‘ Big mouth’ agent Raiola has earned grudg­ing re­spect

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - SPORTS - AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

HAARLEM, Nether­lands — Dressed in a T-shirt and jeans or track­suit and sneak­ers, it is easy to mis­take Mino Raiola for just an­other chubby beerlov­ing soc­cer fan rather than the ra­zor-sharp mind who dom­i­nates the world trans­fer mar­ket.

Raiola, whose Ital­ian roots and love of pasta is high­lighted by his fam­ily’s pizza restau­rant, is said to have been in­stru­men­tal in or­ches­trat­ing Bel­gian striker Romelu Lukaku’s lat­est sign­ing at Manchester United for a re­ported $97 mil­lion over the week­end.

The 24-year-old’s trans­fer from Ever­ton — for a record fee be­tween Bri­tish clubs — was re­port­edly sup­ported by an­other of Raiola’s pro­teges and Lukaku’s close friend, Paul Pogba.

It was Raiola who mas­ter­minded Pogba’s own records­mash­ing $119 mil­lion re­turn to the Red Devils a year ago.

He has looked af­ter Swedish great Zla­tan Ibrahi­movic for the last 15 years and also man­ages Mario Balotelli, Blaise Ma­tu­idi and Hen­rikh Mkhi­taryan.

Raiola did ex­tremely well out of United last year mak­ing an es­ti­mated $4 mil­lion from Pogba’s trans­fer from Ju­ven­tus alone, while sta­ble­mates Mkhi­taryan and Ibrahi­movic also joined at Old Traf­ford.

Raiola is “a man that al­ways thinks ahead and he’s a per­fec­tion­ist who’s al­ways work­ing un­be­liev­ably hard to get the best deals for his play­ers,” Willem Vis­sers, a Dutch soc­cer writer for the re­spected daily De Volk­skrant, told AFP on the week­end.

Raiola was born into hum­ble roots. His fam­ily owns a tra­di­tional pizza restau­rant in the Dutch me­dieval city of Haarlem.

He first honed his skills in soc­cer and the art of ne­go­ti­at­ing while wait­ing ta­bles at the Ris­torante Napoli.

“The board of the (now de­funct) lo­cal club Haarlem FC used to come and dine there at least once a week,” said Ed­win Struis, a free­lance soc­cer writer who worked at a Haarlem pa­per in the early 1990s.

“War­ranted or un­war­ranted, Mino would chirp in, giv­ing his opin­ions on the state of the club and soc­cer in gen­eral.

“It got to a point where they sim­ply said, ‘Since you know so much, why don’t you just join the board?’ ”

Raiola briefly worked as tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor at Haarlem FC, but he had much grander ideas, in­clud­ing set­ting up a part­ner­ship to trans­fer play­ers from Ital­ian club Napoli.

Naples is close to the south­ern Ital­ian city of No­cera In­fe­ri­ore, from where Raiola moved with his par­ents when he was just a year old in 1968.

Many in soc­cer mis­tak­enly brushed aside Raiola be­cause of his jeans-and-T-shirt wardrobe.

Even Ibrahi­movic in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy I am Zla­tan said he thought Raiola was a char­ac­ter from The So­pra­nos TV se­ries when they first met.

“In the be­gin­ning they all un­der­es­ti­mated him be­cause of the way he dressed,” said Vis­sers, who has in­ter­viewed the elu­sive agent and been a keen fol­lower of his ca­reer.

These days, no­body dis­misses Raiola, one of the most pow­er­ful peo­ple in soc­cer.

His first big break came with the sign­ing of Czech mid­field star Pavel Nedved, a for­mer Bal­lon d’Or win­ner, in 1992.

Af­ter that, other greats like Ibrahi­movic and Pogba — and now Lukaku — fol­lowed.

It is not all plain-sail­ing for Raiola, how­ever. The Foot­ball Leaks me­dia con­sor­tium al­leged late last year that the agent had trans­ferred Pogba’s multi-mil­lion im­age rights to the off­shore haven of Jer­sey. The agent has dis­missed the re­ports as imag­i­nary.

Raiola’s own in­come and ten­dency to shoot from the hip has earned him the ad­mi­ra­tion — and ire — of many in soc­cer.

“Un­for­tu­nately, he’s made it a bit of a habit to in­sult peo­ple,” said Struis.

Five years ago, Barcelona threat­ened to break ties with Raiola af­ter he crit­i­cized then coach Pep Guardi­ola over his de­te­ri­o­rat­ing re­la­tion­ship with Ibrahi­movic.

He crossed the line for many in the Nether­lands when he called late na­tional soc­cer icon Jo­han Cruyff “de­mented” for al­legedly sug­gest­ing that ex-play­ers should be given top soc­cer in­dus­try jobs.

Raiola later apol­o­gized to Cruyff, but said he stood by his view­points on jobs for pals.

“He has a sharp tongue — some would even say he’s a bit of a loud­mouth that uses lots of words but doesn’t say much,” said Struis.

Gael Mahe, a for­mer Pogba rep­re­sen­ta­tive, calls Raiola a “ge­nius” for his deal mak­ing.

“He is the Don­ald Trump of soc­cer, a big mouth who knows how to sell and who has built his own skyscrap­ers. Each of his play­ers has vir­tu­ally the value of a Man­hat­tan build­ing,” Mahe said.

Mino Raiola

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