At first Mino Raiola was surprised by the sound of his phone ringing. The fact that it was 1am was not the surprising part: as a football agent constantly on the move he had long since grown used to being called at all sorts of strange hours. Usually it would be one of his players with some practical issue: a leaky tap, no internet, a mysterious buzzing noise that would invariably turn out to be the fridge.
Some players wanted to talk business. A few – often players living abroad for the first time – just wanted to talk. One night, very late, Raiola answered his phone to Mario Balotelli, who in a meek voice explained that he was alone in his new house and desperate for company. So Raiola went round and together they sat on his sofa in silence, watching Michael Portillo’s Great Railway Journeys on BBC Four until Mario dozed off.
This time, however, Raiola could tell from the ringtone that this was an unknown number. He put down his ironing, laying to one side the seven matching pairs of tracksuit bottoms he would be wearing over the next week, plonked himself down on the gold-trimmed chaise longue and took the call.
Raiola scoured his memory banks. “Arda who?”
“What do you mean? It’s Arda Turan. Look, Mino. I know it’s late but I need your help. You’re the only guy who can do this. I need a club.”
Instinctively Raiola detected in Turan’s tone and unsubtle flattery a certain desperation, the sort upon which a hard-bitten operator such as himself would normally prey mercilessly. But something about this felt different.
“But you already have a club,” he answered. “You’re at Barcelona.”
“I’m not going back there,” Turan replied defiantly.
“Because they don’t want you?”
“Because I don’t want them. Look, you know how things are with me and Barcelona. They never meant to give me a proper chance. I need a change, a new start.”
“Right, let’s take a look,” Raiola said, pulling a thick ring binder off his top shelf and thumbing through it. “Arda Turan. Aged 32. Atlético Madrid, 178 games, 22 goals. Barcelona, 55 games, 15 goals. Most recent club: Istanbul Basaksehir, where your two-year loan was cut short after you fired a gun in a hospital. Forty-two games‚ two goals.” He quietly closed the ring binder. “It’s not a great career trajectory, is it?”
“Did you know all that by heart?”
“Yes,” Raiola replied. “Do you want to talk about the gun incident?”
“Well, they said you approached the wife of a Turkish pop star in a nightclub, a fight broke out, you went to hospital to beg his forgiveness and ended up firing a gun at the floor.”
“There’s a few gaps in the story.”
“What about the time you got a 16-match ban for shoving a linesman?”
“Reduced to 10 on appeal.”
“The time you tried to throttle a journalist on international duty?”
“Look, I need a club in January. Are you an agent or a judge?”
“Both,” Raiola said with a grave finality, walking to the kitchen and breaking open a family-sized bag of Doritos. “The thing is, clubs are selling a family product these days. It’s not just about the socios in row J. It’s about the mother in Mumbai who has to decide whether to buy her kids Barcelona or Real Madrid shirts. It’s about what Chinese state TV wants to broadcast. You’re an angry guy. Anger’s good, sometimes. All the great players have an anger in them. But you need to make the anger work for you. Let me ask you a question. Do you love football?”
“Are you kidding? Of course I do.”
“I ask because not everyone does. Everyone says they love football but what they actually love is the fame, the buzz, the money. What they love is being a footballer. Everyone thinks Zlatan is a pain in the ass, but you have no idea how much he loves football. That’s why he’s still doing it at 38.”
“That can be me too,” Turan argued. “I’ve barely played for five years. I’ve still got the legs. I read the game as well as I did. If I get fit and get a chance, I’ll show them all.”
“That’s the problem,” Raiola said. “You wanted to show Simeone he was wrong to make you play such a tight role. You wanted to show Barcelona you were just as good as Messi and Neymar. Then you wanted to show them they were wrong to send you to Turkey. Now you want to show everyone who says you’re finished. Football has become your personal revenge mission.”
There was silence on the line.
“This game tests you,” Raiola continued. “It breaks you. Do you think I know what it was like to go from Atlético to sitting on the bench at Barcelona for six months because of some stupid rule? Everyone says footballers are the stars but in reality you’re the little guys. You’re disposable. In 10 years’ time Barcelona will still be Barcelona. You’ll just be Arda Turan, a guy who was good once. That’s why I asked if you love football. Because if you ever want to get back to the top, you’ll need to love it hard.”
In the long pause that followed Raiola detected a certain melting of tone, like a dam quietly giving way. They talked for a little longer, swapping anecdotes, sharing confidences. Eventually it got late and Raiola made his excuses. “I’ll give Everton a call,” he promised, before hanging up the phone and returning to his ironing.