With Pini Zahavi now 74 and Jorge Mendes’s stable out of favour with PSG and Real Madrid, the race is on to be king of an astronomical market
What do a former nightclub DJ, a pizza restaurant waiter, a banker, an advertising student and the son of a car salesman from north London have in common? Rather than being the start of a bad joke, Jorge Mendes, Mino Raiola, Jonathan Barnett, Fernando Felicevich and Kia Joorabchian have emerged from their varied backgrounds to become five of the most powerful “super agents” in modern football.
In total, they are estimated to have received more than £200m from fees and commissions in the past 12 months, with a group of players under their control worth more than £2bn. And rising.
Uefa’s wide-ranging club licensing benchmarking report last week found that from 2,000 deals reviewed between 2014 and 2017, agents’ fees averaged 12.6% of the transfer fee with that figure continuing to increase as Mr 10% has increasingly become Mr Name Your Price. Last year, leaked documents revealed that Raiola, who grew up waiting tables at his family’s pizza restaurant in the Dutch city of Haarlem, earned £42m from Paul Pogba’s then world‑record £89m move to Manchester United – almost 50%. United are also thought to have shelled out up to £15m to Felicevich – an Argentinian whose first love is rugby and who gained a master’s degree in advertising after studying in Paris – to sign Alexis Sánchez from Arsenal, with Raiola’s client Henrikh Mkhitaryan going in the other direction.
Pippo Russo, a sociologist at the University of Florence who specialises in the business of football, says: “The amount of money that is going to agents is increasing and this is a reflection of the financial resources now in the game. In my opinion, the super agents are the people who are most responsible for this madness. They are no longer intermediaries for clubs but are in a sort of joint venture with them – they are not brokers and are actually part of the deal. But the clubs don’t really want to stop this – to spend a great bulk of money on their services is for some reason convenient for them as well.”
The Football Association’s latest figures published in April showed the Premier League spent a combined £220m on agents’ fees between February 2016 and the end of January 2017 – a 38% rise on the previous year. That is expected to increase by an even greater proportion when the new figures are published as further evidence of the soaring costs of the transfer market.
But while some emerging superstars such as Kylian Mbappé and Paulo Dybala – who has recently left another Argentinian agent, Pierpaolo Triulzi, and enlisted his own brother instead – are following the examples of Neymar and Lionel Messi by turning to family members, super agents are still largely dominating the market.
Transfermarkt, a website based in Germany which collects data from the majority of clubs on the planet, estimates that Gestifute – the agency owned by the Portuguese Jorge Mendes and that boasts Cristiano Ronaldo and José Mourinho on its books – is the most valuable, with a portfolio of players worth nearly £700m. Next up is Stellar Football Ltd, established by Barnett and his partner, David Manasseh, in 1992 and now with more than 200 clients around the world, including Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale. Raiola is just behind in third, with Unique Sports Management – another English company, which is gaining ground quickly on its competitors – fourth, thanks to its association with Harry Kane.
There is, however, no sign of Joorabchian’s Sports Invest UK Ltd – the company established in 2006 by the boyhood Arsenal supporter who attended Shiplake college, a boarding school near Henley in Oxfordshire. Together with his Brazilian associate Giuliano Bertolucci’s Euro Export Assessoria e Propaganda Ltda, Joorabchian oversaw the £142m deal that took Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona this month – the second most expensive transfer of all time – but has been a controversial figure since his role in the transfers of Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano to West Ham in 2006, when the club were fined £5.5m by the Premier League for entering into illegal third-party contracts.
Pini Zahavi, a former journalist whose first deal was to broker Avi Cohen’s transfer from Maccabi Tel Aviv to Liverpool in 1978, was also involved in that deal and Russo believes it is the Israeli who remains the real power behind Joorabchian and a series of other associates strategically placed across the globe, including the Macedonian Fali Ramadani, who owns the Germany‑based agency Lian Sports.
“Zahavi is always there,” Russo says. “He has a broad network throughout football and is really skilled in maintaining a strong relationship with everyone. This makes him an eternal agent who is involved in so many different deals. For instance, he was one of the key people in the deal that took Neymar to Paris and he has a lot of alliances – he’s a friend of Mendes, he’s never had a struggle with Raiola. In my opinion, he is the agent with the highest political sensibilities.”
In a cut-throat market that has often been described as resembling the wild west, where each client is potentially worth millions of pounds, that kind of diplomacy is a key asset. Accusations made at the end of 2016 against several of Mendes’s key clients in the Football Leaks scandal – which alleged Mourinho and Ronaldo had used tax havens to handle tens of millions of euros in earnings – have, Russo believes, harmed his standing.
“This has done great damage to his image,” he says. “Until a few months ago I would have said Mendes was the most powerful man in football but in perspective of continuity, you can say Zahavi is the man who had dominated for longest.”
But with Zahavi now 74 and Mendes’s ageing stable increasingly out of favour with several major clubs, including Paris Saint‑Germain and Real Madrid, the race is on to emerge as the new force in an expanding market. Those who already work closely with the biggest spenders, as Raiola does at United or Zahavi has at Chelsea in the past, are the most likely to emerge victorious in football’s own game of thrones.
Matias Lipman, who works as an intermediary for South American players, says: “Sometimes there can be several people involved in a deal and that is why the costs have become so high. But you always have to remember that the player is the most important part – if he sees that another agent can help him get a better contract, then he will leave. It’s a fair market where the more intelligent wins over the weaker ones – that’s just business.”