SBS The World Game host Lucy Zelic spoke with player agent Zeljko Susa as part of her new series of long-form interviews with football personalities from Australia and abroad
When you hear the term 'player agent' you could be forgiven for thinking the absolute worst.
Whether they’re planting false stories, pocketing their client’s money or burning bridges; almost every footballer you meet has a war story that they’re prepared to share about a rogue trader.
Ironically, the rise of the 'super agent' has seen them become hugely powerful entities in their own right with the likes of Mino Raiola and Jorge Mendes responsible for some of the world’s biggest names in football.
On Australian soil, former Olyroo and Director of ‘The Pitch Management’, Zeljko Susa has a far more modest and respectable approach to managing his players.
Safeguarding the likes of Craig Goodwin, Dylan Pierias and Luke Brattan, I caught up with Susa to find out why our home-grown talent are struggling to crack it abroad and where he foresees the next boom in the market.
LZ: What motivated you to start Pitch Management?
ZS: I was at the PFA as a player relations officer where I was dealing with a lot of player issues and a lot of those issues were with regards to agents, clubs, going overseas and contracts.
I had my old business partner that worked at Elite Sports Properties and met another friend of mine and we were talking about potential expansion.
After hearing all the things that I did hear at the PFA and working with the players a lot, I thought it wouldn't be a bad transition moving into the bad world of a player agency. So I moved to ESP and we then left that and we started our own company, The Pitch Management about six years ago.
How has being a former player helped in your role as an agent?
Just understanding from a player's perspective, knowing what the player is going through and how difficult it can be trying to make it overseas.
I've been through a hell of a lot with retiring at the age of 24 after I had a freak accident and I've had a lot of ups and downs with it. I have empathy towards the players because I know how difficult it is being a footballer.
Everyone would love to be a footballer but don't understand the dedication and the commitment that is required.
Did you ever have any bad experiences with agents when you were playing?
Absolutely. I did have some issues with contracts and overseas dealings.
I went overseas on a trial in Holland where I was meant to go to NAC Breda and turned up there with an agent and the coach closed the door and said, "you're not coming in - we've got two weeks until the season starts, I don't want any more triallists", so they shipped me off to a second division team just to train in Belgium.
Then I went to a Bundesliga club, Aachen where, at the time, Mark Rudan and Goran Lozanovski were there.
I ended up signing at Hajduk Split at the end of that. It was a process where I actually thought it was a trial organized by the club.
As I found out, it was just the agent getting a promise from someone within the club that didn't have the authority to give the go ahead. He obviously didn't speak to the coach and the coach just knocked it on its head.
Robbie Slater recently shared a story (on Fox Sports' Football podcast) of his own where he revealed that an agent had pocketed money from a deal that he did for him many years ago. How much of this stuff still goes on today?
There's a Transfer Matching System which is FIFA controlled so they weeded all that out.
All those transfer fees where players are being sold for 'X' amount of dollars - there's no way around it.
So, if Robbie Slater was sold for a million dollars this year, the clubs had to transfer that money and he's transferred through the system, so they'll be aware of that one million dollars.
Now, with all that agency stuff, there are weird and wonderful places around the world but it just comes down to relationships and how you are as an agent.
What I do and the markets we work in, you want everything above board and to be transparent. That's with the club, the players and everyone else involved.
So why do you think agents get a bad rap?
I think there are some rogue traders that give the industry a really bad name and a lot of people don't want to be accountable, so it's easy to give the responsibility to someone else.
When it comes to that moment where, let's say, for example, you've got a player in the A-League and an overseas club is interested. How does it all work?
It comes with the player's performance, your relationships with clubs overseas and with other agents - both of those are pretty important as well.
The majority of time you also look at the player and ask if he's actually ready to go overseas.
A lot of players say that they are but they're not because they're not ready to move across the other side of the world to play football without their support networks.
Physically, I think a lot of our young boys, especially over the last couple of years, haven't been at the level physically to where the guys are overseas and that's due to training sessions.
We also don't have and the game time or the matches that we play a twelve-month period in comparison to what they're doing in Germany or the UK - it's worlds apart.
The game has evolved so much. The technical aspect is still the major factor in football but the physical side of things has exploded.
In Germany the guys said "my right-back could be a marathon runner, my number nine could be a sprinter at the Olympics" so they get the best athletes playing their game and then work on the technical side.
In Australia, we may not get the best athletes because they might go to AFL, Rugby League and be lost to other sports.
That's really interesting because I've heard opposing arguments suggesting that we're only breeding athletes and not technically gifted footballers anymore. Do you think it's the opposite?
I think we're training a lot physically now and we're catching up to what Europe was doing years ago.
Our training loads have increased, our number of games have increased and that's across the A-League and the youth system.
The number one core factor in being a footballer is the technical side; if you don't have that, you've got no chance.
But, being a technical player, and we're seeing it with Daniel Arzani, you need to be physically able to run and do everything else to go to the next level as a footballer.
Why do you think our players are struggling to crack it overseas?
There's this whole argument about the old and the new, I think we've just got to clear that up.
The biggest issue is, we just don't play enough football and I mean kids. Society has changed in Australia, where we're so protective of where our kids are all the time.
Whereas 10 to 15 years ago, you had kids playing football on the streets every day.
When we grew up, it was just football, football, football, football. We've lost hundreds and hundreds of hours of football time.
If I compare a player who's 18 now and then 18 from 20 years ago and compare it to Mark Viduka, I'm sure Mark Viduka would have had a thousand more hours than the guy who's 18 right now. It's because he played every day on the streets.
I think that's all we've lost, not ability, but I think our development is a little bit behind.
I also think the best place to learn the football side of things, is in unstructured environments.
So you play against your mates or kicking a ball against the wall or dribbling or doing all those things on your own.
I think you learn more there than you do in a structured environment because, in a structured environment, you've got one coach trying to teach 15 to 20 kids at various different levels.
How much of a player's career move is down to the agent versus the individual?
With the way that I work, it's a collective decision.
You've got to sit down and look at what I call the circle of trust.
That might be the player, the parents, a mentor and the agent and we all sit down and ask, "what are our goals? What are our objectives? What are the best things to progress his career?" and at different stages.
Look at football at a young age - it's about playing, getting opportunities and further development.
That's different to an older player whose mindset is not necessarily football development, it's about life after football. It becomes a financial decision rather than a development one.
Do you feel like players are making more financial decisions than they on development ones these days?
No. I think the A-League is a bit of a safety net for players, so if things don't work out in Europe, they tend to come back a lot quicker than they did previously, which isn't a bad thing because the A-League is a fantastic competition and we do see players coming back and then springboarding back to Europe and even to Asia.
We've seen a lot of players move across to Asia. Why Asia?
Financial. It's got to be. When you're around 25, 26, 27 and the opportunity in Europe has bypassed you, I think a lot of these players tend to move to Asia for financial reasons.
Obviously they're improving too and you've got the Japanese market which is high-end where some young players can develop and move onto bigger and better things.
Even the Saudi league has improved a lot too so they're the two strong leagues.
We've seen Adam Taggart where he's done well in Korea, so there are career opportunities to move up to Japan potentially or even more a financially rewarding country in the Middle East.
These guys are paying a hell of a lot more than what they are in Australia.
If you got a player at an A-League club who's on say $400,000 gross, which ends up being approximately $250,000 Australian dollars net, they still have to pay for their accommodation, their car and they don't get any bonuses at all.
If he then goes abroad, he's on a minimum of around $400,000 US dollars that equates to about $600,000 Australian dollars plus accommodation, plus a car and bonuses are paid on top of that which is a lot more financially rewarding.
When you are in discussions with overseas clubs, what type of reception do the Australian players get when you try to shop them around?
With an overseas deal, there's not much of an understanding of Australian players.
A lot of the players that do get sold overseas, especially from Australia, have to be a part of the national team and play within the A-League.
I tend to look at players and think if you can't make it in the A-League, it's pretty difficult to make it in an overseas league.
It's quite difficult because the reality is, apart from the glamorous; the English clubs and the clubs that have all the dollars and cents, there's a world of pain in Europe.
I spent a month over in Europe in June and there are so many free players and free agencies out there that the market's actually getting difficult.
So when you've got players who are of high quality that are free agents and do live in Europe, it makes it a bit more difficult for these clubs to be attracted to Australian players because there are so many high-quality footballers in Europe that they could potentially get for a cheaper price.
It is a hard sell but they do think Australian players are great; they have great mentality and they work hard but I do think technically we're not at the level that a lot of these European clubs are at.
Things are changing and what you'll see now with even the A-League this season, is there are a lot more young players coming through and being given opportunities.
This will help players move abroad and potentially change the mindset of some European clubs that Australia is a good market place to find the diamond in the rough.
You mentioned the circle of trust earlier, does it ever get complicated when there are more people involved in the decision-making process? Can the opinions of parents, wives and friends start to cloud the player's judgment?
In football, everyone's an expert and I think people are confusing passion with expertise.
I won't single out parents at all because I think everyone is in this.
Everyone's got an opinion on football, which is great but some of these decisions or people's opinions aren't coming from the right place, it's coming from their heart rather than expertise.
Given that the Australian football community is so small - what's it like to operate within those parameters?
Everyone knows everyone within the A-League. The football world is small, so if you do anything deceitful, it's going to come out.
You have to be upfront, you have to be transparent because if you aren't, you're going to be found out.
You've got a number of young players on your books. With job security being a big issue for coaches, how much does it impact their decisions to play young players?
You see coaches that have got some security and some runs on the board, aren't afraid to play the youngsters because they have a process that if they lose on the weekend, they're not fighting with the media or concerned about losing their job the following week.
Guys that have got job security tend to give high-quality younger players more opportunities than a coach who's fighting for his job week-to-week.
Are there any other untapped markets, moving away from Asia, that we could see rise in the coming years?
I'd say India would be the biggest market.
I think with football booming in that part of the world and getting more professional, there might be some more opportunities, not just for Australian players, but globally.
Also, Major League Soccer - that's just taking it to the next level, which is fantastic.
They've got expansion, they've got Miami coming in and I think the MLS will be one of the biggest markets outside of the top European leagues.
I think they've done that with the marquee players that they've had, with a flow-on effect with David Beckham and having Zlatan and Rooney there.
We should just be following their footprint, whatever they're doing, we should try and copy.
I think we'll see more of the Australian boys going over there. One, it's obviously is a fantastic league and two, the lifestyle.
The opportunity to go over there and explore another culture that is very similar to Australia means that a lot of players would be excited to be going over and playing the MLS.