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The agent of Romelu Lukaku has revealed how he warned the striker that a dream return to Chelsea could be “now or never” in the summer and that it took the European champions five offers to get him back.
In a rare interview, Federico Pastorello - Lukaku's Italian representative - also confirmed that Manchester City instigated an approach for the Belgium international last year before eventually backing away from the deal.
The £97.5million transfer which took Lukaku to west London from Inter Milan in August was the biggest in Chelsea's history and Pastorello - speaking to Telegraph Sport at the Chelsea Harbour Hotel, close to Stamford Bridge - offered a unique insight into the transfer and his relationship with the club that predates the Roman Abramovich era.
“This is what I was telling Romelu, that it could be now or never, because probably he was not realising it 100 per cent at first,” said Pastorello. “I had to tell him to remember that sometimes there are trains and when they pass, they don’t come back. Because of the situation, because of the market and because there were not many possibilities, this was Romelu’s train.
“We had the opportunity to be in the right place at the right moment and I told him that if he wanted to come back, he needed to take it now.
“It was a very particular situation for all parties. For Chelsea, they got Romelu when he was 18 and they sold him. They tried to sign him back when Antonio Conte was manager, they were not successful and they had to pay their club record to bring back a player that was once their player. This was a psychological difficulty because you can expose yourself to some criticism, whether he is successful or not successful.
“Then Inter, everybody knew they had financial difficulties and that probably meant that, to start with, Chelsea a little bit underestimated how much Inter didn’t want to sell him and were able to say no. So that was part of my job, to explain that without the right offer, the player would not move.
“Chelsea were 100 per cent sure that he was the one, I never had doubts, but I think they needed to think twice before doing it. There were more offers before they got to the level Inter accepted. There were four offers and the fifth was the one that closed the talks. Looking back, I think everyone got a really good deal.”
Lukaku made a blistering start to his Chelsea comeback, scoring four goals in his first four games, but then went on a six-match run without netting before suffering an ankle injury in the Champions League against Malmo.
His Stamford Bridge return had been under threat last summer, when Manchester City showed a strong interest at the end of his first year at Inter. But Pastorello had been aware of the player’s desire to complete what he had felt was unfinished business at the club he first joined as a teenager.
“I think I can say without disappointing anybody that Manchester City came in the year before,” said Pastorello. “During the pandemic, it was very complicated because of trying to fly to places to meet people. It started very concrete and very serious, but eventually they changed their idea or they were not ready to make it happen.
“Honestly, it was very difficult after the first year - it was almost impossible. He hadn’t won the league with Inter and he wanted to do that, and it would have been really impossible. Then they [City] focussed on Harry Kane this summer.
“Romelu was incredibly happy in Milan, he loves the supporters, he loves the city, he loves the club. But, on the other side, he was always dreaming of coming back to Chelsea. I knew this in 2017, he said there were two clubs that were his dream - Chelsea and Real Madrid, and Chelsea was even more because he had been sold much too early and not in a very nice way after the penalty in the Super Cup, so he felt there was something he had not achieved and he wanted to put it right.”
Pastorello first got to know Lukaku in the summer of 2017, when he tried to help former Chelsea head coach Antonio Conte sign the striker from Everton while he was a client of another Italian super agent, Mino Raiola.
Lukaku was eventually moved to Manchester United by Raiola, but got back in touch with Pastorello after his contract with Raiola had expired and the pair started to work together, with Pastorello brokering the transfer that took him to Inter for £75m, including bonuses, in the summer of 2019.
“I have never been the agent of Antonio Conte, but I was very involved when he was manager at Chelsea,” said Pastorello. “And in 2017, he wanted to sign Romelu and I was a little bit involved, just more to give my opinions - not as the player’s agent.
“I really wanted the deal to happen and I really tried to put it together for Romelu and Chelsea, but in the end he went to Manchester United. I had told Romelu that in my opinion he would be better moving to Chelsea and I tried to push him that way. If I had been his agent, I think that is what would have happened.
“Then we did not talk for almost a year-and-a-half until one day my phone rang and it was an unknown number. I answered it and it was Romelu. He told me that he appreciated the fact I could see past the business and he decided that he would like me to be his agent. He’s my biggest client and he was probably the easiest to sign because he called me.”
'Ken Bates treated me like a small son'
Pastorello is the polar opposite to the brash and scruffy Raiola, and describes his P&P Sports Management agency, which is based in Monaco, as being “boutique”. Dressed in a tailored suit and waistcoat, Pastorello is eloquent with his words and his only criticism during an insightful hour was of this reporter’s choice of coffee. “It is more like milk,” came his assessment.
It was as a 24-year-old that he first took goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini to Chelsea, when Ken Bates was chairman of the club, and he met Abramovich at the first-ever Chelsea match the Russian billionaire attended as owner before later putting himself firmly in the good books of Marina Granovskaia by recommending Cesar Azpilicueta to the club.
“I think because I was so young, Mr Bates treated me a bit like a small son,” said Pastorello. “He sold the club to Mr Abramovich and I remember there was the first friendly game of the new owner in Rome against Lazio, and Mr Bates invited me to introduce me to the new owner. So that was the first time I met Mr Abramovich and from there everything started.”
Abramovich has since entrusted the day-to-day running of Chelsea to Granovskaia, who has earned a reputation for being one of the smartest negotiators in the game.
“I’m proud to say I have a very good relationship with Marina and she is somebody I consider to be, 100 per cent, exceptional,” said Pastorello. “She really is one of the best.
“There is an image of Marina, but I’m lucky to know her in a different way. She is also a very sweet person and quite funny. She’s devoted to the job and to Chelsea, but I really admire how she balances that with how she manages her life outside football.”
Among all the business he has done with Chelsea and Granovskaia, Pastorello is particularly proud of recommending captain Azpiliceuta to the club and likened his signing to that of defender Malang Sarr, who as well as Lukaku, is one of his clients.
“I was not the agent of Azpi, but I knew him at Marseille and I did the deal between Chelsea and Marseille. It was €7.5m, which seems incredible now,” said Pastorello. “I was 100 per cent sure he would end up being a Chelsea player, when I suggested him to Marina, but I have to be honest that I didn’t see Azpi doing as well as he has done and all the credit for that goes to him.”
Pastorello moved Sarr to Chelsea as a free agent from Nice last summer and, following a season on loan at Porto, the defender made his Premier League debut for the club in the 1-0 victory over Brentford.
“I see in Malang the same attitude, the same focus, the same talent as Azpi when he joined Chelsea,” said Pastorello. “That’s setting the bar so high and, of course, Malang needs to improve on the tactical side because Azpi is a genius, he’s a professor. But, like I was with Azpi, I’m 100 per cent sure that he will end up being a player for Chelsea.”
Pastorello did acknowledge, however, that Sarr may need another loan move, adding: “This is what we wanted in the summer and we had a deal practically done with Eintracht Frankfurt, but they could not move a player, so Malang stayed.
“Let’s see in January what will happen. Maybe he can go on loan then because maybe he needs one or two seasons playing regularly before coming back, like many players in Chelsea have done.”
Agents are regularly accused of taking money out of football, something Pastorello disputes, but he does concede that commissions could be spiralling out of control and that has resulted in greater family involvement in player representation.
“I agree that probably we need to find a regulation on commissions,” said Pastorello. “Maybe a cap or some more balance. We have probably arrived at too much for what is our role because we are not the players and we are not the clubs. We are a very important part of the business, but the commission rises really a lot.”
Harry Kane’s brother Charlie received criticism for his handling of the striker’s attempt to leave Tottenham Hotspur. Pastorello did not name any examples or specific cases, but said: “For sure, the families are more involved because the cake on the table started to get bigger and smell even better!
“The family is really important for the career of the player and I’m not against working also for the family of the player. But the problem comes, from time to time, when they are there just to grab a piece of cake. Probably, this kind of thing should also be regulated. With our boutique agency, we try to be the second family for the player.”