Growing up in England, Rhema Obed and Zeph Thomas both dreamed of playing in the Premier League. They each made it to professional clubs, but not to the top flight. So, in search of a career overseas, they turned to social media.
As absurd as that sounds, it can work. Legitimate agents placing players in developing countries regularly use social media to contact clubs, while even in Europe, players have found contracts this way. Slovenian side NK Domzale recruited a new right-back, Alvaro Brachi, in February using LinkedIn, the BBC reported.
But social media can also be a lion’s den. Clubs and agents use LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to find and contact players looking for jobs in developing leagues around the world, which offer the opportunity to gain a foothold in the professional game. The problem is, thieves and scammers use those social media outlets, too.
And it’s hard to tell one from the other.
Obed, a former England youth international who spent time in the Arsenal academy, left his native north London for a career on the outskirts of the game, from Asia to Eastern Europe. He most recently played in Slovenia.
In 2013, when Obed was playing in Greece, an offer came in from Mexican side CD Tiburones Rojos de Veracruz. Obed was initially excited at the prospect of playing in Liga MX. Mexico was a new frontier, a chance to start afresh, but those dreams soon dissipated.
Obed’s agent, Singapore-based Trebol Sports, was suspicious. A man claiming to be the Mexican club’s coach, Miguel Fuentes, had approached Trebol about signing Obed via LinkedIn. Bryan Lim, Trebol’s sporting director, was alerted after “Fuentes” asked for a registration fee of €400.
This money was not to be wired to Mexico, but to the unlikely destination of Benin, West Africa, where the club allegedly had an office. Sensing a scam, Trebol reported “Fuentes” to the Benin Embassy in the United States. “We will greatly appreciate if you can launch an investigation into this and arrest these criminals who are an absolute disgrace to your country,” fumed Lim. He never got an answer.
That same year, Thomas, who started out at Rotherham and plays internationally for St. Kitts and Nevis, had been knocking around. Having played in Belgium earlier in his career, he knew playing overseas could be the chance he needed. Following his release by Scottish side Cowdenbeath and a stint working in a call centre, Thomas signed on with the Thunder Bay Chill, a Canadian team in the USL Premier Development League.
That proved short-lived, and he returned to the UK to play semi-professionally. Like Obed, Thomas used YouTube and LinkedIn to advertise his skills and network.
When a LinkedIn request came in from Thai side Air Force Central, he was excited.
The Thai game is one of the fastest-growing in Asia. Thomas checked out the club’s profile and found more than 500 connections. It looked legitimate. He responded.
Then came the sucker punch. “[They] wanted me to pay $1,000 for a trial," Thomas wrote in an email. "Obviously I didn't do it as I knew it was wrong.”
Like Obed, Thomas knows social media is now part of the fabric of the game, but he finds gauging who is real or not on the web increasingly difficult.
The burgeoning Asian game offers increasing opportunities. Overseas players can earn £1,750 to £2,100 a month playing in developing leagues in places such as Cambodia and Myanmar.
That’s not a fortune by Western standards, but it’s a lot to, say, an African player who might earn as little as £20 a month at home. A contract in a developing league also represents a start on the professional ladder for adventurous, determined players like Obed and Thomas.
Onwards and upwards: That is how football works. Players who impress can earn a contract in a better league, such as Thailand, while the clubs earn a fee from the transfer.
But where there’s that kind of hope, there are people looking to take advantage of it.
“Scams and cons are rife in Southeast Asia,” said British coach Simon McMenemy, who coaches Loyola Meralco Sparks in the Philippines and has previously coached across Asia, from Indonesia to the Maldives.
In 2013 and 2014, I covered this subject in a two-part expose for World Soccer magazine, which revealed how an online FIFA directory of agents was being used by criminals to scam young players. Tempted via fake profiles on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter with the prospect of trials at professional clubs, players were conned out of money, and the “agents” disappeared. Since then, the problem has only got worse. Much worse.
Last year, FIFA did away with the system of agents, who sit an exam and are licensed by national associations. Now there are only so-called intermediaries, and a host of scams are being inflicted not just on young players, but real agents, too.
Under FIFA rules, players moving from one country to another need an International Transfer Certificate (ITC) and must transfer using the Transfer Matching System (TMS). This does not always happen, as demonstrated by a recent scam that global players union FIFPro helped the BBC uncover in Laos.
New club side IDSEA Champasak United—or someone posing as the club—were bringing in players from Africa, bypassing both FIFA’s rules and Laos immigration. Had the scam not been exposed, any player who appeared in a match would have been officially registered and could have been sold on to a club outside Laos, where the game is too poor to demand transfer fees.
“To get these players in the country, someone would have had to be paid,” said a source close to the case.
Many more scams are out there. Only a few are ever exposed.
Last year, Channel 4’s Unreported World programme reported on agents ripping off aspiring young footballers in Cameroon. But, as with the teenage Africans being lured to Laos, were those agents real? Or were they scammers like the ones who tried to trick Rhema Obed out of €400?
While there are many reputable agents in the game, determining who is an agent—or intermediary, to use the current term—is harder than ever. And in the wild west of social media, con men are running amok.
Not only are these internet outlaws looking to rip off ambitious young players such as Obed and Thomas, they are increasingly trying to take in legitimate agents.
One such agent, who asked not to be named for the sake of their reputation, paid out about £4,850 in 2013 to send eight players for trials at another Thai side, Port FC.
Some governing bodies like the Football Association (FA) in England send out regular warnings, but these scammers continue to find ambitious but vulnerable young victims in ever more remote corners of the world.
According to the Evening Standard, a 17-year-old Mongolian footballer, Ochiroo Batbold, was conned out of £3,800—a year’s salary in Mongolia—last year by a man claiming to have links with West Ham United and the Los Angeles Galaxy. He wired his money to the U.S. via Western Union, and the “agent” quickly vanished.
"I’ve just been approached by another player who suffered the same thing," Paul Watson, co-owner of Batbold’s club, Bayangol, said this week. "I think there must be loads of these kids and nobody helping them at all."
What makes matters worse is FIFA has been complicit in the creation of these new fake identities.
As FIFA has gone into meltdown under a mountain of corruption allegations, the world body, rather than tackling this problem, seems to have scored an own goal by changing the way it regulates agents.
As part of these changes, the qualifying exam was abolished, and the online FIFA directory, which was compiled from data supplied by the licensed agents and 209 national associations that are members of FIFA, was taken offline.
The directory wasn’t perfect. Contact details were missing for some agents, which helped scammers steal their identity. It’s a lot easier to impersonate an agent on a social media profile if the victim of your con can’t get you on Skype or FaceTime to see if your face matches the agent’s photo.
Still, the directory, despite its failings, was the best chance aspiring young footballers had to verify the identities of people who approached them online.
But those ghost directories are even more ripe for scammers to exploit than the old one FIFA provided. The details are no longer vetted by any of the national associations that regulate intermediaries, so while they remain a great resource for scammers, they offer even less reassurance for aspiring players looking to confirm credentials than they used to.
Players, agents or clubs trying to do their due diligence are often presented with convincing online identities.
Criminals operating as far apart as Romania and Nigeria are using the free-for-all of social media to capitalise on the burgeoning Asian game.
“Facebook and LinkedIn must continue to police these fake accounts diligently,” said Lim.
This does not seem to be happening. There were recently 20 suspicious-looking accounts related to a "Conning Peter" and football on Facebook. Peter Conning is a legitimate English agent. Using photos from his playing days at Weymouth in Dorset, scammers created profiles on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter that reversed his names, a common trick. But in this case, the blundering fakers created an inadvertent pun that betrayed their poor command of English.
“I'm annoyed about the rogue accounts but have stopped trying to get the organisations to follow my requests,” said an exasperated Conning, who complained to Twitter three years ago about the fake profile for Conning Peter that remains on the app.
That profile even uses the same photo as one of the fake Facebook pages.
Facebook has finally taken down these dodgy accounts, but only after Bleacher Report sent over details on all 20 accounts to the social media giant.
The Air Force Central account is gone, but there are still five active Conning Peter accounts on LinkedIn. The business-networking site promises to remove these and investigate the other Thai club accounts, but how many more fake profiles, or unknown victims, are out there?
Many of those who are conned see the riches of western European football on television and want a slice of that cake, but victims do not only come from the developing world.
At the end of 2015, a young player from San Marino was conned out of €3,500 by the lure of a trial with Italian Serie A side Carpi, per Gazzetta World.
As FIFA changed the old system of regulation, Mel Stein, chairman of the London-based Association of Football Agents, warned it would create a “wild west,” as reported by James Riach of the Guardian.
But Jerome Champagne, who was formerly director of international relations at FIFA and heavily involved in the development of TMS, said the AFA and the European Football Agents Association, which both ignored requests to comment on the current situation, are “spinning a narrative that doesn’t comply with reality.”
“The introduction of TMS showed that there was no agent on 75 per cent of transfers,” Champagne said. “They say that FIFA deregulated agents, but how can you deregulate something that was badly regulated for 25 per cent of transfers and not regulated at all for the other 75 per cent?
“Previously people like [players union] FIFPro could not provide advice and a father could not advise his own son without sitting the exam. Now that has changed.”
Under the new system, licensed agents have been replaced by intermediaries, who must pay a fee and self-certify they are of “impeccable character.”
There is no guidance on either the size of the fee or the test of character, other than that “no criminal sentence has ever been imposed ... for a financial or violent crime” on a would-be intermediary.
In England, the FA, which charges intermediaries £500 to register, developed a “Test of Good Character and Reputation,” with six criteria ranging from bans or suspensions, to administrating sport and not being declared bankrupt.
Prior to last year’s change in regulation, the FA was one of 150 of FIFA’s 209 associations to license agents.
How many more will do so now under the new system is only just starting to become evident. FIFA ordered all national associations to publish the names of intermediaries approved in the previous 12 months by the end of March, and with no central clearinghouse for these lists, it's all but impossible for a player to find them all or even to know which associations have complied. England and the U.S. have both published theirs.
What seems certain is the number of intermediaries will far outstrip the number of agents licensed under the old system.
At the FA, the number of intermediaries has more than tripled from 450 in 2013 to 1,500. This seems likely to be reflected elsewhere in the world.
However, it’s a mistake to think that any agent who passed an exam under the old system was reputable and one who didn’t take the exam was bad.
Rhema Obed had Trebol to thank for saving him €400, yet the agency was not on FIFA’s accredited list, despite successfully placing players and coaches across Asia. Bleacher Report has confirmed this with a number of Trebol’s clients.
“After I left the Arsenal academy, I was approached by an established agent who had done the exams. He sold me nothing but dreams. He had no contacts,” says Obed.
“Trebol were not on the FIFA website, but I met them. They had brought a player to my old team in Singapore and I knew how they operated. It doesn’t matter to me if they are licensed. It just needs to be someone who can open doors.
“When someone asks for money, that should raise suspicion. What club asks players for money? They are paying for my services. What we do need is verification.”
A big question is: Whose problem is this to solve? Most football associations insist combating the scammers is not their responsibility.
“These scams are for a law enforcement agency, not us,” says an FA spokesman. “These people are not agents, they are criminals.”
FIFPro welcomed FIFA’s changes but said the wider problems of rogue agents is far from solved, and it insisted the solution to fraud lies outside the game.
“The old system was for sure not working,” said FIFPro spokesperson Raymond Beard. “The sad part is that these kind of practices from agents cannot be prevented by regulations of any governing body. The local authorities need to take care of these criminals. That is basically the only way to really stop them.”
While FIFA’s changes are clearly not the deregulation that some established agents claim, the world body could certainly do more to counteract the fake-agent crimewave.
National association lists of intermediaries will not stop that wave, but publishing contact details and a photo of each registered intermediary would. Then, any player contacted over social media would be able to use a video call to confirm the identity of the person making contact.
FIFA could insist on this simple measure, but the world body is listing under a raft of corruption allegations and seemingly has other priorities.
Ironically, both former president Sepp Blatter and secretary general Jerome Valcke are listed in the guidance on intermediaries. Blatter has been banned from all football for six years, and FIFA sacked Valcke in January.
As questions are raised at FIFA over issues from secret payments to vote rigging, the world body has abdicated responsibility for the governance of football agents, according to Bonita Mersiades, who is now part of the New FIFA Now coalition campaigning for an overhaul of FIFA.
“The deregulation of licensed players' agents is an example of FIFA's lack of understanding of appropriate governance,” said Mersiades, who is a former head of public affairs at Football Federation Australia.
"Just as we have a framework of standards and accreditation in place for other parts of football, such as coaching and refereeing, the same should apply for football agents."
There was a chance to change that situation on February 26, when FIFA’s 209 member associations voted on a new president to replace the discredited Blatter, but the issue of agents barely registered in the election.
Before the vote, Bleacher Report asked the eventual winner, Swiss UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino, for his plans on tackling regulation of agents, both real and fake.
A spokesman said: “Gianni thinks FIFA needs to take a more hands-on approach to the transfer system in order to limit abuse and tackle the exploitation of the system by external parties. Fair and transparent regulations, accepted by all stakeholders and with clear accountability and effective enforcement, will limit the potential for any abuse and help prevent money flowing out of the game.
"The new intermediary regulations have just started to be implemented last year and need to be assessed objectively. He is committed to make further changes to improve the system.”
With Infantino faced with the massive task of restoring trust in FIFA, quite what changes—if any—are made over regulation of agents under his watch will only become clear in time, although the new president has other problems. He's already become embroiled in FIFA's scandals, thanks to the Panama Papers.
Until then, any footballing adventurers looking to emulate the likes of Rhema Obed and Zeph Thomas will have to navigate the murky world of social media with increasing care.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.