Modern-day football us about much more than just the 90 minutes played on the pitch. The intricate complexities of the game transcend the playing surface, forming a web spun by managers, directors and owners in the pursuit of sporting and financial success. It is becoming increasingly obvious, however, that there is a power above them all.
In a transfer window dominated by money, squabbles over agent fees have the power to push or retract an eventual move. Agents have their own hierarchy in the football world, but while there are normal agents, a select few are in a league of their own. Jorge Mendes is the Arachne of the footballing world, spinning his webs across Europe and beyond for the past decade and in the process assuming the mantle of super-agent.
Born in Lisbon in January 1966, Mendes was brought up in modest surroundings, living in a housing development meant for employees of Petrogal where his father worked. As his father toiled, his mother wove straw hats and baskets at home, which Mendes would then sell at the Fonte da Telha beach at weekends.
From a young age, he was already a businessman, selling old clothes at flea markets. He played football at the local Petrogal pitch near his apartment with his friends, just like any normal enthusiastic child. Once he worked in a Cornetto factory, where his job was to hold the cone and ensure the ice cream did not fall on the floor. While a source of amusement for the young Mendes at the time, it serves as a metaphor for his eventual career, as he did his best to ensure his young players did not fall head-first to the ground.
Known by his modest nickname Cabanas, Mendes left the outskirts of Lisbon when he was 20 to be with his brother, whose wife had died. Just past the cusp of adulthood, he moved to Viana do Castelo with modest dreams of playing for a lower-league side, Vianense, and making it as a semi-professional footballer.
Playing in the same position on the left wing as his most famous client, Mendes retained his eye for an opportunity and jumped at the chance to open a video store in a deserted shopping mall. This business decision seemed questionable at first glance, but it was a small break for him, the first rung on a slowly growing career ladder. It was one of the ideas that changed the course of his career, even if he didn’t know it at the time.
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He eventually moved to open a beach bar, and then graduated to nightclubs, the scene of the moment his career truly took off. He often mixed music as a DJ too, and it was there where he often met professional players from Braga, Porto and Vitória Guimarães. His portfolio of football contacts was slowly building, even as he continued to toil in the game itself.
When agreeing to play for Lanheses, Mendes still managed to spin an off-field opportunity out of it. He took on the job of managing the advertising at the stadium, something that benefitted the club with extra revenue, as well as Mendes, who naturally took a cut out of the money. But as a 2012 profile in Correio da Manha noted, Mendes had “more soul than talent”. He was a jack of all trades, and a pretty decent one at that, but he had to find his niche sometime soon.
He ran a nightclub in the Caminha district, near the Spanish border, which went by the name of Luz do Mar. And it was this nightclub that set Mendes on an unlikely path to fortune. In 1996, he met Nuno Espírito Santo, a goalkeeper at Vitória with dreams of making it higher in the football world, just like Mendes once had. A rapport was built, developing to an eventual long-term friendship. That was the basis for Nuno asking Mendes to act as his agent when the goalkeeper was getting ready to negotiate a move to Deportivo. This was a decision based more on trust and intuition than his experience, which was non-existent at the time.
Mendes though took the opportunity with both hands, as well as the steering wheel, driving the 300 miles to speak to the club president, Augusto Lendoiro. He persisted every day with no idea of how to go about it, but his efforts eventually paid off, and the Spanish club signed Nuno. That was his first deal as a football agent.
Lendoiro was left convinced by his effort and charisma. “The emotion he puts into things, the way he transmits them, it makes it very difficult to say no to something he proposes.” For Nuno, he had placed all his trust in his agent’s hands, and it is no wonder why all four of his managerial jobs – Rio Ave, Valencia, Porto and Wolverhampton – have come courtesy of Mendes. If Mendes kickstarted Nuno’s career, the reverse was true too.
That deal encouraged Mendes to take over his homeland. Costinha, Jorge Andrade and Deco – all Mendes clients – made their moves, but he was still not the main Portuguese agent in the market. He eventually took advantage of a fall-out between Porto president Pinto da Costa and José Veiga, his rival; according to Record, Mendes and Veiga once even had a physical fight on board a flight.
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In the summer of 2002, Mendes made his first inroads in England, taking Hugo Viana to Newcastle for €12 million with help from a third party, Paul Stretford’s company Proactive Sports Management. Later that September, Maria Dolores Aveiro, the mother of a certain Cristiano Ronaldo, ended their association with Veiga and moved on to Mendes. The changing of the guard had taken place, in many ways. It was a defining switch.
Manchester United’s signing of the future Portugal skipper was one that stirred controversy in some parts but had the makings of a typical Mendes deal. Having forged a bond with the 17-year-old soon-to-be superstar, his young client was set to make the next move from his formative club, Sporting CP. But the teenager was by no means an unknown out of the country, and in fact was set to sign for Arsenal, but by the time United played Sporting in that famous friendly where Ronaldo mesmerised Sir Alex Ferguson, there was already a deal in place for £12 million more than the £5 million Arsenal had bid.
Mendes developed a close relationship with United’s then-CEO David Gill, along with his connections with assistant manager Carlos Queiroz. That agent’s fees were the decider in his transfer to United was no surprise. Mendes was reportedly paid £1.2 million for that deal, and another £8 million when Ronaldo moved to Real Madrid. Despite a lack of transparency, even at that time, the power Mendes was exerting was steadily increasing. But the bottom line remained: he got the best deal for his client – and for himself – by getting him a big move, in a further vindication of his skills in the market.
The Jorge Mendes web has now been spun all over Europe, but there are some clubs over whom his influence has been rubber-stamped. An infographic went around social media in the summer detailing every Mendes-influenced transfer between a set of clubs, and the webs are almost innumerable. Those clubs include the Portuguese trio of Benfica, Braga and Rio Ave, as well as Deportivo, Valencia, Atlético Madrid and Monaco. It is through this set of clubs that his stable of clients rotate via an assortment of loans and transfers.
Wolverhampton Wanderers complete the set, and his new-found influence there could be a signal of a long-term project to spread his influence in England. Despite plenty of his clients plying their trade for England’s top teams, he has been unable to establish his influence on any one particular top-tier club.
At Wolves, though, there lies an opportunity to expand his burgeoning stable. The club have denied the fact that Mendes has garnered an overbearing shadow at the club, but the evidence points to the contrary. The Fosun conglomerate that purchased the club in the summer of 2016 has a business partnership, as well as a strong friendship, with Mendes. That forms the basis of his advice in terms of recruitment.
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In 2016, they brought in Azevedo Silvio (Atlético Madrid), Ivan Cavaleiro (Monaco), Hélder Costa and João Teixeira (both Benfica) – all from Mendes strongholds. Their business was underwhelming other than the impressive Costa, and Wolves stuttered to a 15th-place finish in the league. But that was no deterrent to the owners, despite rumours of discontent from the management over the increasing influence of Mendes with recruitment.
In summer 2017, that was taken to new heights, with Roderick Miranda arriving from Rio Ave, Willy Boly from Porto, Rúben Vinagre from Monaco and a trio of Portuguese youths. But what really stood out – through a mixture of bewilderment and shock – was the permanent deal for starlet Rúben Neves, who has drifted in recent years but remains a serious talent, and the loan for Diogo Jota. They possess the quality to play in bigger leagues, which is why their reason to move to England’s second tier remains dubious.
His work at Wolves is a wider indictment of his favoured method when working with clubs. Rather than expediting the move of a single player, he’ll provide a host of players to a coach that he more often than not also represents. It was that strategy that helped Braga’s president António Salvador fulfil a desire to make the club more well-known, a target eventually achieved thanks to Mendes’ help.
Numerous clubs have used this method throughout the 2000s, including Dinamo Moscow, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, Fenerbahçe, Galatasaray and Beşiktaş. This poses the danger of backfiring, but that is the risk of working with Mendes.
At Chelsea, his relations with Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon helped pave the way for José Mourinho’s signing, as well as Ricardo Carvalho, Paulo Ferreira, José Bosingwa and Deco. Mendes claims to have been responsible for 68 percent of all player transactions in the 2000s between Portugal’s big three; a seemingly outlandish claim, if only for its magnitude. He establishes his connections shrewdly, often bringing in owners such as Peter Lim at Valencia and Dmitry Rybolovyev at Monaco, then working his magic. The Mendes DNA is all over Europe.
GestiFute, Mendes’ company, has been involved in controversies over the years, especially given FIFA’s clampdown on third-party agreements. Involved in several conflicts of interest acting as owner and agent, it is why Mendes may have taken advantage of loopholes in order to gain an advantage. He has also been accused of poaching players from other agents – Nani from Ana Almeida, for example, and Bebé from Gonçalo Reis. But leaving controversies aside, there is no doubt that Mendes is master of the market. After all, any agent who can convince Sir Alex to sign a player without watching him has to be a genius.
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Mendes has had several involvements in major deals in the past decade, including Radamel Falcao, Ángel Di María and James Rodríguez, to name just three, and with the superclubs in the game. But despite all the razzmatazz, the family-orientated character of Mendes has been oft-spoken by his clients and friends for a long time.
Ronaldo has waxed lyrical on many an occasion, claiming his greatest virtues were his “honesty, sincerity and professionalism”. People listen to Mendes’ advice, and clamour to do deals with him. The larger-than-life personality he has inadvertently created for himself casts a shadow on the sport, and yet there is no sign of arrogance. He remains humble, something evident from the glowing statements of those he knows and works with.
For some, Mendes has an ethereal effect, a sentiment literally reflected by Diego Costa at the start of his career. When playing for Barcelona Esportivo Capela, he was in the middle of a lengthy ban for violent conduct. “One day, a man who worked for Mendes came to see me,” he told El País. “I don’t know why I was allowed to play that day. I don’t know if it was him or God, but I played.”
Mendes may not be God, but he is a saviour to most, and that game was the launchpad for Costa’s career in a Brazilian village. Offering him a contract with Braga, he then moved to Atlético Madrid and subsequently Chelsea – all Mendes strongholds. Trusting him with every deal, it is a sign of the esteem players hold Mendes in.
His life motto might as well be ‘Veni, Vidi, Vici’, for he has come, seen and then conquered numerous markets across Europe. In his own words, he has had to struggle against the tide to make the top, but now that he sails the seas in a swanky yacht, one question beckons: what next?
For a man who has it all in the sport, he may choose to become a club president at some point, but given he is virtually one already, that may not be feasible. Mendes has all of the luxuries and none of the discomforts as he bosses over football. He is truly the man with the Midas touch, a man who represents the idea of the American Dream in the sport. It’s been a long ride to the top, but this is now Jorge Mendes’ world, and, like it or not, we live in it.
By Rahul Warrier @rahulw_