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19 July 2023

Lindi Ngwenya: “Women football agents are as cut-throat as the men”

The trailblazing agent is dedicated to nurturing talent from across the world – and supporting her rising stars in the Women’s World Cup.

By Hunter Davies

In the past ten years women’s football has exploded. I would now rather watch the England women’s team than Spurs’ men. I plan to watch all the games in the Women’s World Cup, which is taking place until 20 August. The England players have been attracting large crowds since they won the Euros in 2022. Women’s football is, at last, getting proper TV exposure, and some players are now paid half-decent wages – though still nothing like as much as their male counterparts.

In the men’s game, football agents are often multimillionaires, with great power and influence, but Lindi Ngwenya’s focus is on a different side of the sport. She runs a worldwide agency specialising in managing the careers of footballers from the game’s “less well-supported areas”, such as African football and smaller European leagues.

[See also: How Dele Alli exposed the trauma that accompanies success in elite sport]

Ngwenya was born in London to Zimbabwean parents. At school she excelled at sciences and went on to Cambridge to read chemical engineering, where she became captain of the university women’s rugby team.

“I loved sport, so I didn’t want to have a desk job,” Ngwenya told me. “I applied to Sandhurst, thinking the army would involve lots of outdoor activities.”

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She stayed in the army for four years, rose to the rank of captain, then worked in the City at JP Morgan, Credit Suisse and Barclays. But in 2013 Ngwenya decided she wanted to do something in sport and started her own agency, Sisu Sports Management, specialising in women footballers. From her family background in Zimbabwe, she knew there were many girls who were excellent players but didn’t know how to progress to a professional league. So she established Sisu Sports – sisu is a Finnish word meaning endeavour against adversity – which today has 40 to 50 women players on its books. None is a Lioness, but quite a few play in the women’s professional leagues around the world, including in the UK, Sweden and the US. Ngwenya’s players mostly come from African countries such as Ghana and Nigeria, as well as Jamaica, Ireland and New Zealand – all of them what she calls “untapped markets”.

“Women players tend to be better educated than men and more socially mature. Many have been to college in the US. They are all dedicated. They have to be. Until very recently they were badly paid. That is changing.”

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A top professional in England’s Women’s Super League can earn £300,000 a year – which is what Sam Kerr of Chelsea is said to be paid. (In the men’s game this is comparable with salaries two tiers below the top flight: in League One, top male players can expect around £250,000 a year.) But star women players can earn a lot more from commercial work: according to a recent report by the Athletic, the England and Arsenal striker Alessia Russo could soon become the first Super League player to earn £1m a year, following deals with Adidas, Beats by Dr Dre and Oakley.

“Top male stars these days don’t always do a lot of commercial work – they don’t need to as they are so well paid. But women still need to maximise their brand.” If England does well in the World Cup, many more will become millionaires.

Ngwenya is married to an engineer with whom she has a seven-year-old daughter. She has a staff of three in her London office, with three more in Lagos, Nigeria, and representatives in Australia, the US and Sweden.

She wouldn’t reveal her percentage fee but said it is in line with the average for male agents. “It is a competitive industry and women agents can be just as cut-throat as the male agents. But I like to think we are offering opportunities to women players from parts of the world that have little history of playing professional football. Players in Europe and the US are now benefiting financially from the global success of women’s football. We like to think girls and women from the less developed countries will get their rewards as well.”

Ngwenya was looking forward to watching some of the new nations entering the World Cup, such as Zambia and Haiti, who play England in their opening match on 22 July. She has her eye on “Haiti’s young attacking sensation”, Melchie Daëlle Dumornay. 

How did she think England would fare in the tournament? Since some of England’s “most influential players” are missing due to injury – including Fran Kirby, Beth Mead and the captain, Leah Williamson – “it will be up to the likes of Alessia Russo and Ella Toone to graduate from impact subs to starters. Also look out for Lauren James and a rejuvenated Beth England.”

Several of Ngwenya’s players are appearing in the competition, from Ireland’s Louise Quinn to Nigeria’s Ifeoma Onumonu. “It’s the biggest tournament yet for women’s football, and it’s broken ticket sales records. The hope is that it will provide another boost to the growth of the women’s game both commercially and culturally. The emergence of new countries should encourage more countries to invest in the game.”  

[See also: The more beautiful game: How I fell for women’s football]

This article appears in the 19 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, How Saudi Arabia is buying the world