Whatever you think of Mino Raiola, be sure of one thing. He wouldn’t care. “My dad told me when I was a little boy that 50% of the people in your life would love you and 50% would hate you,” Raiola told The Athletic. The evidence was sufficient in the Bible. Even Jesus Christ was crucified, he joked. “I am here to be loved by my family and by my players. The rest, I don’t care. The 54-year-old died on Saturday following a long illness. In a statement, the Raiola family said that he “fought to the end with the same strength he brought to the negotiating tables to defend our players”.
Born in Nocera Inferiore and described with typical Raiola self-deprecating humor as “the ugliest baby ever seen”, he was raised in Angri, a case of nominative determinism if ever there was one. In his novel, Hanno Tutti Ragione, Oscar-winning director Paolo Sorrentino called it “the worst province in the world”. But the San Marzano tomatoes and Mozzarella di Bufala produced here are the ingredients that go into the best pizza on the planet and that’s what the Raiola family imported when they moved to the Netherlands and opened the restaurant.” Napoli” in Haarlem.
Raiola has never made pizza in her life. The idea he had came from Sinisa Mihajlovic who said, “What does the pizza maker want now?” after Raiola defended Zlatan Ibrahimovic following an Italy Derby when the pair – now great friends – spoke to each other. What is true is that Raiola served the tables and washed the floors. He worked long hours, did the dirty work, and as he got older, he was entrusted with the books and negotiations with the restaurant’s suppliers. ‘My specialty was to untie the knots’ in order to get ‘Napoli’ the best deal possible, he said.
The restaurant was his business school and university of life, teaching him about business and people from an early age. When a customer ordered the most expensive bottle on the wine list and didn’t look like he could afford it, Raiola was told to serve it anyway. The lesson: don’t underestimate anyone was a mistake many would make with Raiola.
Ibrahimovic did just that after walking into Hotel Okura in Amsterdam to meet him for the first time. “We booked a table there, and I really didn’t know what kind of person to expect,” he wrote in his self-titled biography I’m Zlatan Ibrahimovic, “probably some kind of striped guy with a gold watch even bigger (than me.) But who the hell showed up? A guy in jeans and a Nike t-shirt – and that belly, like one of the guys from The Sopranos.
Raiola’s break from football came as ‘Napoli’ bosses broke bread. The Dutch FA headquarters were nearby, an Italian agent who used to bring Eredivisie players to Serie A liked the food on the menu, as did a few footballers and the owner of the local football team which would make him the head of their academy and then sporting director. Little did they all know that the guy filling their wine glasses and bringing the bill was a super agent on standby, one of the greatest movers and shakers the game would ever see. “I changed the game, from an economic point of view, more than once,” Raiola said Athleticism.
After buying a McDonalds franchise and flipping it, burger-style, for profit, Raiola formed Intermezzo and entered the transfer market. “In the Netherlands there was a really crazy system where players had to be sold according to a price based on their age and a bunch of statistical bullshit,” Ibrahimovic recalled. “(Mino) challenged the entire Dutch Football Association and he didn’t start taking care of small fry.”
The first contract Raiola ever made involved Holland’s hottest prospect at the time, Bryan Roy, who moved from Ajax to Foggia or Zemanlandia as it was known in 1992. phoned from the restaurant,” recalls former Foggia owner Pasquale Casillo. the book Due o Tre Cose Che So Di Lui. “’You pay four billion lira for the player. I can get you for two’. It did just that by removing middleman fees. He put me under direct contract with the Dutch Players Association. He was registered with them. I never understood what his title was, he served pizza. Anyway, he shows up in Foggia with Roy as interpreter or so he told me.
The way Casillo recalls, Raiola didn’t consider himself an agent back then. He criticized them. They were “villains” and “leeches.” “Now he is the king of agents. Twenty years ago, he was just a big fat kid. He was begging me to take a ride in my Ferrari. “You can as long as you get in there”. He did but getting it out again was an effort. Roy, on the other hand, was shocked when he realized that we trained on a dirt court in the oratory of San Ciro. Before, you had to climb a wall to get in. Can you imagine. He was a Dutch international from Ajax. But he got used to it pretty early. Thanks in part to Raiola who moved there with Roy and would drive him to training. “Mino painted the walls of my house,” Roy recalled, “he doesn’t like it when I remind him of that now.”
Following Roy’s move to Serie A, Raiola was the architect of Dennis Bergkamp and Wim Jonk’s move to Inter a year later. Expectations were high, especially after the successes of Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit at rivals AC Milan. Bergkamp surprisingly failed and suffered comparison with Van Basten, adoringly nicknamed “The Swan of Utrecht”. Bergkamp, on the other hand, has been nicknamed “The Cold Turkey”.
He would do more than bounce back at Arsenal like Raiola would when bringing Pavel Nedved to Lazio. “(Zdenek Zeman) wanted a player who could dribble like Maradona, run 17km a game and train like crazy. I told him: ‘This player doesn’t exist’. But a Czech winger, Raiola, was transferred to PSV after Euro 96 came closest to the bill. There was just one problem. “He didn’t know how good he was otherwise he would have won the Ballon d’Or three times. “
Nedved has only one of these awards on his chimney. Ibrahimovic, the most famous of all Raiola customers, never got the votes to win it, but in Italy one could be forgiven for thinking he got 10. Arguably no foreign imports of this century has had the impact of Zlatan in Serie A.
The kid from Rosengard saw himself in Raiola. When he asked his Ajax team-mate Maxwell to text the agent and set up a meeting, the Swede was undeterred when a response came back saying: “Tell that Zlatan to go fuck yourself.” It was a language that Ibrahimovic understood and respected. “I had grown up with this attitude. Fuck you, and all that. I feel comfortable with this counseling discussion and suspect that Mino and I had similar backgrounds. Neither of us had received what whether on a plate.
Raiola wasn’t going to land him a big hit on a silver platter either. He told Zlatan that his stats were ‘shitty’ and that a club like Juventus would never sign him unless he got serious. It’s time to ditch the Porsche for a FIAT Stilo, sell his watches and hang the leather jacket in the closet. Raiola pushed him over the edge. “It kept me going,” Ibrahimovic recalls, “and it gave me the mindset of a winner.”
The result was the movement he wanted. Seeing Raiola in Hawaiian shorts, drenched in sweat after rushing to the meeting they had arranged to seal the deal in Monte Carlo over the weekend of the Monaco Grand Prix, Juventus chief executive Luciano Moggi , asked vehemently, “What are you wearing? The answer was basically Raiola. “Are you here to check what I look like?
Style never mattered to him. The stuff did it. “I’ve been in the business for 27 years,” he said. Athleticism, “and for all these years I have represented the crème de la crème. There must be a reason why people still buy Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, Ferraris and Porsches. It must be of good quality. If the players trust my agency and trust what I do, that’s something good that I’m doing, because it can’t be my appearance because the last time I looked in the mirror, I would not have chosen to represent me.
The thought staring at Raiola never bothered him, even amid the public fallout with Sir Alex Ferguson and Pep Guardiola. Fearless in defending his clients, they have mostly backed him, regardless of the accusations of greed, self-interest and excess which peaked after Paul Pogba’s €110m return to Manchester United. The transfer commission, revealed by hacking platform Football Leaks, was one of FIFA’s motivations to toughen the rules, reintroduce a licensing system and come up with a cap that united super agents in protest.
“I know where I come from and I know what world I live in,” Raiola said Athleticism, “and I’m not saying that I work harder than a miner. But my luck is that I work in an environment, in an industry that has become a multi-billion dollar industry. OK, so I’m sure there’s an agent in cycling who works as hard as me and maybe as good or better than me but his world, his sports world, his industry is smaller. So our earnings reflect the importance of our industry and the importance of our clients as if you were an agent of the best actor in the world or the agent of who knows who. And people take it out of context.“Again, I no longer see that we are criminalized. I think the public now knows what it is and we are part of this industry, because if you were to eliminate even you journalism guys, if you were to eliminate the calcio mercato (transfer market) that has been created by the big agents, so there’s only football on Saturday and Sunday. What the hell do you write about Monday through Friday, guys? !
“It became a part of the entertainment industry which today is much bigger than gambling, like the gambling industry, like the transfer market, etc., etc. It’s not a job easy! It’s a fantastic job. It’s not an easy job. And yes, being in a highly, highly monetized environment gives you that kind of money, but you don’t criticize people who make a lot of money in the stock market because billions pass through their hands. It’s part of what they are in.
Regardless of the outrage over the huge sums of money he was perceived to be raking in from the game, regardless of the disconnect between a super agent like Raiola and the public, the empathy he was able to create with certain of the next big things in football remained intact. Just think of Matthijs de Ligt, Gigio Donnarumma and Ryan Gravenberch to name a few.
On the day Raiola’s death was announced, Borussia Dortmund striker Erling Braut Haaland was succinct in his tribute. Two words and a picture of them together was all he tweeted. The message simply said: “The best”. The kind of esteem that mattered to Raiola.
(Top images: Getty Images)