With Wolverhampton Wanderers streaking away at the top of the Championship it’s looking more and more likely that they’ll be lining up in the Premier League next season after a six year absence. Alongside the opportunity to test themselves against the best sides in the country on a weekly basis and the untold riches that the Premier League provides, the Black Country side will also have to contend with increased scrutiny of the club’s relationship with agent Jorge Mendes. But how much influence has Mendes had over the goings on at Wolves, and could the age of the ‘Super Agent’ change the face of the sport as we know it?
“Jorge Mendes is not in charge of the recruitment of this club. He can’t be. It is not within the rules. However, is he a known associate of the owners? Yes he is. He is a friend and he has been for some time. There has never been any secret about that.” The quotes from Laurie Dalrymple, Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Managing Director, last summer were an attempt to clear up the confusion surrounding Portuguese agent Jorge Mendes’ relationship with the club. That they were delivered as Dalrymple sat next to the newly appointed manager Nuno Espirito Santo, a Mendes client, perhaps said more than the words themselves. Santo became the third Mendes representative to join Wolves after the signings of Helder Costa and Ivan Cavaliero last season. Once appointed, the new manager set about increasing that tally to seven, beating off stiff competition to secure the signatures of some of Portugal’s brightest young lights thanks to the ‘association’ between Mendes and the Wolves owners. In an industry that is beginning to creak under the weight of money, suddenly Wolves have found an alternative to ‘buying the league’, but in a sport where it’s impossible to find a level playing field, is this new model in any way fair?
Wolves should be a Premier League club already. That was the plan, anyway, when Fosun International, a Chinese Investment conglomerate, purchased the club from Steve Morgan in 2016 for £45m. Immediately the new owners ditched Kenny Jackett and brought in former Italy goalkeeper Walter Zenga as the man to guide the club to the promised land. Armed with a substantial transfer budget, Zenga set about injecting some continental quality into the squad, and spent £16m bringing in the likes of Jón Daði Böðvarsson, Prince Oniangué and Romain Saïss. The majority of transfers, however, were Portugese players. Wolves broke their transfer record to secure the signature of Ivan Cavaliero from Monaco, while Silvio arrived on a free and loan deals for João Teixeira and Helder Costa were also struck. Three of those players were represented by Jorge Mendes, an agent most famously associated with Cristiano Ronaldo. Coincidentally, Mendes had sold a stake in his Gestifute talent agency to a Fosun subsidiary months before the group completed the takeover of Wolves and now, from out of nowhere, Mendes was in the thick of Wolves recruitment. Things didn’t go to plan on the Zengabus, and after just fourteen matches the Italian was given his marching orders, replaced by the considerably less exotic Paul Lambert. After a brief flirtation with relegation, Lambert lifted Wolves up to 15th, but was shown the door in the summer once it became clear that a higher calibre of manager was available. That an English second division club was able to tempt the manager of one of the biggest clubs in Europe was a peculiarity that seemed to pass many by. Santo guided FC Porto to second place in the Primera Liga last season, and despite the guarantee of Champions League football the opportunity to move to Wolverhampton was clearly one the former Valencia manager couldn’t refuse. Though the move was undoubtedly engineered by Mendes, and Wolves director Jeff Shi admitted to being a long time fan of Santo after meeting the manager before Fosun’s takeover, there is a subtext to the appointment away from the power of agents. The promise of riches in English football is no secret and, for Santo, Wolves now clearly represent the kind of challenge that is not only financially beneficial, but could, in the long run, prove to be professionally enriching. With Fosun’s investment behind him, Santo clearly sees the opportunity to install Wolverhampton Wanderers as a major player in the Premier League, and with all the money competing in England’s top tier brings, the chance to embark on a long term project without the constraints he would be under in Portugal is clearly attractive. Despite Porto having won the Champions’ League this century, the financial landscape in Portugal leaves the top clubs relying on player sales to remain competitive in Europe. Thanks to Fosun, Wolves won’t be faced with that dilemma.
Even with a long-term vision in place, what happened next was more than a little bizarre, and offered the strongest indication yet that Mendes is pulling the strings behind the scenes at Molineux. Though Wolves were expected to delve back into the pool of young Portuguese talent for the majority of their summer business, it was still a shock to many when Ruben Neves was signed from Porto for a fee of around £16m. The transfer not only blew Wolves’ previous record fee out of the water, but also represented a shift in power when it comes to player sales. Neves, a 20-year old deep-lying playmaker, had been on the radar of Europe’s top clubs for the past couple of seasons, having broken into the Porto first team at the age of 17 and been capped by Portugal a year later. Leading up to his move to the West Midlands, it had been expected that a bidding war between Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea would ensue for the youngster’s signature, but the advice of his agent swung the deal. Neves joined fellow summer signing Roderick Miranda, who had played under Santo at Rio Ave, alongside the loan signing of Diogo Jota from Atletico Madrid. All three Portuguese, and all three represented by Mendes. Unsurprisingly, with an array of talent at their disposal that wouldn’t look out of place in the Premier League, Wolves have steamed through teams like a juggernaut this season, and are odds on to win the Championship at a canter. Between them, Mendes’ clients have accounted for almost half of Wolves league goals, while Nuno Santo’s commitment to expressive, attacking football has given the Molineux faithful one of the most entertaining seasons they’ve seen in years. So Wolves are successful, Fosun are looking at a return on their investment, and Mendes and his clients are being rewarded handsomely. What’s the problem?
Well, the main concern is that agents may soon become the most powerful figures in football, taking the game even further away from the roots and tradition that have seen a generation of supporters become apathetic towards it. Mendes’ relationship with Wolves has certainly raised questions, particularly when the FA rulebook states that intermediary organisations “shall not have an interest in a club” and that a club “shall not have any interest in the business affairs of an intermediary’s organisation”. Fosun’s stake in Mendes’ agency seems a pretty clear contravention to that. There’s also a school of thought that suggests Mendes is using Wolves to showcase his clients in the hope of securing more lucrative moves to the sides at the top end of the Premier League. Undoubtedly that could offer some serious remuneration for Mendes, but while it could seriously harm Wolves in the long-term (though buying-to-sell has been a preferred strategy for many Premier League clubs), in the short-term everyone is a winner. And if this is the case, Mendes is hardly breaking the mould of the agent. The real worry is that Mendes and his contemporaries may soon become the kingpins of the industry, with the success and, in some cases, future of football clubs being laid at the mercy to super-agents. If an agent is able to sign the best players up for representation, then it falls to clubs to create beneficial relationships with those agents in order to secure the talent. History, success, and even to an extent financial heft could soon have little sway over a player’s chosen destination.
This is hardly a new development, and arguably the rise of the super agent in football began with Pini Zahavi. The Israeli former journalist struck his first deal in 1979, bringing countryman Avi Cohen to Liverpool from Maccabi Tel Aviv for £200,000. After establishing a relationship with Alex Ferguson and Manchester United and brokering deals for Jaap Stam, Rio Ferdinand and Juan Sebastian Veron, Zahavi became a key part of Roman Abramovich’s takeover of Chelsea. Once completed, Zahavi was the go-to agent for Chelsea, and reportedly banked £5m from transfers arranged during Abramovich’s first summer at the helm. It was during this period that the Israeli set the gold standard for football agents, and it’s a torch that continues to be carried. More recently, a host of football agents have stepped up to the mantle. Mino Raoila is perhaps the most recognisable football agent in the world at the moment, thanks in no small part to his portfolio of clients being some of the most marketable names in the game. The Dutchman made his name as an agent brokering deals for Frank Rijkaard and Dennis Bergkamp in the 90s, but latterly has been a major player in Manchester United’s transfer business. In 2016, three of Raiola’s clients moved to Old Trafford, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba joining Jose Mourinho in the North West. Twelve months later, Romelu Lukaku’s move to Manchester was arranged by Raiola, and he was also influential in the deal that brought Alexis Sanchez to the club. While his role is by no means advisory – in fact he has the knack of rubbing people up the wrong way, particularly Sir Alex Ferguson, who described him as “a twat” – he’s clearly on the speed dial of United’s recruitment department. Kia Joorabchian is also staking a claim to become part of the new school of super agents, having arranged the deal that saw Philippe Coutinho join Barcelona from Liverpool for £142m. Joorabchian first rose to prominence after the bizarre saga that saw Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano join West Ham, transfers that subsequently saw the Hammers fined by the FA for breaching third-party ownership rules, with the two Argentines’ registrations belonging to Joorabchian’s Media Sports Investment Group. Though he doesn’t possess the same vast client portfolio at Mendes and Raoila, Joorabchian is certainly likely to become a familiar name in transfer dealings in the future.
There’s a sense that Jorge Mendes and Wolves’ story is just beginning. If their relationship is allowed to continue uninhibited, it could represent a marked change in the way football clubs become successful, but the more the game is played away from the pitch, the less the fans feel connected to those on it. Perhaps Wolves fans should be careful what they wish for.