Haarlem (Netherlands) (AFP) – Dressed in a T-shirt and jeans or tracksuit and trainers, it is easy to mistake Mino Raiola for just another chubby beer-loving football fan rather than the razor-sharp mind who dominates the world transfer market.
Raiola, whose Italian roots and love of pasta is highlighted by his family’s pizza restaurant, masterminded Paul Pogba’s record-smashing 105-million-euro ($111 million) return to Manchester United in July.
He has looked after Swedish great Zlatan Ibrahimovic for the last 15 years and also manages Mario Balotelli, Blaise Matuidi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Raiola is said to have raked in 35 million euros in fees from contracts worth 356 million euros this year alone — which includes the Pogba transfer from Juventus to United.
“I don’t think Mino was surprised by the deal or the amount,” Willem Vissers, a Dutch football writer for the respected daily De Volkskrant, told AFP.
“He’s a man that always thinks ahead and he’s a perfectionist who’s always working unbelievably hard to get the best deals for his players,” Vissers said.
– Humble roots –
Raiola was born into humble roots. His family owns a cosy, traditional pizza restaurant on a corner overlooking a canal in the Dutch medieval city of Haarlem.
The Ristorante Napoli has been a landmark for decades. It is a mix of Dutch-Italian style with terracotta floors and linen-decked tables, old paintings and FC Napoli paraphernalia adorning the walls.
Raiola first honed his skills on football and the art of negotiating while waiting tables at the Ristorante Napoli.
“The board of the (now defunct) local football club Haarlem FC used to come and dine there at least once a week,” said Edwin Struis, a freelance football writer who worked at a Haarlem paper in the early 1990s.
“Warranted or unwarranted, Mino would chirp in, giving his opinions on the state of the club and football in general,” Struis told AFP.
“It got to a point where they simply said, ‘Since you know so much, why don’t you just join the board?'” said Struis.
Raiola briefly worked as technical director at Haarlem FC, but he had much grander ideas: setting up a co-operation deal to transfer players from Italian club Napoli.
Naples is close to the southern Italian city of Nocera Inferiore, from where Raiola moved with his parents when he was one in 1968.
– ‘Sopranos lookalike’ –
Many in football mistakenly brushed aside Raiola because of his jeans-and-T-shirt uniform.
Even Ibrahimovic in his autobiography “I am Zlatan” said he thought Raiola was a character from “The Sopranos” TV series when they first met.
“In the beginning they all underestimated him because of the way he dressed,” said Vissers, who has interviewed the elusive agent and been a keen follower of his career.
These days, nobody dismisses Raiola, one of the most powerful people in football.
His first big break came with the signing of Czech midfield star Pavel Nedved, a former Ballon d’Or winner, in 1992.
After that, other greats like Ibrahimovic and Pogba followed.
It is not all plain-sailing for Raiola however. The Football Leaks media consortium alleged last week that the agent had transferred Pogba’s multi-million image rights to the offshore haven of Jersey. The agent has dismissed the reports as imaginary.
Raiola’s own income and tendency to shoot from the hip has earned him the admiration — and ire — of many in football.
“Unfortunately, he’s made it a bit of a habit to insult people,” said Struis.
Five years ago Barcelona threatened to break ties with Raiola after he criticised then coach Pep Guardiola over his deteriorating relationship with Ibrahimovic.
He crossed the line for many in the Netherlands when he called late national football icon Johan Cruyff a “demented dickhead” for allegedly suggesting that ex-footballers should be given top football industry jobs.
Raiola later apologised to Cruyff, but said he stood by his viewpoints on jobs for pals.
– ‘Donald Trump of football’ –
“He has a sharp tongue — some would even say he’s a bit of a loudmouth that uses lots of words but doesn’t say much,” said Struis.
Gael Mahe, a former Pogba representative, calls Raiola a “genius” for his deal making.
“He is the Donald Trump of football, a big mouth who knows how to sell and who has built his own skyscrapers. Each of his players has virtually the value of a Manhattan building,” Mahe told AFP.
And Ibrahimovic has only good things to say in his autobiography.
“Shall I spell it out here? Mino is a genius,” said the world’s third-highest earning footballer in 2016 after Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
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