Wednesday 22 November 2017

The place where money floats aimlessly upwards like a flotilla of bubbles


Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Tommy Conlon

Zlatan knew he had an ally when Mino Raiola insulted him, and Alex Ferguson knew he had an enemy when Raiola did the same to him.

Ibrahimovic was at Ajax and looking for a new agent in 2004. Raiola was a fat Italian who'd grown up in Holland, working in his parents' pizzeria. He was not a major powerbroker then. Ibrahimovic was playing hard to get. The great man told an intermediary that Raiola would need to bring something to the table before he would even deign to meet him. Raiola replied: "Tell this Zlatan to go and f*** himself." They've made dozens of millions for each other in the years since.

In 2012 Raiola was negotiating a new deal for Paul Pogba at Old Trafford. Pogba, then 19, wasn't tearing up any trees at the time. Ferguson felt the new contract on offer was fair. In an interview with the Financial Times last October, Raiola recalled what he said to Sir Alex in reply: "This is an offer that my Chihuahuas - I have two Chihuahuas - don't sign." Fergie then allegedly called him a "twat". He subsequently said he distrusted Raiola "from the moment I met him".

In August 2012 Raiola delivered Pogba to Juventus for buttons. Four years later he engineered Pogba's return to Manchester United for a world-record transfer fee of £89.3m. It served for many fans as proof positive that money no longer has any meaning at the elite end of the global game.

One wonders does it even have any value any more for the traders up there in their chrome and glass towers, looking down at the muck and nettles of some distant public park where the weekend amateurs can be seen running after a ball like their lives depend on it.

It's no a longer a question of whether the top end of the game has become unmoored from its roots, for that argument is already done and dusted. It's whether something as real and vital to humanity as money itself has also become unmoored, here, from the essential value that is supposed to make it a lifeblood of society.

In this world it seems to have become weightless, floating onwards and upwards with no more substance than a flotilla of bubbles. United could have saved themselves £90,000,000 but they got rid of Pogba and took him back with unaccountable insouciance. Maybe it's harder to believe it is real money when there is no cash involved, the way a tenner at a turnstile feels real. Maybe all those noughts on a screen, beneath the number of some nameless Swiss bank account, actually are just pixelated bubbles to the custodians who move them around.

As the son of migrant grafters who grew up in the family business, Raiola surely learned to appreciate the value of a bank note in his formative years. As an emerging football agent he was the archetypal outsider who gatecrashed his way into an industry with fabulous riches that liked to keep its wagons circled. He still seems to retain a certain measure of contempt for its culture and practitioners.

"Incest makes that world weak," he declared in that interview with the FT. "It's dumb because they want to keep it dumb. It's a closed world, with gigantic potential, and a huge turnover of money, but often managed by people of whom I think, 'What the f***?'"

He may have had precisely this thought as he walked out of the meeting that clinched the transfer of Pogba to Juventus in 2012. Because he persuaded the Juve negotiators to sign a deal that was tantamount to a legal ransom. They agreed that if Pogba were to be sold again, Raiola would receive 50 per cent of any fee over £40m.

Last week the terms of this deal became public information. Two German journalists published a book called Football Leaks: The Dirty Business of Football. According to extracts, Raiola received some £41m of the £89.3m transaction. The Italians ponied up almost £23m, United gave him £16.3m and Pogba threw him the loose change - £2.2m.

Meanwhile, he wasn't forgetting about his old mucker Zlatan. The Swedish diva arrived at United on a free transfer from Paris Saint-Germain last summer. Raiola negotiated a £19m one-year salary for the big palooka. Moreover, he built into the deal a bonus-per-goal scheme that would be worth £47k per goal for the first five goals, £79k per goal for the next five, £111k each for the next five, and £143k for each of the five that would bring him up to 20 goals. Anything after that would be a mere £119k per goal. Zlatan has scored 28 goals this season.

The German journalists, Rafael Buschmann and Michael Wulzinger, work for Der Spiegel newspaper. Their main source is a Portuguese insider who calls himself 'John' but who may become known as the Edward Snowden of the football industry.

They say he has given them 18.6 million documents. According to the journos, he is more or less on the run somewhere in Europe. "Our source is being hunted," they said. "There are people searching for him you would not like to meet."

One fancies that Raiola would be keen to meet 'John' - not to menace him for leaking such spectacular secrets, but to sign him as a client. You couldn't put a price on that kind of information.

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