Mino Raiola: The controversial super agent behind Mario Balotelli's AC Milan move

Just over six months after facilitating Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s switch to PSG, the 45-year-old Italian was back in the news for masterminding yet another massive transfer

By Mark Doyle

Mino Raiola’s accountancy firm is called Maguire Tax & Legal, its name inspired by an Oscar-winning movie starring Tom Cruise. Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis would no doubt be offended by the insinuation that Raiola is in any way similar to Jerry Maguire, the fictional sports agent who comes to champion love (or “kwan”) over greed, but many of his clients would argue that the comparison is just.

Welcome to the divisive – yet lucrative – world of Mino Raiola, super agent.

The 45-year-old was born in Agri, Italy, but his parents emigrated to Netherlands when he was still an infant, settling in Haarlem. It was in this Dutch municipality that Raiola was raised before taking the first steps to becoming one of the most influential agents in football.

Although it might not look it now, Raiola was a moderately talented player in his youth and he played for his local club before quitting the game at just 18. However, while he started studying law, he had not lost his passion for football, electing to take charge of the Haarlem youth team.

Even at such a tender age, Raiola was a straight-talker with a distinct lack of respect for any figure of authority other than his restaurateur father.

“The president of Haarlem came to eat with us every Friday,” he explained in an interview with Il Secolo XIX two years ago. “I was always telling him that he knew nothing about football. One day he takes me aside and says: ‘Listen, you try it.’ He appointed me sporting director.”

Raiola, though, became frustrated by his inability to make what he reckoned were the requisite changes due to a lack of funds. However, with Dutch players very much in vogue in the mid-1980s, he saw that there was money to be made in selling his adopted nation’s top footballing talent to Italy, which was then the centre of the footballing universe.

Raiola, having honed his skills as a mediator while working as a broker for Dutch businessmen with commercial interests in Italy, negotiated a deal with the player’s union in Netherlands that enabled him to represent all of the country’s footballers.

His goal at this point was to establish a special working relationship with Napoli, “the club of my heart”. However, the deal collapsed. “I called [then Partenopei president Corrado] Ferlaino. We started the collaboration. I offered him [Dennis] Bergkamp for 700 million lire. He hesitated. Two years later [1993], he offered €14 million, but I gave the player to Inter.”

With the Bergkamp deal, which also saw Wim Jonk join the Nerazzurri from Ajax, Raiola had established himself as a major player in Serie A, coming as it did a year after Bryan Roy’s successful switch from Amsterdam to Foggia.

What was clear at this juncture was that Raiola was adept at making his clients happy. However, clubs were becoming increasingly concerned by his methods.

Indeed, Ajax, who had profited substantially from Raiola-arranged deals during the early ’90s, were less enamoured with the way in which star forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic left for Juventus in 2004. Their ill-feeling only intensified two years later when the fallout from Calciopoli led to the release of the following recorded telephone exchanges between then Bianconeri managing director Luciano Moggi and Raiola.

Moggi: “You and Ibra continue to make trouble. Don’t send him to training …”

Raiola: “Tomorrow, I’ll keep the player at home all day; he won’t show up for training. I then have an appointment with the directors of Ajax at noon, but I’ll come at two …”

Raiola‘s influence on players was also queried by Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson during his club’s ultimately futile attempts to persuade former midfielder Paul Pogba to remain at Old Trafford last year. “He [Pogba] has got an agent who’s obviously become a bit difficult …”

Meanwhile, the aforementioned De Laurentiis was, unsurprisingly, far more blunt when it came to addressing Raiola and the agent’s all-too-public protestations that Marek Hamsik, who is not even officially a client, should leave the San Paolo in order to better himself as a player. “Raiola,” De Laurentiis mused. “He’s a pain in the backside, who, for years, has been trying to take Hamsik away.”

Raiola insists otherwise, though, claiming that he only ever does right by his clients, arguing that he does not engineer transfers, but merely facilitates them.

“I think that when a player decides to leave a team he should leave,” he reasons. “I have never made compromises, I work exclusively in the interest of my client. The players are my fortune and I have a great responsibility towards them. However, I have never carried out improper activity or activity that I, personally, do not think proper. The old agents favoured the interests of the club. For me, the player comes first.”

Whatever the truth, this is a man with an undeniable way with words who knows how to sell himself, and his players. He has memorably compared Pogba with a Salvador Dali painting and claimed that Ibrahimovic’s move to Paris Saint-Germain has provided visitors to the French capital with something to see other than the Mona Lisa. However, while he speaks eight languages (Italian, Dutch, French, English, German, Spanish, Portuguese and “of course Neapolitan”), he rather humbly puts his impressive linguistic capabilities down to “preparation, not intelligence”.

“I think that when a player decides to leave a team, he should leave … The old agents worked in the interests of the club. For me, the player comes first

Mino Raiola

Whatever it is, he is incredibly canny. He has cultivated a mutually beneficial relationship with Milan, as further evidenced by his masterminding of Mario Balotelli‘s recent switch to San Siro, and he has also proven himself wonderfully adept at massaging the ego of his players, having told a teenage Balotelli that he would make him a three-time Ballon d’Or winner, while dismissing the same award as meaningless if it is never given to Ibrahimovic.

Such contradictions lie at the very heart of the role of agents in the modern game. Yes, the world of football would be a beautiful place if there were no agents, but it is a pipe dream, as football is no longer a sport, but big business. “We live in a cynical world,” as Dicky Fox says in ‘Jerry Maguire’. “A cynical world. And we work in a business of tough competitors.”

Consequently, there will always be a need for people like Raiola. Love him or loathe him, one cannot deny that he is very good at what he does. The man himself says he resolves problems. His detractors say that he creates them. Perhaps the truth is somewhere in between – and perhaps utterly irrelevant because the bottom line is that Mino Raiola makes money. Both for his clients – and himself.

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