"Hello, this is Mino. Don't leave me a voicemail—it's better to text."
Mino Raiola's voicemail greeting tells you several things about the man who has become one of the most powerful agents in world football: that he receives a lot of phone calls, that his time is precious and that he likes to get straight to the point.
Raiola's phone has been ringing a lot this summer.
He has helped to broker Matthijs de Ligt's seismic €75 million transfer from Ajax to Juventus, Mario Balotelli's romantic repatriation at hometown club Brescia, Moise Kean's €27.5 million move to Everton and Hirving Lozano's €40 million switch from PSV Eindhoven to Napoli. If Europe's transfer gossip columns are to be believed, he could yet play a role in facilitating major deals involving Paul Pogba and Gianluigi Donnarumma.
Raiola's success in helping to drive through some of the biggest—and most lucrative—transfers in football history has made him almost as well-known as some of his most famous clients. When he turned up in Turin to accompany De Ligt to his Juve medical in July, the fans waiting in the sunshine outside the club's J-Medical centre pestered him for his autograph and chanted his name.
The 51-year-old's high profile means his words carry weight. Although he speaks at a relentless pace when in company, he chooses his public utterances carefully, speaking out only when he has a message to convey. He rarely answers his phone to members of the press, but when he does, he will say he is "always on the record."
Raiola, who lives with his family in Monaco, has been on Twitter since November 2014 but has sent only 46 tweets in that time. He generally uses the platform to denounce inaccurate stories about his clients, to attack pundits who criticise the players in his stable (hello, Paul Scholes) and to speak out against racism in the sport. He has never replied to a tweet by another person.
His brash and confrontational style has brought him into conflict with a succession of famous adversaries. He branded Pep Guardiola a "coward" and a "dog" for freezing out Zlatan Ibrahimovic at Barcelona, described Jurgen Klopp as a "piece of s--t" over his treatment of Balotelli at Liverpool and likened Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis to Mussolini. Sir Alex Ferguson called him a "s--tbag" and wrote in his 2015 book Leading, "I distrusted him from the moment I met him."
Raiola has also fallen foul of the football authorities, having been hit with a three-month suspension by FIFA in May, although the ban was lifted in June. He said the ban, which was initially imposed by the Italian Football Federation, had "political" motivations.
From some of his public pronouncements, you could be forgiven for thinking Raiola must be a pretty disagreeable individual, but people who have spent time in his company often describe him as charming and personable. Simon Kuper spent several hours with Raiola in 2016 whilst interviewing him for the Financial Times and said the man he met was different to his tabloid caricature.
"He was very likeable," said Kuper. "He genuinely likes engaging with people. He's a very extrovert, gregarious, bubbly kind of guy. He likes to talk. And he's very intelligent."
Born in Salerno, Italy in November 1967, Raiola moved to the Dutch city of Haarlem with his family when he was still a baby. The family opened a pizzeria on the city's Grote Markt, and the young Mino helped out there, washing dishes, waiting tables and ultimately helping to run the business. He says the experience furnished him with the business skills that would one day turn him into football's ultimate deal-maker.
"My family has always worked hard. It was normal that I helped," Raiola told German magazine 11FREUNDE in a 2014 interview (via Business Insider). "I was the oldest son, my Dutch was better than my father's, so I became his consultant, his buyer, his manager. Negotiating and organising, that was my thing. All I can do, I've learned in the restaurant."
While conversing with customers gave Raiola the gift of the gab (he is said to be able to converse in no fewer than seven languages), the time he spent poring over the restaurant's books equipped him with formidable powers of mental arithmetic.
Thijs Slegers, a former football journalist, told Bleacher Report, "From what I've heard from people who've been at the negotiating table with him, he can calculate faster in his head than somebody with a calculator."
Slegers was the man who introduced Raiola to Ibrahimovic after the Swedish striker asked him for help finding a new agent. Slegers, who was working for Dutch football magazine Voetbal International, set up meetings with three prospective agents and accompanied Ibrahimovic, then playing for Ajax, when he met Raiola at a sushi restaurant inside the chic Hotel Okura Amsterdam.
In Ibrahimovic's account of the meeting in his 2011 autobiography I Am Zlatan, he recalls his shock at Raiola's scruffy appearance, likening him to "one of the guys in The Sopranos".
"Mino came in as Mino—he's not a guy who wears flashy clothes or fashionable suits," says Slegers. "Mino said to Zlatan, 'The watch you're wearing, it's pretty expensive, right?' And he said, 'Yeah, yeah, it's pretty expensive.' The second question was, 'How many goals have you scored?' It was around February and Zlatan was having a tough time at Ajax at that moment. He said, 'I've scored six goals.' And Mino said, 'Six goals and you're wearing this watch? You're not worthy of this watch.'
"Ten minutes later, Raiola got a phone call and moved away from the table. Zlatan said to me, 'You can call the other two guys and tell them sorry. This is my man. This is the guy I need.'"
In the two weeks after Ibrahimovic's book was published, Slegers—who now works as a press officer at PSV—was contacted by 15 professional footballers asking to be introduced to Raiola. In an environment where footballers are often surrounded by yes-men, a straight-talker like Raiola is a rare commodity.
"He doesn't say what the player wants to hear; he says what he thinks. I think that's crucial in a player's career," Slegers said. "He knows how to get into the heads of his players and to set free their highest ambitions. And he's prepared to go to war for his clients."
A former youth player and youth coach at HFC Haarlem, Raiola began brokering transfers on behalf of football agency Sports Promotions and worked on the deals that took Dutch players Bryan Roy, Wim Jonk, Dennis Bergkamp and Marciano Vink to Italy in the early 1990s.
Taco van den Velde, another former football journalist, first came across Raiola when he was still on his way up and remembers the suspicion the bold young Dutch-Italian with the Amsterdam accent attracted in the offices of the Eredivisie's leading clubs.
"I think many people were hesitant and didn't know what to make of him," Van den Velde told Bleacher Report. "I remember that he was also involved in a partnership between Udinese and De Graafschap in Holland. At the time it was frowned upon. Why would a team like De Graafschap need an Italian coach and players? But if you look back now, I guess Mino was ahead of his time."
After striking out on his own, Raiola pulled off his first major coup in 1996 when he arranged for Pavel Nedved, star of the Czech Republic's run to the Euro 96 final, to move from Sparta Prague to Lazio. Five years later, Nedved left Lazio for Juventus, where he would win the Ballon d'Or in 2003.
Adding Nedved to his client roster took Raiola into a new dimension, but the blond midfielder's relentless dedication to his craft also changed the way the agent thought about football. Super-fit and ultra-disciplined, Nedved opened Raiola's eyes to the demands of top-level football, giving him the confidence to tell stars like Ibrahimovic to raise their game.
"Nedved shaped his idea of how to be a good footballer and what he wants from his clients," said Kuper. "He measures them against Nedved's commitment and effort and almost always finds them wanting. Then he can say, 'This is what you should be doing.'"
In a sign of the high esteem in which Raiola holds De Ligt, he has said he believes the 20-year-old centre-back has what it takes to approach and "even surpass Nedved" in terms of work rate and mentality.
Squat, bespectacled and invariably dressed in a baggy T-shirt and jeans or shorts, there is nothing particularly glamorous about Raiola, whose studiously shabby appearance belies an estimated personal worth of around $63 million. But by forming tight personal bonds with his players, who he describes as family, and fighting tooth and nail to squeeze every last drop out of the clubs for which they play, he has managed to amass a client list almost without equal in the modern game.
"There are several reasons for his success," says Van den Velde. "Most of all, he is a hard worker. Despite all the money he made, he has the drive to do the best for his players. He is intelligent and knows the market. And his players make a lot of money, which is what attracts other players.
"Many agents are afraid to fight for the player when they are negotiating with a club for the simple reason that they might fall out of favour and will not be able to do business with that club in the future. Mino does not care. His player comes first."
It is that uncompromising focus on earning money for his clients (and, by extension, himself), even if that means forcing through complicated and unpopular transfers, that has set Raiola on a collision course with some of the world's biggest clubs. It is why he became a sworn enemy to men like Ferguson and Guardiola.
And it's why for players like Pogba, Balotelli and De Ligt, he is their most trusted ally.
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