Chris Nathaniel has for several years run one of the world’s leading sports talent and entertainment management agencies – his dream is to lead a Nigerian consortium to success with a Premier League team.
Based in London, United Kingdom, and operating throughout Europe and the world for some of the top names in sport, Chris reveals how it all started for him and his team and the interesting things they do for their clients.
Chris, proud of his Nigerian roots, said: “I’ve been in the Sports and Entertainment business for a long time.. I first started with Chelsea legend John Terry, then Manchester United legend Rio Ferdinand when they were both at their peak, so two top England stars.
‘I also spent time looking after Wilfred Bonny (ex-Swansea who became the highest ever paid African player with his transfer to Manchester City), Steven Nzonzi (ex-Stoke City and World Cup winner with France in 2018), Brazilian midfielder Robinho and now Luis Diaz (Liverpool), and quite a few other players.
‘I also looked after other talents like Usain Bolt, and former WBC Heavyweight Boxing champion Deontay Wilder, so Sports and Entertainment is in my blood. On the music front, I have worked with hip-hop icons like Jay Z, P Diddy, 50 Cent, and other talents, like models and actors, so quite experienced across the whole Sports and Entertainment industry.’
Nathaniel led the first ever African consortium to bid for a Premier League club Newcastle in 2008, unfortunately the bid was not accepted by then owner Mike Ashley, who eventually sold out to the Arabs.
However, Nathaniel reveals he has unfinished business and has reached out to wealthy Nigerians including Dangote to launch another bid for a Premier league club. Nathaniel points to the recent valuation of clubs like Manchester United and Tottenham to highlight how Premier League clubs are great takeover targets – his knowledge of club values, structures and accessibility as takeover targets is second to none.
They are all profitable businesses and give tremendous Global presence and Nathaniel believes having a Nigerian owner of a top club will not only be profitable, but it will give Nigeria a greater global profile, enhancing the economy and encouraging tourism. The potential for booming business in Nigeria will then help with the general development of Nigerian football.
Chris believes football in Nigeria needs an overhaul from top to bottom very similar to what the English FA did after continued failures at major tournaments. In England this resulted in a change of fortune for the English national team, which is now challenging for trophies for the first time since winning the World Cup in 1966.
Nathaniel said: “We look after football players, we give them full support in coaching, mental health, support their passions, and everything you can imagine.
‘We take care of every angle for them, our job is to make sure they have long sustainable careers, make sure the right politics are played at their different football clubs, and make sure they get the best out of themselves to become the best they can be.
‘Our job is forever widening as agents, not about doing the move but a whole lot, so we are like a mini football club as an agency. Our job is to maximize every possible area for our clients.’
Nathaniel whose agency has dominated the sports talent market in Europe and across the globe for a long time explains how challenging scouting is, the transfer market and managing players. Chris tells how he rates Nigerian players, has a thorough understanding of football back in Nigeria, and explains why African players so sort after by top clubs.
Chris added: “The scouting system is getting better and better as we’ve been able to see what’s on the ground in Nigeria, by having key people on the ground give you information. In the Premier League more and more people know that the best players are coming from Africa, so there is a lot more focus now as far as recruitment is concerned of African players.
“Nigerian players, I rate very highly, as they are powerful, strong, and skillful, and if you look at most of the leagues across Europe, they do feature lots of Nigerian players. This is because they do have that natural physicality, and that is going to increase as the years move on, we are going to get more and more Nigerian players in Europe. I won’t be surprised to see teams full of a squad of African players. More and more, they are dominating the football and player recruitment side of things.
“I do have some understanding of Nigerian football, I’ve spent time with club owners from the NLO (Nationwide League One) and the Chief Operating Officer Shola Ogunnowo. When they visited the UK on a few occasions, which (NVA Sports & Entertainment Group) helped facilitate. I got the understanding of how football is from the grassroots up, the infrastructure, the challenges they face, and what we are trying to do, which is to create a partnership to make those challenges a bit easier.
‘I’m always keen to work with exceptional talent so clubs, scouts, parents, or players can reach out to us here at NVA as we are on all social channels and a quick Google search will give you our details. We are prepared to listen and are keen to assist in nurturing talent to achieving their full potential.”
The NVA Sports & Entertainment Group boss gave his candid opinion on why the likes of Taiwo Awoniyi and a few African players found it difficult to hit the ground running at Liverpool, but revealed that there are many players of Nigerian descent in the football academies at Merseyside.
Chris said: “Well, it’s tough because when you are at the top end of football, you need to be of a very high standard. Sometimes it takes African players time to develop and get accustomed to Premier League football.
‘Sometimes it can be difficult, but Sadio Mane has shown that African players can certainly do well at Liverpool and I think there will be more and more African players that will come through and do well. Don’t forget Mo Salah is an African player doing very well with Liverpool, so that trend is ever expanding.
‘Liverpool, in particular, has a rich history with Nigerians. After the war there were a lot of mixed-race relationships in Liverpool, involving Nigerian men and Liverpudlian women. You will find lots of players in the academies – both of Liverpool and Everton – of Nigerian descent that are of mixed race heritage (Nigerian fathers and English mothers). The Nigerian community on Merseyside big and there are lots of Nigerian restaurants around.’
Nathaniel gave his thoughts on why talented Nigerian-born players like Bukayo Saka, and Eberechi Eze opted to play for England instead of Nigeria.
Chris explained: “The basic benefit is players find it easy.
Chris explained: “The basic benefit is players find it easy, as it’s more organized playing for England. There are lots of stories and rumours about how disorganized things are with the national team in Nigeria, so obviously, these players pick up on these rumours.
‘Sometimes they’re false or over-fabricated, but a player hears that, and he says, to himself, ‘I’ve got to be the best I can be, I don’t want those distractions, you know what I don’t want to go through that.’
‘Secondly, they feel they get more profile for playing for the English national team and that’s why we need to change that narrative to assist Nigerian football moving forward – this is a challenge, but I believe it is doable.’
We also have to accept the players are UK born so they may decide that’s their home and therefore want to represent the country of their birth.
Nathaniel whose agency manages lots of players, like Luis Diaz of Liverpool, talked about how he came to work with the Colombian, his network and why Nigerian players despite their talents don’t command the right transfer fees, and why Napoli striker Victor Osimhen can break the barrier.
Nathaniel added: “What happened then, Luis Diaz was a player I thought was very good. I have seen him play in Portugal, and I thought he will be a good one for us to work with. I combined with a Portuguese agent based in Portugal and his original Colombian agent. I am based in England, so the collaboration was perfect, as I have fantastic access with key stake holders in football and in the commercial area, so we decided to work together to benefit Luis’ career. We plan to build him into a global brand, but these things take time and continued success on the pitch.
“I have a vast network, we have players that play for Sheffield United, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester City, and we have some players playing abroad as well. So our network is wide-ranging across Europe, North America, Asia and the Middle East, so we are in every major league. We have worldwide connections with coaches, and managers, all across the board as we are an agency that is very well networked out.
“Managing players is tough as you have to put the hours in; it’s so much like your whole life goes into it, trying to look after their careers. Sometimes it’s a thankless task, they don’t appreciate the work you put in, but some do and you are only judged as good as the player you represent, so it’s a tough business as some unscrupulous agents want to take your player – we’ve encountered lies and deceit, but transparency is important and players need to be able to trust their representative.
‘It’s a very tough terrain, at the outset for the players and their families, but it’s also massively satisfying if you see your player become successful, win trophies, and have a successful, sustainable life after football. Some players come from extremes of poverty and to enable them and their loved ones to live a comfortable life after the game is so rewarding. When that happens you know you’ve done your job and that is the satisfying part of it all.
“I think sometimes when these talented Nigerian and other African players come to Europe, they lose their hunger and this happens with players Globally they get big deals, and salaries, so the hunger gets lost and they no longer push themselves to get to the next level. There’s no doubt the talent is there, it’s just about having that mental discipline to keep aspiring to be the best and keep pushing yourself to the higher limits.
‘Sometimes that’s down to guidance, to the individual, hopefully, Victor Osimhen can be someone that changes that narrative, a lot of Nigerian players will aspire to be big as him or even bigger. It’s about the mindset – they can only play for a short number of years, compared to their lifespan, so focussing on getting the maximum out of that short period and putting all distractions to one side and seeing the bigger picture is so important. At NVA we are all about that bigger picture – we want all our players to grow to be the best they can be.’
Finally, Nathaniel while commenting on Nigeria’s level of football, spotted areas that need urgent attention and how grassroots football can meet up with the new trends.
Chris said: “Everyone has to be on the same page for starters, that is having a collective plan.
It’s long overdue, because Nigerian football has underperformed on the international stage.
When you look at the Nigerian team from 1994, which almost got to the quarter-finals of the World Cup, how has the nation declined since then.
‘It is clear to many people, that there is no planning, no shared focus and if you don’t plan, you are going to have failure. They need to have a rethink, this should be the goal for the next five years for Nigerian football to achieve XYZ, get all the key stakeholders together and put a clear accountable plan in place, and make that happen and if they fail a new team are put in place it’s a results business and that needs to be implemented at the highest level of Nigerian football no more jobs for the boys. Otherwise, they are going to be having the same results and continued failure. Nigerian players have enormous potential, but very little is being realized. So things have to change now – today not tomorrow not next year, not in five years!!
‘Presently, I don’t think that there are enough structures in some of the football academies and clubs. The funding, as it’s really important, means any player that comes out of Nigeria, should get good deals, so that a sizeable amount of money goes back to the academy structure.
‘They can then build from the grassroots and make it better. I think there are a few academies already that are doing that, like Mavlon FC, so we just need more and more deals that include the academies. That will raise the standards, which are key to developing football in Nigeria from the ground up.
‘Due to my Nigerian heritage, I dearly want to help the Nigerian academies by using my global network to create partnerships with European clubs, which will involve trials, player development, exchange of coaching knowledge and structural set ups and funding.
‘We all have to come together and make tomorrow brighter….we can then all cheer on this great nation when the Super Eagles get litty again.’