Illustration: Sammy Moody

One day in Amsterdam in 2004, Zlatan Ibrahimović strapped on his gold watch, put on his Gucci leather jacket and drove his Porsche right up to the entrance of the five-star Okura Hotel. A frustrated young striker at Ajax, he was looking for a new agent, and had called Thijs Slegers, a journalist friend, for advice. Slegers had mentioned a guy named Mino Raiola, but with hesitation. 

“Why?” Zlatan had replied. 

“He’s a mafioso,” said Slegers. 

“Mafioso sounds good,” said Zlatan. 

The name rang a bell, for Raiola represented Maxwell, a teammate and friend of Zlatan at Ajax. The mafioso part might have been based on Italian stereotype. Born in Salerno, Raiola had moved with his family to the Dutch city of Haarlem in 1968, when he was one year old. There his father had opened a pizzeria, where Raiola worked. Exactly how Raiola had gone from waiting tables to representing footballers was still unknown to Zlatan. What Zlatan did know was that Raiola had contacts at the biggest clubs in Europe, that he was working with Pavel Nedvěd, and that people said he would do anything to get things his way. 

“All of which sounded good,” Zlatan wrote. “I didn’t want a nice guy.”

Zlatan walked inside the Okura Hotel and sat down in a sushi restaurant, where they had agreed to meet. As he waited, he envisaged a guy strolling through the door in a pinstripe suit. “But what did I see turn up?” Zlatan wrote. “A guy in jeans, a Nike T-shirt and with a stomach like one of the guys in the Sopranos.” 

Raiola, Zlatan realised, did not dress like a mafioso. He didn’t work like one. He wasn’t one. But he could act like one. As they began to talk, Raiola ditched the sushi and ordered pasta—enough to feed five people—which he wolfed down. Then Raiola pulled out four A4 sheets and showed them to Zlatan. 

Christian Vieri, 27 games, 24 goals
Filippo Inzaghi, 25 games, 20 goals
David Trezeguet, 24 games, 20 goals
Zlatan Ibrahimović, 25 games, 5 goals

“Do you think I’ll be able to sell you with stats like that?” Raiola said. 

Zlatan was taken aback. Raiola was right: those stats weren’t good. But Zlatan was… Zlatan. Nobody talked to him like that. 

Zlatan gathered his thoughts. “Had I scored twenty goals,” he countered, “even my mother could have sold me.” 

Raiola went quiet. But only for a bit. He highlighted the gold watch, the Gucci jacket, the Porsche—and told Zlatan he didn’t give a damn about it. Did Zlatan really want to be the world’s best? “Of course,” Zlatan replied. Then focus on the football, Raiola said, and the rest will come. 

Zlatan said he’d think about it. But when he got in the car, a buzz hit him. He called Raiola. 

“Listen,” Zlatan said. “I don’t want to wait. I want to begin working with you right away.”

A pause ensued. 

“All right,” Raiola said. “But if you’re going to work with me, you must do what I say.”

“Sure, absolutely.” 

“Sell your cars and your watches, and start training three times as hard. Because your stats are trash.”

Zlatan thought about it. “I should have told him to go to hell,” he wrote. But he knew Raiola was right. And so Zlatan did as Raiola said. He gave up his Porsche Turbo for a Fiat Stilo. He shelved his gold watch for a Nike one. He replaced the Gucci leather jacket with training gear. “I trained like a madman,” Zlatan wrote. Whenever he felt like letting up, Raiola was on him. 

“You’re not the best,” Raiola would say. “You’re a piece of crap. You’re nothing. You have to work harder.”

“Go f*** yourself,” said Zlatan. 

“F*** you,” said Raiola. 

Soon Zlatan was telling himself that he wasn’t working hard enough. But in August that year, he hit a wall. Doubt had surrounded his future, and at the Euros he had missed a spot kick as Sweden lost on penalties to the Netherlands in the quarter-finals. Now Zlatan was taken off in a game against Utrecht, and kicked an advertising board. After the game he called Raiola and poured out his anger. But Raiola told him he had been terrible. They began to shout at each other. Zlatan hung up and drove home. 

When he came to his house, he saw a man standing outside his door. It was Raiola. Zlatan had not even climbed out of his car when they began to shout again. 

“I want out of here,” Zlatan said amid the arguing. 

“Guess you’ll just have to move to Turin then,” Raiola said. 

“What are you talking about?” 

Raiola, it turned out, was talking about Juventus. On his journey from waiter to agent, Raiola had learned some things. And he had gotten to know Luciano Moggi. 

Mino Raiola never actually baked pizza, but he did other stuff. “When I was eleven or twelve, I went to work with my dad to get to know him,” he told the Financial Times. His father worked up to twenty hours a day. “He was in the kitchen, so what could I do? I could wash up. I still like washing up. It gives me a sort of peace to clean things, to see the instant result of your work.”

As he grew older, Raiola waited tables and manned the bar. He became attuned to the needs of other people—not just what toppings they wanted, but if they were happy or sad. If a regular was getting divorced, Raiola would hear him out. “That restaurant was a social university,” he’d tell SportExpressen. Since Raiola spoke better Dutch than his father did, he began taking on business negotiations. Some regulars who worked as traders told him they were having trouble with Italian providers; the goods they had ordered would not arrive. Could Raiola help out? Raiola, who spoke Italian, put in a call and resolved the issue. Spotting a new market, he set up his own company, Intermezzo, to help Dutch people do business in Italy. 

Another habitué at the pizzeria was the president of HFC Haarlem, a club for whom Raiola had played in his teens. “I always told him he knew nothing about football,” Raiola told Secolo XIX. “One day he told me, ‘Listen, you try it then.’” In his early twenties, Raiola became the sporting director. But Haarlem lacked the money to sign the players he wanted, and he resigned. 

Yet Raiola liked working in football. He had dropped out of a law degree—that wasn’t for him. He had bought a McDonald’s and sold it to a property developer for millions, so he had money. Now he wanted to follow his passion. He spotted a legal loophole that enabled him to sell Dutch players to Italian clubs on the cheap. In the early 1990s, Raiola helped cut deals for a series of Ajax players, such as Dennis Bergkamp (to Inter), Wim Jonk (Inter) and Bryan Roy (Foggia). In Foggia, Raiola stayed with Roy for seven months and helped paint his house. There Raiola met his future wife and befriended the Foggia coach, Zdeněk Zeman. Raiola began to learn who ran clubs in Italy, and was unimpressed. “It’s a closed world, with gigantic potential, and a huge turnover of money,” Raiola told the FT. “But often managed by people of whom I think, ‘What the f***?’”

One of the executives Raiola encountered was Luciano Moggi, then a technical director at Torino. They were scheduled to meet at 11am. Raiola showed up at Moggi’s office at 10.45am. There he was ushered into a room where twenty-five people were also waiting for Moggi. Raiola left. Later that day he ran into Moggi at a restaurant. Raiola told the FT that their conversation went something like this:

“Are you Mr Moggi?” 

“Yes.”

“I find it very rude that you made me wait.”

“Who are you?”

“I am Raiola.”

“Ah, you’re Raiola. If you’re this unpleasant to me, you will never sell a player in Italy.”

But in the mid-1990s Raiola found Pavel Nedvěd, who played for Sparta Prague. In 1996, after the Czechs had reached the final of the Euros, Raiola sold Nedvěd to Lazio, now coached by Zeman. Raiola had never met a player who worked so hard, and considered Nedvěd a role model for his other clients. In 2000, Nedvěd helped Lazio win the scudetto. A year later, Moggi, now at Juventus, wanted to sign Nedvěd. 

Raiola was planning to sell him to Real Madrid. But he agreed to meet Moggi in Turin, just to hear what he had to say. What Raiola did not expect was that Moggi would invite a horde of journalists and photographers to the rendezvous. Once news of the event hit the papers, everyone expected Nedvěd to join Juve, and so he did. Juve won the next two league titles, and Nedvěd earned the Ballon d’Or in 2003. All of which meant that a year later, when Zlatan wanted out of Ajax, Raiola was on good terms with Moggi. 

Raiola and Zlatan were set to meet Moggi in a VIP-room at the airport near Monaco. This, however, was at the same time as the Monaco Grand Prix, and their car got stuck in traffic. Raiola and Zlatan had to sprint to the meeting. When they arrived, Raiola was drenched in sweat. He was wearing a Nike T-shirt, trainers without socks, and Hawaiian beach shorts. They entered a room filled with smoke, where Moggi sat chewing on a fat cigar. 

“What the hell are you wearing,” said Moggi. 

“Are we here to talk about my appearance or what?” said Raiola. 

Everybody wanted a deal. But as August drew to a close, talks ground to a halt. Moggi suddenly said that Zlatan and Trezeguet couldn’t play together. Infuriated, Raiola invited Moggi and Fabio Capello to dinner, where he put the argument to Capello. Capello replied that of course the two could play together, leaving Moggi with little to say. 

Right before the transfer window closed, however, the deal was still not done. Juventus were haggling with Ajax. With the clock ticking fast, Raiola and Zlatan flew to the offices of the Italian Football Federation, in Milan, where transfers are registered. There Moggi was trying to bring the price down, while Raiola had the Ajax board on the line. Ajax did not want to confirm the deal because Juve did not offer a bank guarantee. Now Raiola was screaming threats at Ajax. “If you don’t sign, you won’t get €16m,” he said. “You won’t get Zlatan. You won’t get nothing. Get it? Nothing!” Yet Ajax did not budge. The tension hung in the air.

At that point Raiola found a football and began doing keepy-uppies. Zlatan couldn’t believe it. The ball was flying around, hitting Moggi on the head. Just as the whole deal was about to fall apart, Raiola appeared to have decided to become a street artist. 

“It was crazy,” Zlatan wrote. “What was he doing?”

Yet somehow, at the last minute, Ajax signed the papers. Zlatan was going to Juventus. And Raiola had his deal. 

Today Raiola rivals Jorge Mendes as the top agent in football. Last year Forbes put Raiola fifth among all agents in sport. He represents Zlatan, Paul Pogba, Marco Verratti, Mario Balotelli, Blaise Matuidi, Gianluigi Donnarumma, and others. Though based in Monaco, Raiola spends most of his time flying around Europe to meet players and directors. He speaks Italian, Dutch, English, French, German, Spanish and Portuguese. He does a lot of business in Italy and the Netherlands, but not in Germany, where the directors are, he believes, unprofessional. “This is shown by the fact that some of them ask ‘Mino who?’ when I call,” Raiola told 11 Freunde. “With all due respect: a sports director who doesn’t know Mino Raiola, should be looking for another job.”

Raiola claims he never approaches players; they approach him. When he meets a potential client, he sets out his plans. “And then it has to click,” Raiola told 11 Freunde. “The chemistry has to be right, otherwise it makes no sense.” 

In 2015 he met Lukaku and his father in Brussels. Lukaku had just moved to Everton, a club Raiola said he would not be playing for had they met a year earlier. Raiola then assessed Lukaku. “He said stuff to me that no one would say,” Lukaku told The Guardian. “Mean things like, ‘You play like a woman, you play like a girl who has never played the game before. You are too timid.’ Then he would take examples of Zlatan and Bergkamp, all those players, and say, ‘You want to aim for the top? Well, you are not playing like a top player.’

“I love Mino, I love his character. He is not a big talker, more like a brother and a friend. We rarely speak about football, and that is nice, but when I am not doing well, the phone will ring…”

What enables Raiola to make such calls is that he handles his clients in person. Whereas Mendes relies on a global network of scouts and advisors, Raiola works alone. During interviews Raiola will interrupt journalists to answer the phone. Some players call twice a month, others twice a day. Some need a jolt, others sympathy. Some want advice about their game, others about investments or personal issues. “To him they are like family,” Slegers told The Guardian. “And that’s why he’s the perfect negotiator, because you always want to do the best for your family. He has a good sense of humour and he likes to be provocative, but in a way that is quite funny. Some people think he is cocky and, if you don’t know him and maybe you just see his quotations, you can think he is crazy. But he is not. He stands up for his players.”

Players respond to Raiola because he cares only about them. Raiola will court, criticise and browbeat anyone—coaches, directors, journalists—if it is for the best of his players. He seems to fear nobody. When Zlatan entered talks about a new contract at Juve, Raiola walked into Moggi’s office, sat down in his chair and put his feet on his desk. Moggi came in with his cigar. 

“What the hell, are you sitting in my seat?” Moggi said. 

“Sit down so that we can begin talking,” Raiola replied. 

Another who has struggled with Raiola is Sir Alex Ferguson. When Raiola had begun to work with Pogba, a teenager in the Manchester United reserves, he had told him he was underpaid. Pogba and Raiola met Ferguson to say they would not sign a new contract unless he got a raise. 

“This is an offer that my chihuahuas don’t sign,” Raiola told Ferguson. 

“What do you think he needs to earn?” Ferguson said. 

“Not that,” Raiola said. 

Raiola took Pogba out of United, gave him to Juventus, and sold him back to United four years later for €105m, of which €27m reportedly went into his own pocket. Ferguson later wrote that he distrusted Raiola “from the moment I met him”. For his part Raiola would reflect on the rumour that Ferguson had never hated anyone but him. “It’s a great compliment,” Raiola told GQ Italia. “If you have no enemies, you have not done your work well.”

There is a rumour that Raiola takes ten percent of each transfer that involves his players, but Raiola told 11 Freunde that the size can vary. He might take fifty percent, or nothing at all. When Raiola pushes a deal, it’s usually for a strategic reason. The player might be undervalued (Pogba). The player might want to join a bigger club (Zlatan). Or Raiola might have anticipated that the club is about to sink. In 2017, for instance, Raiola warned Donnarumma against extending his contract at AC Milan because he did not trust the directors. 

Such predictions can force a player to change clubs against his will. In 2012, Raiola arranged for Zlatan to leave Milan. Zlatan didn’t want to, but Raiola foresaw that the Italian football economy would decline, and thought Milan would soon be unable to pay his wages. On the other hand, Paris Saint-Germain had been bought by Qatar. The wage demands Zlatan gave to PSG were so big that Zlatan himself thought they would never agree. After twenty minutes, they had. Zlatan left and earned a fortune. Milan have not been in the title race since. 

Raiola does not always manage to convince his players. When Pogba left United, Raiola tried to dissuade him from joining Juve because he felt they rarely played youngsters. Pogba joined anyway because he wanted the biggest challenge. In the case of Balotelli, Raiola has often decided his next club, but not always managed to get him to stay put. Raiola says the biggest mistake he has made with Balotelli was to let him leave Manchester City in 2013. “Mario was unhappy,” Raiola told The Daily Mail. “I should have said. ‘You’re feeling s***? You don’t like your job? Tough, grow up, get on with it.’ I needed to be cruel to be kind, but I was too nice.”

That wasn’t the last time Balotelli defied Raiola. When Balotelli wanted to go to Nice in 2016, he and Raiola were about to meet the club president, Jean-Pierre Rivère. But Balotelli was late, and so Raiola set out to explain to Rivère why he should not sign him. When Balotelli turned up, Raiola told him: “Everything bad I had to say about you to the president, I have said.” Nice signed Balotelli anyway. 

Balotelli has not turned out as Raiola had hoped, nor has Lukaku, who left him last year. But Raiola is stocking up on new talent. He represents several Dutch youngsters, one being Justin Kluivert. Still, the jewel in the crown remains Zlatan. Raiola has said that he sees Zlatan as the player he himself would have been, had he had an athletic body, and he seems to dread the day Zlatan hangs up his boots. When Zlatan was rumoured to retire, in 2016, Raiola told Radio Monte Carlo that he’d lock him up in a cell until he changed his mind. “If he retires,” Raiola said, “it would be like somebody stealing the Mona Lisa.”

When Raiola met Zlatan at the Okura Hotel, he used Nedvěd as a reference point. When Raiola meets young players now, he uses Zlatan. Two years ago Raiola told SportExpressen that their relationship would outlast Zlatan’s playing career, even if it still got turbulent at times. “We can fight,” Raiola said. “If we don’t fight, we’re no longer friends.”

“I obviously made him,” Raiola continued. “I say that now so that he hears it in Sweden. He will of course say that he made me. Perhaps the truth is that we made each other.”

“What’s the best advice you have given Zlatan?” the journalist asked. 

“To listen to me,” Raiola said.