Apr 30, 2022
Gabriele MarcottiSenior Writer, ESPN FC
A few months ago, Mino Raiola, the super-agent who passed away Saturday, was being bombarded by a litany of complaints from representatives of various clubs against the work of agents and intermediaries: they’re greedy, they suck money out of the game, they’re manipulative.
“Fine, we’re all that, we’re the bad guys,” Raiola said. “But who is it that you call in the middle of the night when you want to sign a player or, even more so, when you need to shift a player? It’s me…and people like me. You say we’re the problem and then you come to us, again and again and again.”
Even now, I can picture Raiola in his snug T-shirt (he rarely wore suits) and sunglasses reminding clubs that, to paraphrase the Jack Nicholson character in “A Few Good Men,” Raiola’s existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to some, keeps the game ticking over. They don’t want the truth because deep down, in a place they don’t want to talk about at parties, they want him on that call. They NEED him on that call.
Over three decades, Raiola represented the best players Europe: from Dennis Bergkamp and Pavel Nedved, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Mario Balotelli, from Mathijs De Ligt to Paul Pogba, to Erling Haaland and Ryan Gravenberch. He claimed he never signed contracts with his clients; they were free to leave whenever they wanted, but because they were family, they never did. Some have questioned that, but the fact that so few did leave him — and that so many coming through the ranks (Haaland is a prime example) specifically chose him — suggest there’s more than a kernel of truth in it.
Raiola had a reputation as somebody who went to battle for his clients, carving out the best possible deal for them, and not caring about whatever threats clubs threw in his direction. In fact, while some of his super-agent peers are closely identified for their business with certain clubs, Raiola always talked about how he was fiercely independent and only cared for his client.
Raiola often spoke with the bluntness and certainty of a self-made man, the outsider who crashes the party and soon realises that so much of high society is a facade, a lie, an old boys’ club. Maybe it was his upbringing.
Born near Naples, his family emigrated to the Netherlands and opened a series of successful restaurants, where young Raiola worked throughout school, always networking, always hungry for the next big thing. He did his first big deal aged 24, taking Dutch winger Bryan Roy from Ajax to Foggia in Serie A. The genesis of that move? Young Raiola, while waiting tables, telling Ajax officials how much money they could make if they would only let him find him a club in Italy, at the time the world’s richest league. They bit. They gave him a chance and he delivered — just as he did a few years later when he set off a bidding war between Juventus, Napoli and Inter Milan to secure Bergkamp. This is a man who elbowed his way into the big time. Nobody opened doors for him.
That set him on his way and he never looked back. When Pogba moved from Juventus to Manchester United for a fee of around $100m and signed a five-year contract, it later emerged that every party in the deal paid him: the selling club (Juventus), the buying club (United) and Pogba himself. Not just that, they paid him extremely well: close to $50m between them, according to the Football Leaks dossier. Raiola was criticised for his greed. He replied the way he always did, noting that nobody was forced to pay him, everybody did it willingly and everyone could have walked away at any time.
In recent years, he became an advocate for his vision of the game, one that he said was centered on players, not FIFA (though he did say he would run for FIFA president so he could then disband it), not leagues and not clubs.
As he saw it, players generate money. They’re what fans pay for, and yet they’re subject to rules, whims, regulations and restrictions, and often have very little voice. That’s why he railed against salary caps, agent regulation and any kind of oversight that wasn’t an unfettered free market. He saw himself as football’s Ayn Rand, fighting hypocrisy and corruption while getting rich — insanely rich, his critics would point out — along the way.
The best❤️ pic.twitter.com/Nvo4JEzQn0
— Erling Haaland (@ErlingHaaland) April 30, 2022
As Raiola said, “You don’t like me? You don’t like what I do and how I work? Don’t deal with me. Nobody is forcing you to.” That could have been his mantra. And if somebody countered that they had no choice, because their players chose to be represented by Raiola, he had an easy riposte: “Nobody forces my players to choose me. Nobody forces them to stay with me.”
Indeed, the loyalty he engendered in his clients is something many of his colleagues envied. Early on, his critics chalked up to age, because he became influential so young that often his clients were his contemporaries. Later, they cited some sort of cultural affinity (Ibrahimovic was also the son of immigrants, also larger-than-life and in-your-face).
These explanations fell by the wayside when he started to represent stars like Pogba, De Ligt and Haaland (what does a 50-something Dutch-Italian former waiter have in common with a Norwegian man-child who practices yoga and meditation?). The simplest answer is that his clients were fiercely loyal to him because that loyalty was mutual. And he generally delivered what they wanted.
Agents — whether representing players directly or, more often, acting as intermediaries — have become a staple of the game over the past 30 years. But nobody was a protagonist over three decades the way Raiola was. Odds are, as football agencies merge with each other and consolidate, the Raiola prototype — a dealmaker with a phone, plenty of chutzpah and no fear — will disappear and we won’t see another like him.