In July 2017, Leicester City made it clear that they were willing to accept a bid of £50m for winger Riyad Mahrez. Mahrez was a Premier League title winner, PFA Player of the Year and African Player of the Year. He was at a non-elite club. He was 26. Roma came closest to signing him as a replacement for Mohamed Salah, but the price was deemed too high. There were no takers.
In hindsight, that seems extraordinary. Chelsea paid £35m for Mahrez’s teammate Danny Drinkwater, a useful player but hardly a star. We have become accustomed to attacking players commanding a premium, and so too Premier League players. Here was a proven success in the middle of that Venn diagram and…nothing.
Last month, the Leicester Mercury’s James Sharpe made the same point as he reacted to Philippe Coutinho’s move to Barcelona from Liverpool. Since the start of 2015/16, Mahrez had scored 30 goals and registered 21 assists in the Premier League. Coutinho had 28 and 18.
There is a 16-month age gap between the two players but the £90m difference in valuation is still difficult to appreciate. If it comes down to simple supply and demand, where was the demand for Mahrez?
This week, Claude Puel talked up Mahrez’s potential price tag with rumours circling about interest from elite clubs. “Perhaps in the summer he will cost even more than £100m,” Puel said, but the false optimism was a little too transparent. Another year older and with another year of his contract run down, that fee would seem well out of reach.
There are a number of hypotheses about Mahrez’s continued stay at Leicester, but one that seems particularly attractive concerns Kamel Bengougam, whose name you may now be reading for the first time. And yet it is Bengougam who has his future in his hands. Bengougam is Mahrez’s agent.
Information on Bengougam is thin on the ground. There is a LinkedIn page which confirms that he works for an agency called ‘bk tizimanagement’, although they are called ‘BKS’ elsewhere. There is a Facebook profile too, which briefly gained attention after Bengougam posted an image of himself watching Lens vs Arsenal. Finally, there is a profile on The Players’ Agent website – which lists a phone number that doesn’t work – and Elite Football. On the latter, Bengougam is listed as the agent of Marcus Coco of FC Guingamp and Cedric Si Mohammed, who currently plays for the team second bottom of the Algerian league.
You wonder where Mahrez might be now if his agent was Mino Raiola. The Italian-Dutch super-agent is again in the news for negotiating Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s exit from Manchester United as part of the deal to take Alexis Sanchez in the other direction with his customary swagger. The assumption is that Mkhitaryan (and Raiola) will be paid a premium by United to leave and paid a premium by Arsenal to join, which counts as nice work if you can get it.
Raiola has become renowned for his outspoken comments, but he is merely playing the perfect role for a willing media. He uses journalists, media outlets and clubs, occasionally playing parties off against each other as he sees fit. It’s easy to understand how Raiola made a reported £41m from the transfer of Paul Pogba to Manchester United. That is why his clients trust him so implicitly; a good deal for him is a good deal for them.
Raiola has become one of football’s most notorious super-agents. At Manchester United in the last three years, he has negotiated the signings of (and signing-on fees for) Paul Pogba, Sergio Romero, Romelu Lukaku, Mkhitaryan and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (twice). Paris Saint-Germain have negotiated with him over Ibrahimovic, Maxwell, Blaise Matuidi and Marco Verratti. Do not be surprised if Gianluigi Donnarumma joins one of those two clubs next.
We are hardwired to see agents as the bad guys in football’s soap opera, the epitome of transfer culture and the greed that inevitably follows rampant commercialisation. Yet to footballers themselves, agents have a different reputation. They can be best friends and confidantes, accountants and fixers. Raiola prides himself on knowing each of his clients inside out and has developed a thick skin that proves invaluable when mud is being flinged. Alex Ferguson called him a “shitbag” and a “bad agent”. Raiola would probably take both as compliments from someone in Ferguson’s position.
We are now in the midst of football’s fourth age. The first began at the birth of the game, when governing bodies held the power. The birth of professionalism in 1885 ushered in football’s second age, handing over control to the individual clubs.
There were two developments that took football into its next era. The first was the abolition of the maximum wage in 1961, which immediately boosted a player’s earning potential. The second was the High Court victory for Newcastle United’s George Eastham, who argued against rules allowing clubs to retain players at the end of their contracts. Players could make representation to the Football Association, but were often kept against their wishes. The ruling in Eastham’s favour welcomed in football’s third age: player power was established.
The fourth age, now upon us, marks the rise of the super-agent as powerbroker. The main players – Raiola, Jorge Mendes, Kia Joorabchian, Volker Struth, Jonathan Barnett, Pere Guardiola, Giuliano Bertolucci – cannot merely influence the career decisions of the world’s best players, but the direction entire clubs take. It is now in Manchester United’s interest to keep Raiola sweet and thus lead the queue for his next star. One wrong PR move and Raiola could blacklist Manchester United and work on deals for their key players to engineer moves away from the club.
At Wolverhampton Wanderers, the agent-club relationship is even more pronounced. Jorge Mendes has become a quasi-sporting director, although the title is clearly not official. Mendes is close to Wolves’ owners Fosun, whose chairman Guo Guangchang bought stakes in Mendes’ football agency. Manager Nuno Espirito Santo is a Mendes client. Ruben Neves, Helder Costa, Diogo Jota and Ivan Cavaleiro are Mendes clients.
There is no suggestion that Mahrez is unhappy with Bengougam’s work, but he would be well within his rights. An agent’s role has certainly changed over the last 20 years, but the general principle remains the same: secure the best (and most lucrative) possible career for their client. It is a rudimentary measure, but a Google search for Kamel Bengougam returns 11,300 results; Mino Raiola’s name returns 456,000 hits.
Where this fourth age peaks is unclear, but the new breed of super-agents are kingmakers extraordinaire. The same is now true for football as it is in many other industries: when looking for a route to the top, who you know is almost as important as what you know. It is an uncomfortable question to contemplate, but when does your agent’s contacts become almost as important as your ability?