“I don’t trade in the market, I am the market,” he once said. Mino Raiola, the Dutch-Italian football agent who has died aged 54, embodied the rise of the agent in the modern game.
Born poor in southern Italy, he grew up in the Netherlands, where his workaholic immigrant parents built a chain of pizza restaurants. Raiola likened his family to the Corleones of the Godfather films, only without violence. His parents taught him a service ethic: their pizzerias were extensions of their home, every customer should be treated as family, and if you cleaned the restaurant toilets, people would come back.
He took this ethic into football. He was a born trader, a millionaire aged 19 after buying and selling a McDonald’s in the small city of Haarlem, and he began using his language skills to move Dutch footballers to his parents’ homeland.
In a football industry obsessed with appearances, he always dressed sloppily. “I am fat and small,” he once explained. “People underestimated me for a long time. They said, ‘He can’t even dress normally.’ That was my chance.” His break came in 1996, when he discovered a Czech footballer, Pavel Nedved, shortly before the world did. The timing was impeccable. The European Court of Justice’s new Bosman ruling allowed out-of-contract players to move throughout the EU without transfer fees. Meanwhile, television money was flooding football. Players needed trusted advisers.
Raiola prided himself on his small stable of clients, which allowed him to offer each warm personal service, as if they were restaurant customers. Former Dutch defender Rody Turpijn recalls hours of talking about life on a café terrace: “He felt almost like family. And he was always available.”
Some players rang Raiola twice a day, though when Mario Balotelli reported that his house was on fire, Raiola suggested he try the fire brigade. Raiola demonstrated his loyalty to players with public rants against their clubs and managers, especially against his favourite enemy, Pep Guardiola, currently manager of Manchester City.
He urged his players to work like Nedved, who trained at his club as a kind of aperitif, and then trained harder in his garden. That was Raiola’s ethic: “Resting isn’t part of my profession.”
He understood that even the smallest transfer of a lower-division journeyman could change somebody’s life. Whereas other agents aimed to stay on good terms with clubs, Raiola was a hardball negotiator, happy to walk away from the table, or lie about his player’s current salary. Rather than celebrating deals, he usually left worrying that the club might have paid even more had he pushed it.
Wary of his players’ propensity to blow their money, he urged them to invest only in “bricks”, ideally in Amsterdam, “the world’s cheapest capital city”.
He considered himself the best agent, but not the best father. He estimated he spent 30 days a year at home in Monaco, and the rest visiting his beloved players. When his wife complained, “You have two official children and loads of unofficial ones,” he joked, “Which are the official ones?”
He criss-crossed Europe talking to club executives in seven languages, hearing their plans, foreseeing shifts in the transfer market. A decade ago, he realised early that Italian clubs were running out of money, while Paris Saint-Germain was headed for dominance. He pushed his client, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, to move from Milan to Paris. Ibrahimovic last week visited his “best friend” Raiola on his deathbed.
Rather than wait for clubs to make offers, Raiola decided where his players should go, then made it happen. In 2016, he orchestrated Paul Pogba’s move from Juventus to Manchester United. The transfer fee of €105mn was a world record, and Raiola made an estimated €48mn, contriving to get paid by both clubs and Pogba — confounding his claim he only worked for his players.
He then took advantage of United’s weak leadership to sell the club several more of his clients — something the club may now regret. He often attributed his success to the industry’s stupidity. “Other agents are even dumber than me,” he once joked.
His ambitions included reforming football’s global authority, Fifa, by becoming its president; running Italy as an “enlightened dictator” (and splitting the country into North and South); switching career to mergers and acquisitions, and buying a football club. He said his purchase of Queens Park Rangers was scuppered only by the goal that won them promotion to the Premier League.
In his final months he was negotiating football’s biggest transfer, the Norwegian Erling Braut Haaland’s move from Borussia Dortmund. Raiola played bidding clubs off against each other, planning his ultimate payday, though he claimed to care about money only as the scorecard of success.
His death from pulmonary disease was prematurely announced twice, allowing him to read his first obituaries from his Milan hospital bed. On Friday, his Twitter account grumbled: “Current health status for the ones wondering: pissed off second time in 4 months they kill me.” He leaves a wife, two sons, and the unfinished Haaland deal.