possession," he points out. "They were controlling the game and Mesut was playing in the No.10 position. We were never in that position in the game. He was picked out as the scapegoat. Why are the defenders conceding five goals then? If we can’t win in Munich, then we don’t lose. There’s no excuse for collapsing – when you play in Munich you play compact and defensively. We played so openly and I just said that he didn’t play well like the rest of the team, but why did the defence concede five goals?
"But the main target right away was Mesut Ozil. I felt that I had to protect my client. I thought about making a statement the whole night because I felt a feeling that I had to take the pressure off, which was the right thing to do at that time. Criticism is fine when the players play badly but that was used as an excuse for the poor team performance.
“But, in this world, even if you get down, then you get up again because nobody gives you anything for free.”