Ramy Abbas On Mo Salah, Football Agents, And Being Rude To People
Ramy Abbas Issa might remind you of the Colombian herb, Galinsoga parviflora – also known as ‘the gallant soldier’. A member of the sunflower family, it’s one of the hardest working greens you could ever meet. Its taste is mild. It fades into the background. There’s not a hint of bitterness – but it takes some time to come into its own.
The agents, lawyers and typical associates of professional footballers have something of a reputation in the modern game. It’s generally one of being untrustworthy, self-interested and self-important. Even by those standards, it’s fair to say that lawyer and advisor-in-chief to Mohamed Salah, Ramy Abbas, carries with him the notoriety of being uniquely prickly. But like anything in football, there’s more nuance to it all than an irate tweet or moody email can really capture.
On encountering Abbas, here’s the deal: this is Salah’s right hand man, the man standing calmly next to him at award ceremonies and contract signings, his friend, confidant and lawyer.
When GQ decided to try to shoot Salah for our December/January cover, the message was quite clear: to get anywhere near the Egyptian King, we would have to go through Abbas. This was a difficult man, we were warned, perhaps a rude man, too. We should give up. Happily, we did not.
“Honestly, I mean other people can judge because, well, everyone judges everything,” says Abbas on a pleasantly warm evening in Dubai. “But I really don’t think I’m rude. Sometimes people’s definition of being difficult or rude is just based on the fact you don’t give them what they want.”
Colombian born and raised, the 35-year-old is half-Lebanese, but he’s spent most of his adult life in the UAE. “What influenced my childhood most was football. I don’t normally like crowded places except inside a football stadium. When I’m watching Colombia, I place myself in the middle of the crowd. In there, I’m a different person.”
What are your earliest memories of football? I think it was 1990, the World Cup in Italy.
My family had just moved to Abu Dhabi. I remember the big games were very late and so I was usually in bed. However, one night my parents woke me up because Colombia had scored. I remember Carlos Valderrama – the emblem of Colombian football – fell to the ground. I started crying because he was taken off on a stretcher. That was when I started becoming really passionate about football.
And how did that passion turn into working in the legalities of football?
When I was living in Abu Dhabi, there was a club that had signed a contract with a player from the Colombian national team, and I was dying to meet him – so I just went down there. I was 18 years old, met a few people from the club, including the chairman. I told [the chairman] that I was about to go and study law in England, and he was like, “Well, you know, this might be a field you could be interested in. Maybe we can work together in the future.” And that was it. I went to law school, became a lawyer and started working in football.
What was your first job?
I think I was 19 when I began as a translator for the Colombian player Elson Becerra, whom I met in the UAE. He was the first player from the Colombian national team to come and play at the UAE and was my idol. I started helping him with whatever he needed, travelling back and forth from England to the UAE whenever I had the chance. Then as my studies progressed, he asked me if I could help him negotiate his contract – I was sort of a mediator between him and his club. Unfortunately, his story ended badly. Becerra got involved in an altercation at a nightclub in Cartagena and was shot and killed. Colombia can be a very violent place.
Tell us about the biggest transfers you were involved in during the early years of your career?
There was a Saudi club that was looking for a striker – I met an Arab agent who worked in the Middle East and told me about it. I knew all the Colombian players back then and managed to contact the president of the club. I was 20 years old and was talking about millions of dollars with him. I remember when I told my father – he bought me some phone cards to call internationally because at that time there were no international phone calls from landlines. The player moved – I think at that time it was for around $3 million – and we actually completed the transaction without ever seeing anyone from the club, without me even meeting the president of the buying club. I think that was the biggest transfer of the time in Saudi Arabia.
How did you end up working with Mohamed Salah?
He actually contacted me around the end of January or beginning of February in 2015, looking for legal advice. We met for the first time in London. Looking back, I think that was the most important milestone of my career.
What did you think of him when you first met?
That I was sitting with someone whose brain is always on maximum RPM, even though he’s quiet. It’s insane! His mind works at full speed and I think the guy is constantly switched on.
How would you describe your relationship?
I think Mohamed believes that I have no feelings. But I think we have an equal effect on one another. I’ve learned things from him. I don’t know what he’s learned from me, but I can tell you what I have learned from him.
Well, I remember being at a shoot that seemed to be taking a lot longer than expected. I was angry. He was angry. I started talking to the organisers, but Mohamed could see I was getting agitated. He was like, “What’s going on? You want us to leave on time?” I said yes, of course. “Okay,” he replied. “We will, calm down.” When the time came, Mo simply asked calmly if we should leave. I agreed, and we did. It was no big deal after all. That moment has stuck with me. It was the moment I became more tolerant.
What makes you intolerant?
Anything that is basically not calm and peaceful annoys me.
Tell us about some other milestones in your career.
Working with the Brazilian legend Rivaldo was a pretty big deal. This guy is a World Cup winner and one of the greatest players in history. I have represented him in court and that, for me, was huge.
Your social media is always filled with posts about animal rights, tell us more.
Animals are something that make me immediately jolt. I’m the kind of person that goes to stand-up comedy shows, and can accept joking about absolutely everything except animal cruelty. It sends me to a very bad place. The thing is, when you’re a kid, you don’t really get exposed to how cruel some people can be to animals. I once saw a video about animal cruelty on social media and I was a different person for a week.
The relationship between a footballer and agent isn’t always an easy one, with questions over who controls who, and what’s best practice. What do you think?
I agree. I think I have little respect for football agents. I don’t know about them being control freaks, but I don’t like them. I have worked for some agents, and have participated in many transactions in which I was hired by the agent to help end the transaction. I can give you an example about Mohamed for instance: I have never gone to him and said, “I think you should sign for this or that club.” Mohamed has always told me where he wants to go and it becomes my job to try my best to make that happen. We’ve had multiple offers obviously, but ultimately, he is the footballer. I’m never going to understand football as well as he does. No agent ever will, no matter how many times they appear in suits and ties looking like professionals alongside them.
So you’d never have the authority to affect the footballer’s decision of changing clubs?
No. If Mohamed tells me now, “Technically, I’m going to fit better in this team. I’m going to fit better with this club and this coach’s system works better for me,” I’m never going to be able to argue with that – because I’m not equipped. I’m not a player. I’m not out there on the field with him. It’s not my job.
So where do you think the problem lies with agents?
Money. Let’s say that there’s an agent that represents 20 high profile players. Out of those 20, you could have four who play in the same position, playing for similarly strong clubs and worth more or less the same amount of re-sale value. How are you going to act in the best interests of each one? If there’s a club that needs a centre forward and you have four of those, how can each of your four strikers be represented in their best interests? Another example: say you represent a player that’s fallen out with the culture of a particular club and has had issues with the administration and with the coach of that club. But you, as an agent, also have two other players that are in a very good position at that same club, and everything is working perfectly for them. Are you going to go and fight with the club, possibly damaging your reputation with them to protect this one player? No, I think that an agent would balance his interests, because when you represent 30 or 40 players, you can’t really look out for them with the same specialty at the same level.
So what’s the agent’s role then?
You know, in many instances I’m not sure. I’m not saying all agents are bad, but I’m very sceptical. Definitely not a fan.
When would you involve an agent?
Very rarely. It depends on who your client is. The only way I would have use for an agent is if I have someone at a club where he isn’t playing. To attract offers, he needs playing time. I might engage an agent that knows markets that I don’t have a connection with, to promote him there. I would never be convinced that you need an agent to promote one of the top 10 players in the world to the top 10 clubs in the world. No, they all know he’s there and he knows it.
So, how many cases have you taken to FIFA and the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS)?
I haven’t really counted them, but I think I’ve been involved in over 100 disputes between a player and his club, a club and his player, an agent and a club, all sorts of things.
How do you build a relationship of trust with your clients?
By not ripping them off. That’s always a very good start. I think that there’s no substitute for time when it comes to getting someone to trust what you’re doing, the advice you give and that you will put their interests before your own. That doesn’t happen very often in this industry, unfortunately.
Do you watch all the games of all of your clients?
No, I can’t. But Mohamed’s games – I watch them all, even on the phone or on the plane, wherever I am, really. Once, I was on a British Airways flight during Liverpool’s final game of the season. There was no live television to show the game, so I asked the pilot to give me the score. He was sent regular messages with how the game was going, and he would then come and update me.
What was the most traumatic moment for you in football?
The most traumatic moment in my life, never mind football, was in Kiev during the Champions League final – when Mohamed went down injured. It was absolutely horrific. I was in the stands. I tried to get to the pitch but I couldn’t. I remember that Liverpool were playing really well and thought, ‘We’re going to win this’. Everyone was so happy. When he went down injured, I just knew he wasn’t going to continue. He doesn’t like being on the floor. I remember they passed the ball back to him, and he wasn’t running he was just walking, and before he started running again, he put his hand on his injured shoulder, and I knew that was it. It was dark. It was the worst moment I can remember, ever.
As a prominent football lawyer, how do you view the sport’s legal institutions? Has dealing with FIFA and CAS improved over the years?
Not really. FIFA takes way too long to make decisions. I have cases that have taken over three years. There’s nothing to indicate when the case is going to conclude. The CAS is faster but you can no longer enforce CAS judgements. There have been a few changes, one of the most important being that the agent can’t go to FIFA directly anymore. Basically, FIFA isn’t competent to hear disputes regarding agents, not competent at all at the moment. First of all, in order to be able to go to FIFA, the case must have an international dimension, which means that the parties need to be from diffverent nationalities, they need to belong to different football associations. So basically, they’re asking agents to either go to local courts or go to the CAS.
If you had the choice to take a different career path, would you consider it?
Oh, 100 percent not. I don’t know how to do anything else. I’m pretty sure that I’d either be miserable or poor. Actually, now I’m thinking about it, probably both.