Handshakes, dark suits and money-glaze: welcome to the Mendes supremacy

Barney Ronay

When Jorge Mendes got married a few years back a story emerged that Cristiano Ronaldo had given football’s most potent agent a Greek island as a wedding present.

It is hard to know the real truth of this. But it seems fitting, given Mendes’s deep-state mystique, that the legend of Ronaldo island has been recycled admiringly ever since, gaining resonance, layers, compound interest. Either way it seems likely Mendes would have enjoyed his Greek island in the expected style: loaning it to Lazio for five years, setting up a complex series of loans for its outlying archipelago, then selling it on to Turkey for six times the original price. Cristiano. You know me so well.

Fast forward to the current January transfer window and the Mendes industrial complex has turned its attentions again to the Premier League. Oh, he’s here again. The man with the giant sack of money in his eyes.

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Mendes was at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Tuesday night to see his client José Mourinho about the sale of his client Gedson Fernandes. He was at Old Trafford on Wednesday to discuss the sale of his client Bruno Fernandes, in the process casting an eye over his fellow client Wolverhampton Wanderers Ltd.

We know the aesthetic of these occasions now. The handshakes, the dark suits, the money-glaze, the thrilling talk of flux, possibilities. Mendes is in play again, bending the world to his will.

Spurs signed Gedson on Wednesday. Manchester United are close to buying Bruno, a 25-year-old who looks and sounds like a composite replicant of every generically useful Portuguese footballer of the last two decades. Bruno is not strictly a Mendes player. Mendes is just “brokering” the deal.

But if you want to get something done, well …

The Mendes mode of business is well established now, a pattern of working through a circle of European clubs happy to keep selling the same stock to one another.

The football blog Tugascout has a list of players who have followed this dance to the music of money. Radamel Falcao has been at Porto, Atlético Madrid and Monaco; Diogo Jota has been at Atlético Madrid, Porto and Wolves; Filipe Augusto had five Mendes clubs on his show-reel before the age of 25.

Each move generates a slice of pie. Each move keeps the Keynesian multiplier effect running. Although this isn’t command economics, it’s commodity trading, skating ahead of the market but in a world where you have an in at both ends, where there is little regulation and where Mendes has been able to enact a closing in on power from all fronts.

There is another plank to this now, one that brings a more tangible sense of unease. Mendes has also seized the means of production. Or at least he has Famalicão, a rebranded Portuguese minnow with a “privileged relationship” to the great rainmaker.

Famalicão were bought two years ago by the Israeli billionaire and Mendes pal Idan Ofer. Miraculously this tiny club has since managed to sign players from top leagues around Europe – from nowhere, and with a 5,000-seat stadium. Famalicão topped the Primeira Liga in the autumn.

Jorge Mendes with Cristiano Ronaldo. The agent’s first deal was the transfer of the young Ronaldo from Sporting Lisbon to Manchester United. Photograph: POOL/Reuters

Famalicão are still in with a shot of reaching the Champions League spots, an event that would have a serious knock-on effect on Mendes’s trading future. To do so they need to overhaul Benfica and Porto, while staying ahead of Sporting Lisbon. But wait: Mendes has just helped rub out Benfica’s key midfielder and is doing his best to whistle away Sporting’s top scorer.

The lines of interest and influence are even more complex. Another Mendes-stacked club, Wolves, is competing with United and Spurs for fourth place in the Premier League. The arrival of both Fernandeses will have a knock-on hit here too. Are you following this game of third-party five-dimensional Jenga? Is anyone?

There is, of course, no suggestion Mendes would actually consider these calculations. He’s a deal-closer. These are arms-length third-party services. But still it feels problematic that such thoughts could even be possible, that this balance of interests is within his gift. Everyone is accountable to someone in sport, if only to the basic notion of robust competition. Except for the super-agent – who is in effect God, answerable only to his own design.

There are a couple of things worth saying about this. Firstly, is it all bad? Agents enable trade and empower players. Mendes is said to be a fantastic talent scout. On the other hand, is this what sport is for?

Mendes has overseen £1bn in player sales while remaining essentially parasitic. Bad habits are feasted upon, the desire for instant fixes fed, a spinning of the roulette wheel encouraged. In agent terms the career of Renato Sanches is one vast high-fiving success, a cash-drenched miracle. In sporting terms it looks like a disaster, a case of talent monetised but also stunted in the process.

The more pointed question is, will it ever stop? The Mendes supremacy has its roots in two elements: the single European market and Ronaldo. His first ever deal was Ronaldo to United, the perfect deal for the perfect agent-player, a deal that has glossed and illuminated every other one since. But there aren’t many Cristiano Ronaldos around. Most of Mendes’s business is quality filler, the kind of competent high-end workers who will soon require visas to work in the UK. For English football this is, in theory, the last pre-Brexit transfer window.

It seems laughably naive to suggest this might kill, or even impair, what Mendes does. The Premier League is convinced it can agree a process with the Home Office to keep the pipelines open. The prosperous tend to prosper.

This is heading only one way. Your club, your sport, your nominally coherent league. We all live on Mendes island now.