To celebrate Black History Month, we spoke to Maheta Molango, who told us about his remarkable journey from the Albion to chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association.
Maheta, you maybe raised a few eyebrows when you became chief executive of the PFA this summer. Since leaving Brighton, what has been your career path?
I returned to Spain in 2007 [Maheta had started his career with Atletico Madrid] to continue my studies and I attained a law degree in political science. I was then fortunate enough to be taken on by top law firm Baker McKenzie and I co-founded the firm’s sports practise, advising players, clubs, agents and federations. I went on to serve as legal counsel to my first club Atletico Madrid, which in turn led to my appointment as CEO at Real Mallorca. All these experiences gave me the perfect background to taking on this prestigious role with the PFA – an organisation which, of course, I was a member of during my time in England.
Aside from your degree, you are fluent in five languages and also have the New York Bar Exam on your CV, so has education always been important to you?
I had very demanding and disciplined parents who always said to me that football was not a career option. So studying was never an option, it was an obligation. It was something that I had to do and even when I was playing for Brighton, I was still studying, with my notes, my books, before completing my education back in Madrid. I was at a stage in my life where it felt right to hang up my boots and once I was appointed by Baker McKenzie, I had transitioned into a new phase of my life. I learnt very quickly that there was an opportunity to support different stakeholders in the football industry because the game was changing. It was becoming more international and the law firm I was working for was global too.
You negotiated Mesut Ozil’s termination deal at Real Madrid, ahead of his move to Arsenal. You also worked on deals such as Mario Mandzukic to Juventus, Raul Jiminez to Benfica and Antoine Griezmann’s first contract extension. Tell us more…
First of all, at no point was I acting as an agent – that’s very important to understand. I was working in legal representation: renewing the contracts of players, negotiating the contract agreement, while always working hand in hand with the agent and the player. I was basically the legal support to the agent and the player which was very, very interesting because I got to see how agents interact with players, got to know the players personally and the clubs involved. I got to see how everything worked from a neutral, legal perspective as opposed to just being involved in the commercial side of the deal.
As you say, your next position was as a CEO at Real Mallorca. It’s a role that requires many facets, so was it particularly challenging?
It’s one thing to play football, another to be a legal adviser, then there’s the role of a chief executive, which requires you to learn different skill-sets altogether. Yes I had played the game, yes I was involved in some very interesting transactions as a lawyer, but becoming an effective chief executive was a good reality check for me because the role went way beyond just understanding the game. You are running a company, a very special company, with a number of employees. There’s the ticketing, marketing, sponsorship... It’s an all-encompassing position, as Paul Barber will no doubt concur, where I was overseeing the entire football operation as well as the business side – a real challenge but one I really enjoyed.
Give us an example of the challenges you faced…
People don’t realise the business/operation side does not always fit smoothly with the interests of the football side. For example, when the commercial team want to host an event on a Thursday evening with a player, it’s not always possible for the player to be in attendance ahead of a big game. Conversely, the coach might want his team to take a private jet and this is perceived as an extra cost to the business side, albeit a huge advantage to the sporting side as they are going to get to their destination fresh. It’s therefore very important to have someone who can be that bridge between the sports side and the business side. Yes you are all part of the same club but the different departments have different interests.
Real Mallorca had a successful spell under your tenure, right?
When we joined the club they were sitting fifth from bottom in the Second Division and really struggling, despite the fact that the team were pretty established and a traditional team historically. The following season we ended up getting relegated, mainly due to the disastrous way the club had been run off the field. We were losing money everywhere. Yet within two years, just by changing the culture on and off the field, we won back-to-back promotions, which is the equivalent of going from League One to the Premier League here. It was spectacular and then you end up playing Real Madrid with eight players who were with you in the third tier and you beat them 1-0 at home. My time there was just a fantastic experience.
Given your success did you really need to come back to the rain in England?
To be honest, England was unfinished business for me. I have wonderful memories of my time at Brighton but my time here as a professional was too short. I had the feeling that I wanted to give more to the game here and so to have the chance to be back in English football now is a great opportunity for me to give something back.
What do you aim to bring to your role as PFA chief executive?
I was a member of the PFA myself and have always held the opinion that it’s a wonderful organisation. The amount of good that it does is spectacular and my role is to identify what is working – and a lot is working – but I think we can do a better job of communicating all the good things we do. We also have to be honest and critique what we can do better, taking on board criticism that comes our way and try to improve. Ultimately, we are there to represent our members; they are the stars of the show and they have a voice, more than ever, but there are certain things they cannot solve on their own. Online abuse, discrimination, racism, dementia, fixture congestion… there’s a host of issues that we have to work collectively on. The PFA has the ability to influence, and the players now see the value of thinking collectively rather than just going individually into certain battles.
What are your thoughts on the World Cup being played every two years?
I haven’t had a chance to see the proposals in depth, so I wouldn’t want to have an opinion based on speculation, but speaking generally, fixture congestion is already an issue in the game. We should not be forgetting that players are human beings and already play so many games. When you get to the end of a season, you want to see the best version of players in major finals, not players that are shadows of themselves due to burn-out. Also, we have to be aware that saturation coverage leads to people losing interest. The World Cup, as an example, is so popular because it’s every four years; it brings expectation, a unique and often one-off opportunity for players. We need to be very careful. We shouldn’t be changing things that have been core of what made us all fall in love with the game.
What are your memories of playing for the Albion?
I couldn’t have made a better start to my career at Brighton, my career in England. We played away at Reading in the Championship and the first ball I touched was a goal! I remember a long ball was played by Paul Reid, who remains a good friend of mine to this day, and the next moment the ball is in the back of the net. My dad was in the stands, along with my future wife, and it was just a special, special day for me. It was also a great way to win over the fans, who were always so supportive, so encouraging during my time at the club.
Do you still keep in contact with the club?
Brighton is a club that will always hold a special place in my heart. It wasn’t always easy but I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the club. Whether I played good or bad, the people there always showed an immense level of respect. They cared about me, made me feel at home, and I still exchange messages with Derek Allen, the former club secretary, or will have a coffee with Dick Knight when the opportunity arises. I’ll also share texts with the likes of Dean Hammond, Adam El-Abd, Charlie Oatway, Michel Kuipers, people I respect a lot. Some 14 years have gone since I left the club, but I’ve stayed in touch because they all treated me so well.
The club has come a long way, right?
It was a different club then, playing at Withdean and training up at the university, but having been a part of that era, I can really appreciate the spectacular work that Tony Bloom and Paul Barber have done. The Amex Stadium and the training ground at Lancing, it’s something to be very proud of. It should never take it for granted either because it was not obvious back then that Brighton would today be playing in a beautiful stadium in the Premier League. I can draw parallels between the club’s progress and my own. Both are examples of resilience, of knowing what we wanted to achieve. For me, getting the right education was integral to my progress while at Brighton it’s been about getting the right people in, both on and off the pitch. The club has the right owner, the right chief executive. You also see Ben Roberts, a fantastic guy, you see Bruno, and of course you see Graham Potter. It’s no accident that Brighton are where they are and I wish them all the very best for the rest of the season and beyond.
Finally, It’s Black History month, so who did you look up to growing up?
With my Congolese background, I admired Patrice Lumumba, who was a politician and independence leader. He served as the country’s first prime minister following independence from Belgium. On a similar theme, Nelson Mandela is also someone I admired for the struggles he went through in his country and what he achieved later in his life. More recently, what Barack Obama achieved in the USA is remarkable. When I studied there for a year, I had the chance to be at an event when he spoke and he was just spectacular. To become the president of the most powerful country in the world gave out such a strong, powerful message, irrespective of people’s political views.
* This interview was taken from Albion's matchday programme against Arsenal. To purchase your programme, please click here.