Yaya Touré calls him Papushka, which means Daddy in Russian. Dimitry Seluk, Toure’s eccentric, extravagant and colourful Russian agent, seems to be proud of that fact and calls Yaya his ‘kid’.
The two men met nearly 17 years ago when Yaya was about to move from Belgian side Beveren to Metalurh Donetsk, the now-dissolved Ukrainian club that went bankrupt in the midst of the war in Donbass. Seluk, then 40 years old, was there to help.
Over the following years, Seluk saw Yaya win the Champions League with Barcelona, clinch two Premier League titles with Manchester City as well as four consecutive African Player of the Year awards. In 2016, Seluk was also the man behind the infamous feud between the Ivorian and Pep Guardiola, but as Dimitry himself put it in an exclusive interview with These Football Times, “they were able to find a compromise and move on”.
This is the story, from the man himself, about one of the world’s biggest footballers, and an industry that remains a closed door to many that try to penetrate it.
You have worked with Yaya Touré for 17 years. Describe your relationship with him.
“He’s like my son. I put a lot of energy into his development, not just as a player but as a person. He’s a very honest guy and he’s a winner. He has a very big heart and helps lots of people in Africa. Whenever there’s an earthquake or some other cataclysm, he’s always willing to help. That’s why he’s incredibly popular. A few years ago he even went to EXPO Milan with African delegation. People respect him.
“Another thing about Yaya is that he never betrays. When he was 20 years old, he made around €300k a year at Olympiacos. Then, one day, the club told him that they would give him a million if he stopped working with me. Clubs promise you certain things just so they can forget about them in the future – and it’s easier to so without agents. What did Yaya do? He packed his suitcase and left the club the very next day.
“As for me, Yaya was very supportive when my mother passed away. We’re always trying to support each other. I supported him when his brother Ibrahim died in Manchester hospital after a battle with cancer during the 2014 World Cup. When the same thing happened to my brother, he was there for me too. Yaya calls me Papushka and there’s a reason for it.”
What’s the greatest birthday present you have ever gotten from him?
“Do children give expensive presents to their parents? They don’t. And as I’ve said, Yaya is my kid. So it’s more about attention rather than physical presents, really.”
Alright, what’s the greatest birthday present he has ever gotten from you?
“His career. Definitely the greatest present.”
Yaya will turn 35 this year. How many more seasons does he have left in him?
“He’s so professional that I’m sure he’s going to play for five more years or something like that. Obviously, it’s very difficult for him not to play every game. But he does his job very well and works hard. You can’t break a person like him. Whenever he plays, 96 percent of his passes are accurate.
“He could be a leader at another club and he could have left City a few years ago. But he was the club’s first star. He’s a City’s legend. He wants to be useful and he is useful. There are very few players like him. Pirlo, Totti, Yaya. They’re great players, legends.
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“But you know, football has changed over the years, it has become way quicker than it used to be. So these smart midfield players like Yaya or Pirlo, many teams just don’t need guys with such qualities in this position. But Yaya is mentally strong, so experienced and so professional that I’m sure he has a bright future ahead of him, even now.
“I saw a Manchester City game recently and the stats showed that Yaya had played more games for the club than most other players combined. Guardiola now uses him as a leader off the pitch who can teach young players a thing or two and help them get to the next level, both mentally and tactically. Yaya has worked with Guardiola for years and he knows what Pep wants. He likes being a mentor for young players.
“By the way, that’s one of the reasons why Yaya wants to return to the national team. But on one condition. He wants to take full responsibility for the team. He wants to take full responsibility for all decisions regarding the national team. He doesn’t want to be just a player and let other people decide.
“Everybody knows that sometimes players get selected for financial reasons or because they’re friends of some people. When Yaya left the team, they couldn’t even qualify for the World Cup. And it’s a real shame because they have lots of great players. That’s why Yaya told the Ivorian federation that he was ready to take full responsibility for the team and try to turn things around. He’s yet to hear back from them, though.”
Does that mean that he wants to be the manager of the team?
“Not the manager, no. And not really an assistant manager. I would call it an ‘ambassador of the fans’. He wants to be that person. And by the way, you’re the first journalist I’m telling this. He wants to build the team that will win the Africa Cup of Nations in 2021 which is scheduled to be hosted by Ivory Coast. I mean, look at Liberia. They let George Weah become the president of the country.”
Ok, but does it mean that Yaya wants to make all decisions regardless of what the manager thinks?
“No, but the federation can also ask Yaya who he thinks should be the manager. Look, last year they appointed Marc Wilmots. He’s a good coach and all, but he doesn’t know Africa. You can say the same about Fabio Capello or other European managers. They need a man like Yaya who knows it all about Africa. And he could work closely with the manager, helping him with everything. It’s a win-win situation for all parties. If Wilmots asked Yaya for help, I guarantee you, the Ivorian team would have qualified for the World Cup.
“The thing about Yaya is that he has a strong personality and I’m sure he’ll be really successful in the future. It could be football, it could be politics, anything really. He knows how to make the right choice. For example, when he was about to leave Barcelona, he had offers from Chelsea and Manchester City. City didn’t even play in the Champions League at that time while Chelsea sat in first place in the Premier League. But I strongly advised him to join City.”
“I told him: ‘Yaya, City is a new challenge for you. It’s a new project. Chelsea are the champions but you’ve already won everything at Barcelona. City will be much more interesting for you. It’s your destiny. At Chelsea, you’ll be one of the few. At City, you’ll be the first.’ And he was the first.
“Eventually, I convinced him to join City even though it would be much more comfortable for him to just go to Chelsea. Some people might say, ‘Come on, it was all about money.’ But it wasn’t. Yaya has been a top player for years. He earned enough money. Do you think it’s that important whether he makes one million more or one million less? City was a real challenge for him and that’s why he ended up picking them over Chelsea.”
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Do you have a theory why Man City have been so dominant in the Premier League this season?
“Well, if you noticed it, Mancini won the Premier League in his second season at City. Then Pellegrini did exactly the same. Now Guardiola will win it in his second season as well.”
But they have never been this dominant before, have they?
“When Manchester City won the Premier League in 2012, they were eight points behind United in April but still managed to secure the title. Obviously, City are good this season. I’m not even talking about their results, they just play well. Plus, United are still a work in progress, Arsenal have had their problems while Chelsea have been busy planning a new stadium so maybe they can’t spend too much.
“City are in great shape, they have many young, thriving, smiling players who earn good money and enjoy their football.”
Yaya obviously had his share of problems with Guardiola last season. How did you manage to smooth things out?
“I don’t really want to talk about Guardiola right now. Let’s save this for future interviews. Yaya plays for Manchester City so it’s not ethical for me to say anything about the club, the players or the manager.”
What exactly happened last season? Why did Yaya return to the squad?
“We were able to find a compromise and move on.”
A few years ago you said that Messi, not Pep, was the one who had made Guardiola’s Barcelona team so great. Have you changed your opinion since then?
“I see what you’re doing. Let me put it this way: Messi is a brilliant player, that’s a fact. Cristiano Ronaldo depends on his team while Messi can win games single-handedly. To me, he’s the greatest player ever and I think we should just go ahead and give him the Diamond Ball forever.
“Another fact is that Barcelona is a very well-structured club. I’m not diminishing anyone’s achievements but Barça has been successful with many different managers. That’s a fact, too.”
So does Pep rank in the top three managers in the world today?
“If I don’t say his name now, everyone would think, ‘Oh, he didn’t mention Guardiola.’ Okay, here’s my answer then: it’s really hard to identify the three greatest managers in the world. Why? Because different managers exist in completely different circumstances.
“There are Guardiola and Mourinho. Obviously, they’re good managers. And then there’s Conte. The man came to Chelsea when the club was in a really bad situation. He bought Kanté in the summer and that was pretty much it. And yet, just a year later, he won the league and beat both Mourinho and Guardiola. Conte didn’t spend as much but he worked hard and won the whole thing.
“Guardiola is a good manager, it’s a fact. Manchester City’s results show that. I never said that he was a bad manager. I also love Zidane, the only manager who has ever won two consecutive Champions League trophies. He’s a very down-to-earth man, very professional. I really like that.
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“But can you really categorise managers as the three greatest in the world? I’m sure there are some amazing managers working in the Championship but they have very tight budgets and can only spend, say, a million a year. While Premier League managers might spend 300 million, you know?
“So, I will put it this way: there are many wonderful managers in the world. But there are also many ‘accidental’ managers who are only interested in getting themselves rich.”
Have you ever had any major fights with Yaya?
“Not really. When a parent fights with his kid, is it a fight? It is not. It’s a parent educating his kid.”
Did Yaya tell you that you went over the top calling Guardiola all sorts of names in the press in 2016?
“He would never tell me anything like that. He just wouldn’t do it. Yaya is a man now, he’s not a kid anymore. He has his opinion on things, but he also understands that I have mine. If my words had affected his career at Manchester City, that would have been destiny, nothing else. We would have gone somewhere else. When I choose a certain path for a player, I only think about him and his family. I don’t care about money. I’m a wealthy man.”
Are you ready to apologize to Guardiola for all the things that you’ve said?
“When I hurt people, I’m always willing to apologize, this is not a problem for me. I don’t want to hurt people. And I didn’t say anything to hurt Guardiola. We were actually friends with Pep’s family. I know his brother very well. He would come to my kids’ birthday parties and everything like that. We had a really good relationship with Guardiola’s family.
“Maybe it got a bit worse because of all the headlines that the press had blown out of proportion. Obviously, I’m sorry about that. It’s not great that our relationship has gotten worse just because some journalists had interpreted my words not the way I wanted them to. My English is not that good. So it’s hard for me to be absolutely clear with journalists.”
That same summer, Guardiola said, ‘Seluk must apologise. If he doesn’t, Yaya won’t play’. So, am I right to assume that you have apologized?
Is it true that you’ve never signed a contract with Yaya?
“We do have a contract now because the Premier League requires one. But yes, we had been working together for years without signing any papers.”
Is there any difference between you and other agents – say, Mino Raiola or Jorge Mendes – in how you approach your work?
“Sure. I’m not like some other agents or managers who buy a newspaper, read about some player and then call him to say that they want to sell him to another club. I meet players when they’re 18 years old and work with them, help them grow. They’re like kids to me. I don’t take players when they’re already superstars.
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“I enjoy the process of finding talent and then working with it for years. It’s not about selling players and making money. I want them to have the best career they can have. That’s the hardest part, to help them make their first steps in football.
“Then there’s Mino Raiola who doesn’t even return calls when some of his low-profile clients are trying to reach him. I know these players. If they don’t have money drawn all over their faces, Raiola won’t even talk to them.
“Do you know how he has started working with Henrikh Mkhitaryan, by the way? In 2009, Henrikh, who was my client at that time, had an offer from the Swiss club Young Boys. I approached Oleg Mkrtchyan, Metalurh Donetsk owner, told him about the Young Boys offer and convinced him to sign Henrikh. A year later I also helped Mkhitaryan move to Shakhtar. But then I had a conflict with Mkrtchyan who sold another one of my clients, Aras Özbiliz, to Spartak Moscow for €8m but made it look like it was €2m. I also had a conflict with Armenian football federation where Mkhitaryan’s mother worked.
“Eventually, we parted ways with him because of that whole situation. And that’s when Henrikh’s sister, who had been working with UEFA for years, introduced him to Raiola. Obviously, by that time, Mkhitaryan had already become a well-known player, and when Borussia Dortmund offered Shakhtar €27m for Henrikh, suddenly Raiola was all over him. Although I had already talked to Liverpool who were also interested in Mkhitaryan and wanted to sign him. If Mkrtchyan hadn’t lied to me and we hadn’t parted ways with Henrikh, he would have been a Liverpool player.”
As a former Mkhitaryan’s agent, what do you think about his move to Arsenal?
“It was nice to see Manchester United agreeing to give up their player for Sánchez instead of just waiting until Alexis would be out of contract and signing him for free. That’s what it means to be a top club. Obviously, Mourinho and Henrikh didn’t get along very well but it was still a noble act. And a good deal for both parties.
“From Mkhitaryan’s perceptive, it could totally be a bit of a blow to his ego. He’s a very ambitious, very professional guy. And when a player is not the star of a move but rather a part of a deal, it could affect people. I don’t know what exactly has happened between Mourinho and Henrikh but I think we’re talking about purely professional reasons. He was just not suitable for José’s style.”
What about Mendes? Is he closer to you or Raiola?
“You have to respect Jorge Mendes. He’s not like Raiola, he has a different approach. He has many, many people working for him – scouts, agents. He has a very well-structured system, and he’s a big negotiator. So while all these people who work with him deal with most of his players, Mendes only handles the biggest stars.
Who’s the greatest agent in the world?
“Seluk, of course.”
Of course, but…
“I mean, with all due respect to Raiola or Mendes who would bring yachts and jets for Ibrahimović or Ronaldo, the best agent is the one who provides full legal protection to his players. That’s it. That’s the most important thing. Many agents only care about money, not players. I care about my players and that’s why my conscience is clear. When I wake up and take a shower, I don’t any see any blots of shame on my face.”
You mostly work with African players. Why?
“I’ll just say that usually, they are more loyal, honest and decent people than many others.”
Is age fraud still common among African players?
“No, of course, not. Everybody uses computers now. Everybody uses FIFA transfer matching system. It’s impossible to do it now.”
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Yet, lots of young African players still claim they were born on 1 January. Doesn’t it raise questions?
“I’ll explain to you why it happens. It doesn’t mean they’re cheating. The thing is, in Africa, they don’t register kids right after they were born like we do in Europe, for example. They have a different system. Plus, Africa is really big and not every town has a place where you can register your child. So they tend to register kids later. That’s why lots of them have been registered on 1 January, it’s just more convenient for them to do it that way.
It’s really impossible for a player to fake it now. After all, you can always run a few tests and find out his exact age. It’s not difficult.”
Raiola has Zlatan, Mkhitaryan, Lukaku, Pogba. Mendes has Mourinho, Ronaldo, James and many others. Yaya is the only top player who works with you. Why?
“You’ve said it yourself: I mostly work with African players. For them, it’s even harder to get to the top level. How many top African players do you know?”
Mané, Salah, Mahrez, Aubameyang, Zaha…
“Well, some of them are more Arabic than African. Then there’s Aubameyang who has a French passport. He has African roots, yeah, but it’s a bit different. Mané? Yes, he’s a good example. Although, he’s nowhere near Yaya’s level at the moment. You can only compare Yaya to Drogba, Eto’o, these guys. They were incredible. But there are no players like them in today’s football.
“And speaking of Aubameyang, he didn’t deserve the African Player of the Year award in 2016. Yaya should have won it. Ivory Coast won the 2016 Africa Cup of Nations. Aubameyang didn’t win a thing. And he has a French passport. I’ll say it again: Yaya should have won it. By the way, that was one of the reasons why Yaya left the national team. He wanted the federation to take his side but they didn’t defend him.
“Even André Ayew said that he should have clinched second place after Yaya because Ghana had played in the Africa Cup of Nations final against Ivory Coast. But Aubameyang? He won nothing in Africa. Dortmund won nothing in Europe. He scored a lot of goals over the course of three months and that was it. I don’t get it. Aubameyang should have said, ‘Yaya deserves it more than me.’ The whole Africa would have applauded him.
“So when you’re asking me why Yaya is my only top client, I want to ask you this: are there many top African players? Are there many African managers? Check out the FIFPro team. Do you see African players there? I’ll tell you more. Yaya has never been named in those teams.
“FIFA has been talking about racism for years. You can say whatever you want but the reality is different. In 2014, Yaya was the best player in the Premier League. But who won the Player of the Year award? Right, Luis Suárez. With all due respect to Suárez, Yaya scored almost as many goals as Luis did. But Yaya is a midfielder. Plus, Yaya scored a lot of goals against top Premier League teams while Suárez scored four against Norwich, three against Cardiff.
“They talk a lot about racism in England but when they have a chance to give an award to a white man, they will do exactly that. If you’re an African player, it’s much harder for you to get to the top level. That’s why I don’t have many top players among my clients but I enjoy my work. As Frank Sinatra sang, ‘I do it my way’.”
By Vitaly Suvorov @vitalysuvorov