WOLVERHAMPTON, England — The formula for success was simple. Last year, when Peter Kenyon — a former chief executive of both Chelsea and Manchester United and now a kind of itinerant soccer rainmaker — approached the English club Wolverhampton Wanderers with a takeover offer from Fosun, the Chinese conglomerate, he outlined a clear vision of how the deal would benefit both parties.
Fosun would be buying a club ready-made to become a Premier Leaguefixture: large fan base, recognizable brand, steady profits and, most important, proud tradition. Wolves’s history is long and rich, but in recent years the club has become more comfortable looking back than forward.
It is the quintessential sleeping giant: Champion of England three times in the 1950s, the club has enjoyed only two brief spells in the Premier League since 1992. The second ended in 2012. The next year, Wolves was relegated again, this time out of the second-tier Championship.
Since its return in 2013, it has been steady but unspectacular, rarely setting the division alight. “We’ve been a midtable club,” said Conor Coady, one of the team’s mainstays in that period. “We’ve not been good enough.”
Kenyon had the remedy for that. To Fosun, the $60 million asking price set by Wolves’s owner, Steve Morgan, was a drop in the ocean. Money for the transfer market was not a problem. Nor, Kenyon said, was attracting the players who could transform the club.
Fosun’s trump card was the close relationship it had established — built over many years, but cemented at the Shanghai launching of their partnership in January 2016 — with the one man in soccer everybody wants to know. Fosun could provide Wolves with funds, but it could also bring the club the help of the world’s pre-eminent agent: Jorge Mendes.
Diogo Jota had them with his first touch. A few minutes into Wolverhampton’s match against Leicester City last Saturday — its last warm-up game before the Championship’s regular season gets underway this weekend — Jota found himself on the edge of his own box, facing the Leicester wing Marc Albrighton.
He paused for a moment, feinted right, then slipped away to the left, leaving Albrighton grasping at his ghost. A murmur of appreciation rippled through the near-12,000-strong crowd at Molineux, Wolves’s atmospheric, patchwork home. “Well, he has played for Atlético Madrid,” one fan muttered approvingly.
For the first time in a long time, the air at Molineux crackles with anticipation. There is, Coady said, an “optimism” here, one that has been detected “by the players just as much as the people in the stands.”
That is not just because of Jota, a 20-year-old Portuguese winger who had played in the 2016-17 Champions League for F.C. Porto. There is his countryman Rúben Neves, too, once the shining star of Porto’s academy and the youngest player to captain a team in the Champions League. Wolves has signed two more Portuguese this summer, Roderick Miranda and Ruben Vinagre, adding them to a squad that already included Helder Costa and Ivan Cavaleiro.
Another Porto alumnus, the French defender Willy Boly, has arrived, too, and one more will coach them: Nuno Espírito Santo spent last year at the Portuguese club after a spell with Valencia, having led both in the Champions League.
Fosun’s money pays their salaries, of course; it is the lure of England, the prospect of the Premier League, that drew them here. “I wanted to play here,” Jota said in one of Molineux’s dressing rooms last weekend. “Everyone dreams of England, and the Premier League.”
But it is Mendes, 51, who has made it all possible, who delivered Neves, Jota and, of course, Espírito Santo, the first client he ever had, long before he was the superagent responsible for the careers of Cristiano Ronaldo and José Mourinho.
Wolves has never hidden the fact that Mendes is a “known associate” of Fosun, in the words of the managing director Laurie Dalrymple, though the club has strenuously denied that he is overseeing its transfer policy. Wolves’s squad this year, club executives noted, will include a number of new additions not looked after by Mendes’s agency, Gestifute.
The Football League, too, decided in December that Mendes’s role was no cause for concern, despite rules dictating that agents cannot have a controlling influence on clubs. Although a subsidiary of Fosun owns a slice of Gestifute’s holding company, the Football League determined there was no conflict of interest. (Mendes and Gestifute did not respond to several requests to discuss their plans for Wolves for this article.)
What is irrefutable, however, is that Wolves is now part of what Pippo Russo, an Italian sociology professor and the author of a book about the superagent’s influence, calls the “Mendes system.” It is a network of clubs — some large, some small, some in the shadows and some in the brightest of lights — across Europe, all of which, formally or informally, turn to Mendes for advice, for help and for players.
That network has turned Mendes into, at least in Russo’s estimation, “the most powerful man in football,” not simply someone who “works in the market, but someone who creates the market.”
Mendes is not the only agent to have become a first port of call for many clubs, but none of his peers and rivals can match his reach, or his influence. Most of his hundreds of clients pass through or end up at one, or more, of these clubs at some point. Sometimes, they stay only briefly; sometimes, they move on to another.
The market never stops turning. And with every turn, Mendes and Gestifute earn another fee, another commission.
The Mendes Network
Few in soccer would dispute Russo’s description of Mendes as the most powerful player representative in the sport. Alex Ferguson, doubtless thankful for Mendes’s work in delivering Ronaldo to Manchester United, described him as “the best agent I dealt with, without a doubt.”
Miguel Ángel Gil, the chief executive of Atlético Madrid, told Miguel Cuesta, the author of “The Mendes Key,” a book outlining the agent’s methods, that Mendes “sets up his chessboard to move pieces to different clubs.”
“He is loyal to everyone,” Gil added, “and he does not play tricks on you.”
In fact, Mendes has a reputation — unlike many of his peers — for not chasing the quickest deal, but for encouraging his players to wait for the right moment to make a move. His first question to every prospective client is, “Where do you want to play?” In at least some cases, he presents his players with blueprints for their careers: Follow this path, he tells them, and you will get where you want to go.
It is an approach that has made his players — Ronaldo, Ángel Di María, Radamel Falcao and the rest — famous, and earned him not only a litany of plaudits but also considerable wealth, enough to make him the second-highest-earning sports agent in the world, after baseball’s Scott Boras.
But his success has been built not only on his sage advice. The Mendes network is central to it.
The beating heart is, of course, in his native Portugal. According to a 2011 brochure produced by Quality Sports Investment, a fund designed to buy the economic rights to players whom both Kenyon and Mendes advised, Mendes claimed he oversaw 68 percent of all transfer activity from the country’s three giant clubs — Benfica and Sporting in Lisbon, as well as F.C. Porto — between 2001 and 2010.
That is just the start, however. There is also a long list of smaller clubs where, according to Russo, Mendes places players from South America when they first arrive in Europe. These are the moves that provide his young clients with opportunities to play and that have, at times, helped him circumvent FIFA rules on outside investors’ — so-called third parties — owning the economic rights of players.
There are so many of these clubs that, when Portugal’s tax and customs authorities announced an investigation into Mendes’s transfer activity over the last three years, their list ran to 13 teams.
“Working with Mendes gives clubs like ours access to better players than we might otherwise be able to have,” said António Silva Campos, the president of Rio Ave, a first-division club that Russo calls F.C. Mendes, but one that is not part of that tax investigation. “There is no club in Portugal who does not want to work with him.”
Ederson, Manchester City’s new Brazilian goalkeeper, is a case in point: He spent time at Rio Ave before joining Benfica. Gestifute, Silva Campos confirmed, had owned 20 percent of his economic rights.
There are also, according to Russo, the clubs that Mendes uses as “points of passage” for his players: teams like Besiktas, Dynamo Moscow, Valencia, Deportivo La Coruña, Atlético Madrid and, formerly, Monaco.
“Sometimes the players do not play for them, they just go out on loan,” Russo said. Jota, for example, is under contract to Atlético, but played on loan at Porto last season and now will do the same at Wolverhampton.
For others, these clubs are mere way stations on their way to bigger, brighter things.
“The clubs benefit because the players bring them closer to the elite, and then they can resell them for more money,” Russo said. He cited André Gomes — the Portuguese midfielder signed by Valencia from Benfica and then sold, at a handsome profit, to Barcelona — as an example.
At the point of the pyramid, though, are the world’s elite, the clubs to whom Mendes sells the very best players at the very highest prices. Even here, though, his influence can run deeper than most. When his client Mourinho was the manager of Real Madrid, Mendes regularly used Mourinho’s office at the club’s training ground as a base from which to conduct Gestifute business, including meetings with potential investors into other clubs. Clubs like Wolverhampton.
Hopes, and Costs
A year into their involvement in Mendes’s system, what Wolves must establish now is where it sits in this firmament. Wolverhampton may be the perfect opportunity for Mendes to have an influence over a club “in the very center of world football, in the Premier League,” Russo said, a place where his clients can cut their teeth before moving on to England’s giants.
More than that, though, Wolves must ask if it is a good thing. Plenty of clubs that have been part of his network, certainly, might suggest that what is best for Mendes is not always best for them.
When Fikret Orman took over as the chairman of Besiktas, in Istanbul, in 2011, the club’s finances were so dire that he had to introduce a policy of “sacrifice,” encouraging players to take salary reductions to try to reduce the team’s debts. Even now, Orman said, he “has not made any decisions that will harm the club’s balances in the long run, even if they bring success in the short term.” Before Orman’s arrival, Besiktas had acquired six Mendes players in a year.
There was a similar influx at Dynamo Moscow in 2005, followed by further financial problems (though the Russian club last year signed a “memorandum of understanding” once again with Gestifute). At Valencia, meanwhile, supporters turned on Nuno, the coach. They came to see him as a Mendes pawn, and protested against the ownership of Peter Lim, another close friend of the Portuguese agent.
To those at Molineux, though, now is not the time for those thoughts. The season is about to begin. For once, it is full of promise. Wolves beat Leicester last Saturday, with Jota creating the only goal for his countryman Cavaleiro.
As the game ticked down to its end, the home fans started to sing Nuno Espírito Santo’s name. For them, it is enough that the coach and players are all here. How they got here, and how long they will stay, is a question for another day.