“In-house consultant” was how Mino Raiola chose to describe his relationship with some of world football’s top clubs in a rare interview with the Financial Times’ Simon Kuper two years ago.
Even when allowing for the Dutch agent’s tendency for braggadocio, it was an eye-catching choice of phrase. Working with Raiola involves more than just managing his brinkmanship in negotiations. It also means being closely associated with him, making him and his stable of players part of the scenery.
Some clubs have baulked at this. Others, like Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain in the past, happily accept it on the promise of new signings. “At clubs that understand me, I have three or four players,” Raiola told Kuper.
At the turn of the year, five of his clients played for Manchester United. The departures of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Zlatan Ibrahimovic from United in the time since have reduced that number to three. One of those remaining, Sergio Romero, is merely a second-choice goalkeeper. Other Raiola players tentatively linked this summer, like Justin Kluivert and Hirving Lozano, never arrived.
It would be wrong, however, to claim that Raiola’s influence is on the wane. For as long as Raiola clients Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku are United’s two most-expensive, highest-profile and most-marketable players, the club will be forced to manage this most challenging, demanding and erratic of agents.
This means accepting that Raiola may wake up on a Tuesday morning and find himself in the mood to do a Twitter drive-by. It also means accepting that the club may catch a stray bullet.
If Raiola felt the broadside at Paul Scholes had to be done, it could at least have been done differently. It could merely have been an agent forcefully but respectfully protecting his client in a public forum from what he believes to be unfair criticism.
Raiola, however, used his right to respond to Scholes as an opportunity to fuel the speculation surrounding Pogba’s future, claiming it would be easy to move the player on from United, with a reference to executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward thrown in for good measure. This, it seems, is the price of doing business.
When working with Raiola, you also must accept that simply because you enjoy a healthy relationship with him does not mean others do too. Pep Guardiola’s decision to reveal that Raiola offered Pogba to him on the eve of April’s Manchester derby was not motivated by local rivalry, but Raiola labelling him an “absolute zero”, a “priest”, a “coward” and a “dog”.
The Scholes incident was not, therefore, the first time that United and their prize asset – formerly the world’s most-expensive footballer – became collateral damage in one of Raiola’s personal feuds.
Again, though, this is the price of doing business, so what exactly are United paying for? Pogba and Lukaku are talented players of course, but their association with Raiola brings baggage that other clubs would choose to avoid.
The answer is access. The signings of Ibrahimovic and Mkhitaryan helped push through Pogba’s return to Old Trafford. A year later, Lukaku’s arrival was made easier by Pogba’s presence. In this sense, the four Raiola players to join United since Jose Mourinho’s appointment came as a package.
This policy of procuring glossy, expensive talent from a handful of influential agents is not new, but one United have actively pursued for years, most notably with Gestifute and Jorge Mendes. David de Gea is the successful product of that working partnership, though Angel di Maria, Radamel Falcao and Bebe are best forgotten.
Yet the danger inherent in building squads around a few key super-agents is that much suddenly depends on a few key relationships. Those United supporters who reacted to Raiola’s remarks on Tuesday by telling him to take his player and get out of the club seemed to forget that even if Pogba leaves, Lukaku remains.
The prospect of this playing out between Raiola and United all over again in the future is real, whatever happens regarding Pogba. That the relationship between club and agent would hit turbulence at some point seemed certain once Raiola was allowed to take root at United, bringing three of his players there in the space of one summer.
Did United ‘understand’ Raiola back then, as the agent himself suggested in that Financial Times interview? Were they aware of his reputation? Did they know what they were letting themselves in for? If not, they are surely beginning to understand him now.
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