Pitchside Europe

Ibra back to Juve? One man can make it happen


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Zlatan Ibrahimovic at current club PSG, and from his days at Juventus (Reuters)

On emigrating from Italy to the Netherlands, Mino Raiola’s parents opened an Italian restaurant in Haarlem, 20km or so outside of Amsterdam.

He worked there as a kid washing dishes, mopping the floor, laying and waiting tables. Since becoming one of football’s most powerful agents many have referred to his past usually as a way of insulting him.

“He’s a good pizza maker,” Sinisa Mihajlovic said. And yet Raiola never made pizzas, not that he gets offended by the claim. You might say it has come to form part of his legend.

A line the papers like to use whenever he makes a deal is: “The pizza man always delivers.” And that’s fine by him. Raiola’s proud of his background. He credits his parents’ business with making him the man he is today.

“The restaurant was very important in my life,” he told France Football. “I learned not to be afraid of people, to talk to them, to work harder than the others. At 16, I already managed the restaurant’s accounts.”

Those formative experiences have stayed with Raiola. A social butterfly, although one that he admits is “20, 25 or 30kg” overweight, he’s always on the go.

Though he’s been a resident in Monaco since 1996, he claims it’s the place where he spends the fewest nights of the year because he’s constantly travelling. “I make 250 flights a year,” he said. “My life isn’t programmable. I go see club directors, my players.”

And it’s here that he gives the most revealing insight into his modus operandi yet. “I have never waited for a director to ask me to bring him a player. I do not wait for a decision, I create it. I do not wait for the market, I create it. My job is like selling bibles or vacuum cleaners.”

Raiola makes things happen. He suggests. He shapes. He sends out signals.

On Tuesday March 12, La Gazzetta dello Sport ran a story on Raiola’s most famous client, Paris Saint-Germain striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

They’d gathered “the impression that he is close to divorce from Ligue 1.” The pink paper claimed Ibrahimovic was showing symptoms of another mal di pancia or “stomach ache,” the phrase used towards the end of his time at Inter to indicate his gut was telling him to leave.

The “symptoms” were as follows: the previous weekend, Ibrahimovic had expressed some disillusion at a section of PSG supporters for whistling the team while they laboured to a 2-1 win against Nancy at the Parc des Princes. The league leaders had fallen behind before half-time only for him to score twice after the interval and save the day.

“[The fans] are asking a lot,” Ibrahimovic said. “Isn’t that funny when you think about where they were in the past? Before this they didn’t really have much at all.” That barb caused quite a stir and got the local journalists talking. “Has Ibrahimovic already had enough?” Le Parisien asked.

While that might sound knee-jerk, it wasn’t necessarily so. Ibrahimovic had been reluctant to leave Milan in the summer. It wasn’t his choice. Under financial strain, the club made it understood that selling him and Thiago Silva were required to relieve it. He got that.

Over the duration of his first season in Paris, Ibrahimovic spoke fondly of Milan saying that if the club were ever to need any help they know where he is, that the city and Italy were by now his family’s “second home.” His wife in particular was said to miss it.

But back to that story in Gazzetta. As it was about to go to print on the Monday night, Pavel Nedved, the former Juventus player, Ibrahimovic’s former roommate there and now a member of the club’s board not to mention a fellow client of Raiola’s – read into that was you will – made an appearance on the Mediaset show Undici.

Further to the compliments he’d paid Ibrahimovic in his 2010 autobiography La mia vita normale, Nedved was asked by presenter Pierluigi Pardo if, “as an abstract idea,” he’d like to bring him back to Juve one day in the future.

“Yes, I won’t hide that it’s true,” Nedved said, “because I consider Ibra to be at the level of Ronaldo and Messi, among the top three players in the world because he’s someone who changes a team, someone who improves a team, someone who can play up front on his own. Who wouldn’t want Ibra?”

That his answer had been given in abstract was quickly and conveniently forgotten. Nedved wasn’t speaking for Juventus. Rather, as general manager Beppe Marotta later put it, he was expressing a personal opinion.

Not that it mattered. The horse had already bolted. Whether Raiola had instructed Nedved to leave the stable door open or not is a matter of conjecture.

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Ibrahimovic's agent Mino Raiola (Reuters)

The following day Gazzetta had a piece on Nedved’s interview below their story on Ibrahimovic’s future, which indicated that “in Italy, Juve would be the only practical solution.” Many were skeptical if not cynical about it. This was a ploy to sell papers, they said, even though it wasn’t a front-page lead.

Deep reservations were and still are held, not least by the author, about the prospect of Ibrahimovic returning to Juventus. For starters, there’s the manner in which he left the club in the wake of the Calciopoli scandal in 2006.

Ibrahimovic wasn’t the only one to abandon the Old Lady. Lilian Thuram and Gianluca Zambrotta went to Barcelona, Fabio Cannavaro and Emerson to Real Madrid. Patrick Vieira followed him to Inter. They all had their reasons.

At the time Ibrahimovic believed he was at a stage in his career when he needed to prove himself again. By his own admission, he’d had a below par final season at Juventus and a poor World Cup. Quite understandably he felt Serie B wasn’t the place for a 25-year-old with a reputation to justify. It was a step back when he needed to keep moving forward.

Juventus, however, dearly wanted to keep Ibra. Didier Deschamps told him that “a good part of my decision to accept this job was because you’re here” and added: “If you leave, I’ll leave too.’ To which Ibra responded: ‘Ok then, pack your bags and call a taxi”.

Deschamps laughed as if Ibra were joking. “But I’d never been so serious in all my life,” he wrote in his biography. “If Juve were fighting for survival as a club, I was fighting for mine as player.”

When Juventus’ newly-appointed chief exec Jean-Claude Blanc came to him with a new contract offer, Ibra, knowing that he was being difficult, refused to even take look at it. He was deliberately acting up and let it be known that, as far as he was concerned, he’d played his last game for them.

“At one point we had to play a friendly against La Spezia,” Ibrahimovic recalled. “And what had I said about games? I wouldn’t play them. So I stayed in my room glued to the PlayStation.

“Outside, the bus that was to take us to the stadium was waiting and everyone had already gone on board, even Nedved. From what I could gather the bus was there with the motor running and there was great impatience.

“‘Where the hell is Ibra?’ That kind of thing. They waited and waited until Didier Deschamps came personally to my room. He was fuming.”

Ibra wouldn’t budge. Deschamps left and soon afterwards, he got his way. Juventus sold him.

To go, as he did, to their biggest rivals Inter, the club that had been controversially assigned one of the two Scudetti that had been taken away from Juventus, was, in the eyes of many of their fans, unforgivable.

Even in the event that they were to fickly forget all that, the other formidable obstacle to Ibrahimovic returning to Juventus is financial. In terms of a fee, Ibra cost Milan €24m and PSG €21m. You’d anticipate that at 31 he’s now probably worth around €18m.

The payment permutations are mooted as follows: Juventus could afford to pay that either up front or with the proceeds from the prospective sale of Alessandro Matri and Fabio Quagliarella, or by part-exchanging one of their own players in return for Ibra and cash with PSG supposedly interested in Arturo Vidal [which would be a mistake, in my opinion].

It’s Ibrahimovic’s wages, though, that would make Juventus balk. He earns €12m a year: that’s double what the club’s highest paid player Gianluigi Buffon takes home.

“Ibra is a player who has made all the club’s he’s played for a fortune,” Marotta said, “on this I agree. But there are parameters that must be respected and Ibra’s wages don’t fit within our parameters, [which are] more Pogba and less Ibra.”

So, that’s it then. No deal. Except this story refuses to go away.

That’s perhaps because the papers and/or Raiola don’t want it too. But just because Ibrahimovic’s wife was reportedly looking for a house in Milan earlier this month doesn’t mean they’re moving back to Italy.

They could just be adding to their property portfolio and retaining a link with a city they love. Likewise, just because Raiola has changed his tone from “he is happy in Paris” to “Balotelli to Milan was also unthinkable,” doesn’t mean it will happen.

Nor does the supposed softening in Marotta’s stance as perceived in this quote: “The moment he reduces his wages at that point many teams would be willing to sign him.”

Yesterday’s report on RMC that PSG have agreed personal terms with Edinson Cavani but not a fee with Napoli [even though his fee is stipulated at €63m in the buy-out clause included within his contract], a report incidentally that Leonardo later denied, only served to further encourage the Ibra talk. As did the man himself.

“If [Juventus’] interest were to reveal itself to be true, for me it would be an honor to be linked with the Bianconeri. We’re talking about a super club, a fantastic team with a great project. But I belong to PSG. I want to win the title and then take a holiday because I really need one.”

Whether he’d be a good fit for Antonio Conte’s Juventus or not is up for debate. Yes, he’s the profile of striker they want, the fabled ‘top player’ capable of scoring 20 goals a season. Sure, at Milan he showed he could set up midfield runners too, a key aspect of Juventus’ game plan.

But you get the feeling that the ideal striker for Conte’s system is Cavani the one who’s out of their price range. As for Fernando Llorente, who’s due to join on a free in the summer, he isn’t an afterthought. It’s just that if Juventus do sell both Matri and Quagliarella, and Bendtner and Anelka leave as expected, then they’ll need another body in attack along with him. Could it be Ibra?

Today’s Gazzetta front-page claimed Juventus have a four-year contract ready for him. It all seems so improbable. But as Raiola has shown in taking Ibra from Barca to Milan and Balotelli from City to Milan too, impossible is nothing. There are many reasons why it shouldn’t happen. And there’s one why it might: And that’s him, Mino Raiola.


James Horncastle will be blogging for us on all matters Serie A throughout the season. He contributes to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, The Blizzard and Champions magazine amongst others.

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