Football News had the pleasure of sitting down with pioneering female football agent Sonia Souid to discuss her unique journey to the top of the male-dominated industry and her hopes for increasing opportunities for females in the sport in the future.
Sonia Souid was notably responsible for bringing in the first female manager to French professional men’s football in the form of Corinne Diacre at Clermont.
You have had a pretty varied career path seeing as you were a volleyball player, before going through a period where you were doing medical studies and modelling competitions. Afterwards, you went into real estate through one of your former [volleyball club] presidents. You finally became an agent after earning your licence and passing the exam with the French Football Federation (FFF).
In the beginning, when you tried to contact sports agents so that you could learn more about the field, some said that they would help, while others said no. At this point in time, when you were looking for help, what were the biggest challenges?
At the start, it is always the same for students who have just obtained their degrees, regardless of their paths. They are strong in theory, but practically speaking, not so much. We all look to acquire experience, so for me, the first challenge was trying to understand an agent’s job on a day-to-day basis, and to know the keys required to succeed in this field. So I told myself that the best way to get answers to my questions was by contacting the best French football agents.
I had a good network in the field of real estate and at a “high level”, so I was able to find a way to contact these agents. But none of them accepted a meeting, even if they did answer my questions. Many even told me that it was impossible, and advised me to stop. But since I am quite a perseverant and determined person, and I had just received my agent’s licence, which I had not received by chance seeing as it is quite difficult to obtain, I did not give up. We were 400, and within our year, only 18 had received it.
So I was not going to stop early on. I contacted other agents, and one of them accepted that I follow him for a little while. I went to watch some games with him in National (division 3), Ligue 2 and Ligue 1, but I quickly understood that in a few months, the French market was saturated, because of how competitive it was. It was also going to be difficult for me because of the multiple agents and the “pseudo-agents”, who are in the field, but are not necessarily registered. I also did not have a network, club or any players.
My father is a fitness trainer in football, and had been working for a few years in the United Arab Emirates. So, I asked him if I could come live with him, to try to see if it would be easier for me in the UAE. When I arrived, I was pleasantly surprised, because there were so few agents. I went from an environment with 400 licensed agents to around ten or so, and a smaller country in terms of surface area, so it was easier to go around to clubs. Without any appointment, and very audaciously, I was welcomed out of respect, because I was a woman and because they did not want to see me leave or get the door slammed in my face, without taking the time to receive me, if only to offer me a tea. They have huge respect for women in this regard, and that is how I was able to gradually develop my network.
The first player I signed was Ismail Watar from the club, Al-Wahda. This player was considered the Zidane of the Gulf at the time, but he did not have an agent. Players did not necessarily have agents to negotiate contracts for them in clubs. That is how I got into the field.
So, how did I come back to Europe? I understood that were very few agents who were able to make a link or bridge a gap between the Persian Gulf and Europe. So I had found my niche, and it went well for me. I was able to conclude some very interesting deals, and this helped to make myself known in France. For example, there was the arrival of the Emirati international Hamdan Al-Kamali from Al-Whada to Lyon. At the time, Guy Lacombe had also signed with Al-Wasl Dubai.
There were quite a few things which made me known and which gave me that certain credibility that I needed. Whether you are a man or a woman, whenever you are getting started in a field, it is always difficult because there are so few spots. It is always very competitive.
Were you discouraged by agents who advised against going into this line of work or by the fact that it was competitive?
Of course, because in the beginning of my interesting career path, I had failed in medicine. In my first year of studies, I had been named Miss Auvergne, so I had missed five weeks of my first year, which is very difficult to catch up. Afterwards, I re-did my first year, and I found myself in a job, where I was asking myself if this was really my calling. I found myself in a situation where I had done two years with nothing to show for it. At least, that is what I thought at the time.
Ultimately, those two years allowed me to get my licence as a sports agent. For five months, I was working as a self-taught person and I had also acquired a certain methodology during my two years of medical studies. These failures allow you to learn a lot, and with hindsight, you understand how fulfilling it is. It helps you advance in life.
If I were to have given up again, after receiving my licence, it would have been very difficult for me because I am a curious person who is interested in multiple fields. And through real estate, I was able to negotiate, which is something that I love. I also love sports, which was a field that I was completely immersed in. The best way for me to do both things that I have a particular love for, was through being a football agent. Had I failed in that, my experience would have been bad.
Was it beneficial to have experience in multiple fields and jobs with exposure? Did it help you obtain anything else?
Yes, of course. Firstly, playing a sport brought me a lot because it helped me to know myself better, to know my body and its limits. Additionally, competitively speaking, seeing as I was immersed in sport very early on, rivalry and opposition did not slow me down, they stimulated me! I love the adrenaline and I cope well with this stress and uncertainty because I played a sport and because I have self-confidence.
Do not forget that when you are an agent, you have many responsibilities. Many people put faith in us. They put their careers in our hands and we cannot mess up. In any case, we do out best to help them advance and most of the time it works very well. However, sometimes, it does not matter how much you do, because it is a complicated line of work…
It is a day-to-day stress that I manage to cope with through sport, my skillset as a negotiator was obtained through real estate, the Miss Auvergne and Miss France competitions, my work in different lounges as a host etc. All this helps me adapt to any kind of situation, in different fields, and nowadays, my ability to adapt is essential because I travel a lot, and when you are negotiating in China, it is different to when you are negotiating in France. Of course, that is just one example, but you need to be able to adjust yourself to the speaker in front of you, and all these experiences help me today.
What assets are vital for a sports agent? Are there any undervalued ones?
A competent agent is a reactive person, who anticipates a lot and who is always reflecting. I do not see it as a sacrifice, but in everyday life, the problem is that we travel a lot, and that we are always on the move. Because of that, we cannot always anticipate certain things, like a transfer period where moves are taking place. It is full of stressful times!
We do our best to put all of our work into place. We do not just wait till the transfer period comes around and expect everything to be done, it takes a lot of time. We work throughout the year. There are never really any moments to catch your breath. But when there are, we use them to travel, develop our network, put everything into place, finalise deals etc. I would say that out of 100 deals put into place, if agents finalise ten to fifteen, then we are doing quite well. That is how it works.
When I say we, I am referring to my brother and, other person that I work with, Patrick Esteves. We work on being complimentary. For example, during these last 15-20 days, Patrick was in Brazil and Argentina. My brother and I went to Korea and Qatar. At the end of the month, I have to go to Spain, and he has to go to Portugal. We cannot be everywhere, so in a certain sense, we complete each other, and work or try to work everywhere at once.
We cannot predict everything, but we try to anticipate as much as we can to avoid any bad surprises. And seeing as we work with multiple clubs, we need to be able to make offers that others can not necessarily make. In France, agents know the French market very well, but not necessarily the global market. That is where we have a card to play.
If a club says they need a player in a certain position with a certain budget, French agents can offer other French players or European ones. It is very uncommon for agents to offer an Asian player. There are certain things that we can do, that others cannot. There are good players everywhere, but I understand that clubs might not have the foreign network for that. That is where agents like us come into play.
Did being immersed in sport during your life and being involved in sport professionally speaking from an early age help you? Does it help you to understand your clients? If you did not have this experience, would there perhaps be a sort of distance between you and those whom you represent?
Of course I understand them. I also played a sport, so I know how stressful, difficult and competitive it can be. Whether you are a male or female footballer, to get to this level, you are part of a handful of players amongst thousands or millions who would want to be in that position. There are a lot of sacrifices to be made to make it this far. During a player’s career, it is difficult to make it to the top, but it is really easy to fall back down. It is so unpredictable that you are not allowed to make a mistake. You have to be faultless, very professional and serious, which are all part of our work as advisers. We are young, rigorous, in our 30s, but we did not necessarily compete at a high level. We have all practiced the sport though.
You began in the field in 2010, and started working in the United Arab Emirates, where there are very few sports agents. Since your arrival [into the profession], you have become more publicised and sought after. I think that part of your success as a sports agent comes down to a few things that you worked on including: the arrival of the first Gulf player in Europe, Hamdan Al Kamali, but more importantly, the first paid transfer fee for a female player in France and the first female coach in male football.
Can you briefly tell us how Corinne Diacre ended up in Clermont?
I would to clarify something in regards to exposure. I think that being a woman in an industry where there are very few, is certainly going to attract more media attention. Or it helps identify us faster or more easily.
If I could have started with big players or coaches, I might have done so. But seeing as the “fortress was well protected”, I was forced to innovate and find something else to make myself stand out. As an agent and woman, I understand that there are very few female agents and figures in sport. On my level, I want women to be able to obtain positions through their skillset. There is no reason that they should not be able to.
In female football, there was the opportunity to complete the first paid transfer, but this first transfer was set up a year earlier. It actually required a year’s worth of work. Even if it took time, it was a first in French football, and it was rather positive because it is also showing that women’s football is also developing. With regards to a female coach, I always asked myself why only one woman was coaching in the women’s first division. The majority of coaches in the world of women’s football were men…
I immediately spoke with my brother and Patrick, who were the first two people who supported me. To explain what had happened, the day after coming up with the idea, we went to Châteauroux to negotiate for a player. The first president with whom we spoke was Bruno Allegre. He is an open minded person and a visionary, so we suggested the idea of a female coach. He took a sheet of paper and a pen, and made a table with pros and cons. In the end, there were more negatives, so for him, it was a no-go.
Afterwards, I had the chance to speak with Noël le Graët, the president of the French Football Federation, who also told me it was impossible. My own father also told me it would be impossible and told me to be careful because I risked completely losing my credibility. At that time, a president who would be ready to hire a woman was a big risk. It was really audacious!
At the time, Corinne Diacre did not have her badges or her professional coaching licence. Through our network, we knew of Helena Costa, who had a good CV and experience in men’s football, and who was ready to take on the challenge. We were able to arrange a meeting with Claude Michy after writing a long e-mail explaining everything, and he responded saying that it was not a bad idea at all. Afterwards, I had a meeting with him alone. The coach had hers later. She came from Portugal just to meet him. There was a good feeling and he decided to take her as a coach.
Later on, she did not get along well with the sporting director Olivier Chavanon, and decided to resign. At that point, there were over 130 journalists who came from all over the world to Clermont-Ferrand, which was unheard of. When she went back on it, she brought me to see the first training session, and honestly, it was one of the most negative and difficult moments I have had to experience. It was a real earthquake. So at the point, we went on and kept looking for a female coach.
In the meantime, Corinne Diacre had obtained her coaching licence. Noël Le Graët called me to ask about what was going on, and I told him that I needed Corinne Diacre’s number. I called her, and she said Châteauroux, the first club that we spoke with, had asked her if she wanted to become an assistant coach to Pascal Gastien. Just goes to show that the idea that we had put in the head of Chateauroux’s president had worked. And this was almost a number one position, which is most likely not going to happen again anytime soon. We knew that, but had we not taken up the challenge, the doors would have closed indefinitely for women.
In wanting to do something positive and constructive for women, I was determined, but I think that most presidents would have remembered a failed, catastrophic or dramatic first, where the coach resigned after her first training session. I know it sometimes happens in men’s football, but women would not have been forgiven for that. Or we would have had to wait for years (laughing). She accepted the job, but I explained to her that our hopes were weighing on her shoulders, and she took on the challenge!
Today in Clermont, after three years, we are proud of her path in a not-so-easy environment. Clermont is not the most ambitious club and does not have the greatest financial means. Ligue 2 is also quite difficult. But the most important thing in all of this, is the chance to show your skill-set. It also applies to other fields. There are young people out there with diplomas, who have the necessary skill-set, who do not get the chance to show it and express themselves, which I find unfortunate. So, this opportunity is quite incredible. It is a field where licensed coaches have impressive CVs, but where there are very few positions open. They find themselves unemployed waiting for a chance to come about, which I find staggering.
Was the Clermont President open to the idea and ready to innovate things?
He was open from the beginning, and immediately agreed with us. Some think he is crazy, but as I said earlier, he is a visionary, and he put himself out there. He did not have the idea to put a woman in charge before because no one had thought about it. It might have also taken some time for him to process everything, but when he called me back, he was pleased with the idea and he immediately got onboard.
Did being behind these historical football events help you gain a reputation or even in credibility?
Definitely. I am immediately recognised and when I started, the only thing that people could find on me online was my past as Miss Auvergne. People thought that they were on a hidden camera show when they met me, and asked themselves how a former Miss Auvergne could be an agent. Today, people can find a lot of things on my work as an agent, which is very important. I am professional in my work.
Has the media coverage sometimes been disadvantageous for you or for women’s football? When I was researching you and looking at your past and career path, I read and watched a few interviews. On certain shows, people often bring up your past as a model, refer to your physical appearance, say that you should have been a comedian or continued as a model etc. And often times, female players are reduced to their images of beautiful women, rather than great footballers.
I find it unfortunate that women and bankable athletes, especially the pretty ones conventionally speaking, are largely judged off beauty standards. Alex Morgan and Laure Boulleau are pretty girls, but for a woman to succeed in her field, she really needs to have everything. She has to be pretty. She will be judged on sporting and beauty criteria. Sometimes comments on social media are really harsh. A woman, even if she is the best player in the world, and she is a bit strong – seriously though, you can not be a frail athlete and make it far…
We are in the field of athletics where we pay attention to appearances, so obviously people are going to say whether someone is sexy or not, if she looks too manly, and any other comments like that. I find it difficult for athletes to deal and accept all of that.
Recently, during an interview, someone brought up my appearance. What I find interesting is how when they would first meet me, they would have a certain perception of me. But after two or three hours with me, it would change entirely, even if I still had to constantly prove myself more than a man would. I always have to show that I belong in this field, even if I am a woman.
So has exposure and media coverage sometimes been negative for you or for women’s football?
Media coverage is good because it is needed. But in the beginning, I was bit annoyed because all the articles would allude to my past as a beauty pageant competitor. I do not regret it because it is part of my life and my career path. But that was only five weeks of my life. That’s all. Out of 32 years, it really is not that much (laughing).
It used to always be about that, and in the beginning, I was hurt and bothered by it. But nowadays, I learn to live with it, and play along. But do I really have to? I try to look at it positively, because I cannot change my past. I would like to wave a magic wand so that people would only talk to me about football, but unfortunately, I understand that it is not that easy. It is still early on, so I know it is still complicated in that regard.
People sometimes feel like I am always on television, when it is not really the case. I could make a lot more appearances, but during the last year, I have maybe been on television three times? Once every three to four months is not a lot. If I do accept, it is also because I enjoy it. For example, recently, a journalist called me for an article on aspiring female agents, and my name came up a lot.
Even if it is not the same as Corinne Diacre who gave hope to the world by showing it was possible; I told myself that a path like mine for young women and sport for athletes and other jobs, are also interesting and attainable. But for that, women need the proper training and need to obtain the proper diplomas. One must work hard and not get discouraged. The doors are closed, but they are not double-locked. If a woman is driven and competent, she can open the door. Or she can find a way through the chimney or the window or something. She will make it through. It is an important message to get across.
A lot of people have degrees but cannot find work. Before being able to conclude a financial operation, I promise you that I was struggling for a year and a half where I was not earning any money. It was very complicated, and I was really gritting my teeth eating pasta every day (laughing). This is to say that these years taught me a lot and gave me strength, and today, I am hungry for more. I want to go forward, and my healthy ambition carries me. I am ready to do almost anything to succeed. That is what gives me drive. We can only succeed through work. I do not really believe in miracles, even if we all need a little luck. A lot of work is the basis for all this.
You spoke about how some people including Noël le Graët advised against the path and did not always have faith in you.
Noël le Graët did not discourage me. I told him what my plan was, so I asked him what he thought. He was actually one of the first people to help and support women across the French Football Federation. He nominated a woman as general secretary, and there are also other women in positions of importance. I know he has three daughters, and I believe that plays a part as well. It was instead when I asked him for advice on if it were possible to make a woman a coach in Ligue 1 or Ligue 2. He thought it was impossible.
When he sees how far you have come, how does he look upon your growth?
I still maintain a good relationship with him. For him, a woman who succeeds is very positive. He helps women’s football advance. In this regard, concrete work has been put into place, as there are competent women in strategic positions. He is very reliant on women. Incidentally, he also told me that in his private and personal matters, there are many women in positions of great responsibility. I think this is very positive.
What I find a bit strange is how there is an image of football being only for men, when in France, women’s teams like Lyon and PSG are competitive in the Champions’ League. The French national team also goes far during competitions like the Olympics and World Cup. But when a woman wants to become a coach or sports agent, it immediately becomes more difficult. So even if women have shown how good they are in the sport and that they can be influential, what is missing to change people’s perception and progress?
We need more women to be present. If we look at the progress made by women over the last five years, which is a very short period of time, the president of the league arrived, the vice-president of the federation arrived, the secretary general arrived, the first female referee in Ligue 1, Corinne Diacre, more agents etc. These are all women. They will inspire more women to follow these same callings.
I am from a neighborhood in Clermont-Ferrand, and sport is what helped me make it. I was also luck enough to have an active father who made me play a sport (laughing)! It was an incredible opportunity! But there are still many things that need to be done in order for women to succeed through sport and for them to discover many things.
I think that there is sometimes a lack of communication. Women do not know which diplomas are necessary, even if they are competent. Proper exposure is necessary, and unfortunately, there is not enough of it in women’s football. Especially, in comparison to men. Media coverage of women succeeding has to be more well-known. If the media coverage is there, we are not entirely aware of it.
Are you optimistic for a change of perception?
I am very optimistic. As I said in another interview, 150 years ago, a female doctor was unbelievable, but now, it is very common. This also applies to lawyers. I think the same will come about in sport. In a few years, all this will be in the past. It will become common, and I think that is the most important thing.