It has been an outsized transfer saga that has already seen some outlandish twists, so it is probably entirely fitting that Alexis Sanchez’s move from Arsenal will only be concluded with the contribution of one of the market’s most outrageous figures. Not that the dude ex machina, Mino Raiola, necessarily sees it like that. There was still time for the Dutch agent to contribute an outrageous claim to all of this, as he negotiates the deal that could yet prove key for Sanchez’s switch to Manchester United: that is Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s prospective move the other way.
“Sanchez is part of the Mkhi deal,” Raiola told The Times’ Paul Hirst. “Not the other way around.”
So the saga we’ve all been following for nine months isn’t apparently about Sanchez at all. It’s about one of Raiola’s clients. Oh. This statement might well have been tongue in cheek and might well have been part of the show, but it’s also part of the job. The 50-year-old trying to get people to believe his idealised version of reality is one way to try and ultimately make it the objective reality.
This is the root of Raiola telling Mario Balotelli he would drive him to three Ballon d’Ors, and more recently the following story about one of his younger clients. This player had been fired up by the idea that people had been talking about him, that he’d been criticised, so went out to one big match completely wound up. When he eventually scored, he ran to the crowd, giving it all sorts of defiant gestures.
It was an incongruous scene, because that crowd was mostly made up of a smattering of parents, bemused at the behaviour of one of their sons’ teammates.
No one had been talking about the player, nor had there been critics. This typical footballer’s response was really down to a typical Raiola tactic – “entrenching players against a non-existent army of critics,” according to one source – to build a siege mentality and thereby further bind them to him. The impression then grows that Raiola is the only one that understands them. He will also thereby go the distance from them, and many rave about the time he gives them, that almost amounts to a "bespoke service". No one can say he's not seriously and creditably working for them.
This is also the attitude that has made these Mkhitaryan talks attritional, and could yet prolong Sanchez’s move.
“Mkhi has not decided yet,” Raiola added, when talking to Hirst. “Mkhi is going to do what is best for him. He has two-and-a-half years left on his contract, so it’s his decision.”
Raiola will have only further imposed upon Mkhitaryan his entirely entitled right to do this. Don’t sign anything until we’re completely happy. And it looks like they’ll only be happy with quite a bit of money.
The “belligerence” behind such an approach, as well as the bullish financial demands, have frustrated a lot of figures in football. And more than frustrated them.
One high-level source says Chelsea are among a few clubs now very reluctant to deal with him, a factor that scuppered the return of Romelu Lukaku to Stamford Bridge, while other clubs just don’t like dealing with him. They expect negotiations to take a needlessly long time, and often around his fees. This isn’t because of any “feared negotiation skills” but because there’s just so much talk to cut through.
The Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis described him as “a pain in the backside”. Then there was Sir Alex Ferguson, who publicly went further than anyone. He has at different points and in different settings said Raiola is someone he does “not like” and “distrusted from the moment” they met – and is not the only one to say that – as well as “a twat”, “a shit bag” and “a bad agent”.
The last description has a little more to it than just Ferguson lacerating an enemy, since it was a discussion brought up when Lukaku went to United rather than Chelsea. It’s all the more relevant when players at a crossroads like Mkhitaryan are deciding their future.
There are conflicting views on this. For the many that point to the big deals that Raiola gets his players, others point to the big deals he gets himself, like the massive fees from Paul Pogba’s move from Juventus to Manchester United. It’s still very difficult to dismiss someone who has over 50 athletes on contracts worth over £300m, but others dispute the meaning of this.
“I’m not sure,” one European agent says. “In agency, all it takes is one good player in order for an agent to attract more good players. There’s an impression he’s just doing deals for himself that happen to involve a footballer. He’s like an evangelist.”
It would also be foolish to dismiss all this as garish bluster to go with the boisterous appearance, though, and not just because of the money Raiola can put on – and take away from – the table.
He may be outrageous and keep his business family-small in order to further foster the sense of “a home” for his clients, but there is obviously serious acumen there, and especially behind the 50-year-old.
Many who have worked with Raiola say his lawyer Rafaele Pimenta is the rigorous steel in the structure of his organisation, and a seriously impressive figure. Whatever the descriptions of her boss, she is most often described as “a genius”.
“Sit with her and you’ll realise how slickly that organisation is run,” one source said of Maguire Tax & Legal, the company Raiola of course named after the film Jerry Maguire. Others talk of Pimenta comfortably transitioning between four different languages in multiple simultaneous conversations, and it was her that made the call to United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward to let him know Chelsea weren’t certain of signing Lukaku in the summer.
Raiola should by no means be confused as the mere figurehead for this, though. By contrast, his canny brashness is just complemented by her forensic brilliance. There is also a clear method to his approach, that certainly shouldn’t be confused as madcap either.
Typically direct and blunt as ever, Raiola has described the football world as “dumb”.
“It’s a closed world,” he told the Financial Times, “with gigantic potential and a huge turnover of money, but often managed by people of whom I think ‘what the fuck?’”
With that kind of baseline outlook, Raiola sees no reason not to set the most extreme positions and demands for his clients. It already means that the other side must come further over to his position if there is to be any compromise, not that he ever really does that. What’s more, his personality allows him to perfectly apply this approach. The bluster works. Do business or be gone.
This is the stubborn lock that Arsenal and United have to deal with. It would already be complicated enough in normal circumstances, but Mkhitaryan would actually prefer a move back to former club Borussia Dortmund, and is on wages of £180,000 a week at Old Trafford. Those positions will just make this more difficult, and further entrench Raiola himself. This is why it could take even longer than usual, before the completion of the Sanchez deal.
Or, sorry, the Mkhitaryan deal. This is Raiola’s world and his reality, at least until this is all resolved.