Heart Of Football

Heart of Football: Romelu follows his agent's heart

Amid the bedlam of the Romelu Lukaku transfer this weekend the thought occurred that the £90 million (S$160.35 million) striker might be sold in his sleep.

There is an eight-hour difference between England, where Manchester United and Chelsea were vying for his signature, and California, where Lukaku is holidaying.

Scrub the opening sentence. Reports emanating from west coast America suggest that Lukaku was not getting much sleep. Apparently, Beverly Hills cops were called out in the dead of night to caution him after neighbours complained about the noise from a loud party at the mansion he is renting in the posh hills of Los Angeles.

Lukaku is there with his mate Paul Pogba, who already is a near-£90 million United asset.

The pair are chilling out in the place where United heads on pre-season tour once Jose Mourinho rounds up the players he has, and those he intends United to buy for him.

But Jose isn't the key in this summer tale. Mino Raiola is.

Raiola is the agent to luminaries such as Mario Balotelli and, in the past, famous Dutchmen Frank Rijkaard and Dennis Bergkamp.

Everton striker Romelu Lukaku is set to join Manchester United over Chelsea, who reportedly refused to pay the agent's cut. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

His part in rebuilding United includes five current players - counting Lukaku.

The four Raiola clients already there are reserve goalie Sergio Romero, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Pogba.

The sums and salaries are enormous. Raiola knows that United have been in a fix ever since Alex Ferguson and - crucially - his negotiator David Gill left Old Trafford simultaneously in 2013.

He has the clients, United has the money, and even though Mourinho's own "super-agent" Jorge Mendes used to supply the clubs Mou managed, it is Raiola who is now the Red Devils supplier in chief. Rob Hughes

Executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward took on the role that Gill once did for the American owners, the Glazer brothers.

But Woodward has yet to show the decisiveness in getting deals over the line that Gill and Ferguson did together.

Raiola spotted the void. He has the clients, United has the money, and even though Mourinho's own "super-agent", Jorge Mendes, used to supply the clubs Mou managed, it is Raiola who is now the Red Devils' supplier-in-chief.

An intriguing fellow is Raiola. He was born in Salerno, southern Italy, but his family moved to the Netherlands when he was a baby. He tried as a player, but served tables at his father's restaurant in Haarlem.

He also studied law and languages. He developed a persuasion with players, and clearly an eye for emerging young talents. He moves them on when the time seems propitious.

By that, I mean when the time is profitable to the player and to himself.

Lukaku, 24, is on his third permanent move. Raiola didn't discover him, unless he was in Antwerp when the player was five and already on the move from his boyhood club to being taken under the wing of Anderlecht.

Roger Lukaku, his father, guided the boy through education, and up the football ladder. Roger was born in the Congo and represented Zaire as an international player before settling in Belgium.

His sons were bound to play, and committed to study including, helpfully, English. There was a documentary filmed around the school days of Romelu at adolescence. He already knew what he wanted to be and where he wanted to go. A strapping lad, he grew into the physical mould of his idol, Didier Drogba.

So when Chelsea beckoned him, why wouldn't Lukaku join the club where Drogba was already king, not simply in the English Premier League but in Africa?

Drogba became both the inspiration and the impediment to Lukaku's advancement. Growing as he was into the 1.90m he is today, "Rom" either had to bide his time for Drogba to decline, or move on.

Chelsea's solution, as so often is its custom, was to loan Lukaku out. First West Bromwich, then Everton. But while Mourinho was there, Lukaku had barely a handful of starts, and never scored in Chelsea blue. In July 2014, Everton paid £28 million to make the deal permanent.

Mourinho remained vague about why he sanctioned Chelsea's sale of Lukaku, telling reporters to ask Lukaku the real reason why he left.

Opportunity might figure largely on that score. Or for all we know Raiola might have been doing what Raiola does, thinking several transfers ahead. And thinking not only what the player might get out of them, but the agent's cut as well.

Raiola, who owns a house in Miami where the once infamous gangster Al Capone lived, does not deny that he personally pocketed more than S$70 million out of the transfer fee United paid to get Pogba back last year.

Yes, back. Pogba was a United player in his teens, and left to join Juventus when he, and those who advise him, deemed Sir Alex was too slow in promoting him to the first team. It cost tens of millions to re-sign Pogba at Mourinho's demand. Nobody denies the agent's cut was astronomical.

Now the talk is that, although everyone thought Lukaku broke his Everton contract because his heart was set on rejoining Chelsea, the key factor appears once more to be the hidden extra.

Chelsea had already indicated that Diego Costa was not manager Antonio Conte's cup of tea. Somewhat precipitously, Conte spelt out in a text that Costa was not part of his plans for next season.

However, Conte is no more the negotiator for Chelsea than Mourinho was. That is in the hands of Marina Granovskaia, a trusted business negotiator to the owner Roman Abramovich, and to Michael Emenalo, the technical director on player recruitment.

Either before or after United pushed the offer to Everton to £75 million (plus £15 million in add-ons subject to performance) Chelsea matched that bid.

What, then, swung the barometer from blue to red? It appears that Chelsea refused to pay the agent's cut. The implication was if your heart is set on coming back to the Bridge, then take the salary on offer and tell the agent what you told Everton, that you wanted out to further your career.

Is this player power, or the power of the agent? We should know the answer in the coming days, probably a clear red.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 09, 2017, with the headline 'Romelu follows his agent's heart'. Print Edition | Subscribe