This piece on Erling Haaland originally featured in FFT, Issue 333 – buy it now!
A few years ago, a rare thing happened to Mino Raiola: he fell in love.
The superagent turned on his TV to watch a young striker play for Molde, in Norway’s top division. Casual fans knew the kid was good. Raiola saw something more. He’d found the one.
Soon, Raiola had become an advisor to Erling Braut Haaland and his dad, Alfie, a former midfielder for Leeds, Nottingham Forest and Manchester City. Since then, none of them have done too badly – going into 2022, Raiola and Alfie are gearing up for one of the bidding wars of the decade.
A buyout clause will allow him to leave Borussia Dortmund next summer for €75 million, about half his market value. The victor of the frenzied auction will be whichever party entices Raiola and the Haalands the most – be it with love, money... or preferably both.
Few agents sell their clients better than Raiola. With Haaland, however, the Italian-Dutch middle man has barely needed to say a word.
The 6ft 4in Norwegian is the talent of the century alongside Kylian Mbappe. Fast, strong and lethal, Haaland is a cyborg-ish freak of nature; a truly frightening alchemy of Thor, Speedy Gonzales and The Terminator.
At 21, his output bears comparison to the very best, past or present. Only Mbappe is able to match him. If you exclude penalties at the time of writing, the duo are averaging 0.79 goals per 90 minutes in league and European competition – a rate that beats every major talent aged below 22 over the past two decades.
Raul had registered more goals than both, but not at the same speed. The closest is Lionel Messi, at 0.68. Decent effort, Leo... but no cigar.
Heaven knows how much this will end up costing someone. As if Haaland weren’t valuable enough, Raiola is to negotiating what Mozart is to music; just swap the symphonic genius with trash talk and hype. His demeanour makes Ari Gold look like a wimp. Aware that most clubs can pay the buyout clause, Raiola will drive up the other fees as far as he can – and almost always gets his way.
In August, Christian Falk, the transfer oracle for German newspaper Bild, reported that Raiola wanted €50m per year in player wages and an agent fee of €40m. Any takers? The wheels have long been set in motion, though. In April, Raiola and Alfie paid visits to Barcelona and Real Madrid – but with the two clubs mired in debt, everyone knew that they couldn’t afford Haaland that summer. Yet Raiola made a point that’s bound to haunt football executives for months.
“I don’t know if Real Madrid could afford Haaland,” he said with a mischievous smirk. “The question is a different one: can Madrid afford not to buy Haaland?”
So far, Raiola and the Haalands couldn’t have played their hand any better. When Erling was about to leave Norway in 2018, he could have joined Bayer Leverkusen or Juventus. Instead, he signed for Red Bull Salzburg. Some asked why he would move to Austria and not Germany or Italy, but Tor-Kristian Karlsen, who has spent 20 years as chief scout and sporting director at a host of European clubs including Monaco and Maccabi Haifa, says they knew what they were doing.
“They’ve planned his career to perfection,” Karlsen tells FFT. “The ingenious thing with Salzburg is that he went to a league where he could perform well straight away, while the professionalism and working methods were as good as the top clubs in the Bundesliga. Almost all young players who leave Salzburg succeed where they go next, because they’re so well prepared.”
After a quiet start in Austria, Haaland exploded with a hat-trick on his Champions League debut against Genk in September 2019. By the end of the year he was racking up more goals than games, and another move seemed inevitable. Juve were again interested, as were Manchester United and RB Leipzig – but the Haalands instead picked Borussia Dortmund.
“BVB are a dream team for a striker,” says Karlsen. “It’s probably only Ajax who can create better conditions for scoring goals.”
The hype didn’t exactly die down when Haaland, on his Dortmund debut, came off the bench against Augsburg to thump home a hat-trick in 20 minutes. As ever, Raiola was one step ahead. During contract talks, he knew that Dortmund wouldn’t want to sell Haaland unless they were forced to. So, the release clause gave Haaland two and a half years to develop in Germany, by which point he could pick his next club freely while Raiola drove up the agent fee. Yet, if you’d listened to the latter this March, he sounded as if he had somehow underestimated his own client’s progress.
A 2️⃣0️⃣2️⃣1️⃣ that was nothing short of outstanding from the main man, Mr. @ErlingHaaland 👏Which of his goals was your favourite? 🎯👇 #Bundesliga pic.twitter.com/ieTY8UuWk3December 31, 2021
“He did things quicker than everybody imagined,” said Raiola. “Maybe I was too careful when I said, ‘Oh no, let’s move to Dortmund instead of I-don’t-know-where’.”
A few months later, Haaland capped off a 2020-21 season in which he’d scored 40 goals in 40 games.
Soon, Raiola appeared to push for a move one year earlier than planned. In April, the rumour mill went into overdrive when he and Alfie paid Barcelona a visit to meet with newly crowned president Joan Laporta. Raiola claimed he was there to congratulate Laporta – and if that was hard to believe, it appeared even less credible when the duo rocked up at Real Madrid later the same day.
Still, the release clause wasn’t yet active, and Dortmund – then chasing a Champions League spot they would eventually secure – refused to sell. Raiola knew as much, too. “But that doesn’t mean I agree,” he sniffed. Yet why flirt with Barça and Madrid when neither had any cash?
“He was testing the market,” Bild’s Christian Falk tells FFT. “He knew it wasn’t possible for Madrid or Barça. The only club that was serious was Chelsea. Roman Abramovich was thinking of buying him. He likes Haaland, and Thomas Tuchel was – and still is – a fan. They were looking for that kind of striker, and they had some money, but in the end the price was too high.”
“I heard Dortmund say that anything below €175m, they wouldn’t talk. If you heard Raiola talking about the money Haaland should earn, I don’t think anyone will pay it. But it’s a poker game – €50m per year is the price we heard. It’s too much for every club during a pandemic. There will be just a handful of clubs that can afford him.”
A quick look at Haaland’s Instagram might suggest a kid drunk on his own wealth. He hails from the down-to-earth agricultural south-western coast, yet in the summer he was spotted on a yacht in Mykonos wearing a £2,250 Louis Vuitton ‘watercolour’ outfit. In May, he was off to watch the Formula 1 in Monaco, grinning on a private plane in striped Dolce & Gabbana get-up. That picture was shown to Norway coach Stale Solbakken. “There’s no way he’s turning up here dressed like that,” he chuckled.
A photo posted by on
If Solbakken was relaxed, it was because he knew Haaland wouldn’t lose his focus. In July, the striker was back on the west coast in a hoodie, shorts and trainers, feeding cows. “Sunglasses and fancy clothes done,” he wrote. “Now back to work with my pals!”
He obsesses about sleep and meditation, and salutes Cristiano Ronaldo’s fish and chicken diet. When Dortmund started their league campaign at home to Eintracht Frankfurt in August, Haaland scored two goals and assisted three in a 5-2 win. A couple of muscle injuries have disrupted his flow since then, but by mid-October he had plundered 13 goals in nine games when a torn hip flexor muscle ruled him out until mid-December at the earliest.
“He’s made a big improvement,” says Falk. “You’d have thought that it wasn’t possible, but he’s done it again. At Bayern Munich they always talk about a winning mentality, and this is the only thing Dortmund have been missing over the past few years. Now they have a player who has it, and it’s Haaland. If they have a chance to win the title this year, it’s because of him.”
In October, Bild reported that Dortmund wanted to almost double Haaland’s wages to make him stay.
“They’re trying to give the supporters faith that they can keep hold of him,” says Falk. “But I think everybody knows, both within the club and the Bundesliga, that they won’t.”
So where is he going?
“We can’t say which club it’ll be,” says Falk – and if he doesn’t know, then nobody does. Still, the fact remains that some clubs have a much better chance than others...
Show them the money
One thing seems certain, though: nobody in Italy can afford Erling Haaland – neither Falk nor Karlsen even mention Serie A as a likely destination. Beppe Marotta, the ex-Juventus CEO now at Inter, still rues an opportunity he missed to get Haaland for €2m when he was in Norway. “We were close,” said Marotta. “Now it’s impossible to see Haaland playing in Serie A.”
During Barça’s presidential elections, which concluded in March, some candidates used Haaland as bait. The advisor of Emili Rousaud, one of the candidates, hinted that they had an agreement for him to join. “Fake news!” Raiola shot back. Now, a broke Barça seem out of the question.
All of which narrows the field down to Real Madrid, Bayern, Paris Saint-Germain and the Premier League. Bayern love nabbing their rivals’ best players, but their former CEO, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, has anticipated a bidding war that rules them out.
“He’ll be taken by the club that offers the highest salary,” he said. “I don’t think it’s possible for any Bundesliga club, not even Bayern.” Karlsen believes Bayern would be one of the favourites were it not for the agent fee. Falk thinks they could still make an offer.
“They’re thinking about it,” he says. “But it also depends on Harry Kane and what Manchester City are doing; it depends on Madrid and Mbappe. And at Bayern there’s another big question, too: what is Robert Lewandowski’s next step?”
In August, there were reports that the Polish hitman wanted out. Falk says Lewy’s agent, Pini Zahavi, is trying to get him sold in the summer, which would free some Bayern cash for Haaland and a place upfront in the team.
“But can they pay his salary?” asks Falk. “If it’s really €50m, then they can’t do it. We know that Lewandowski is earning about €25m – so if Haaland would be fine with that amount, there’s a small chance that he could go to Bayern.”
The €50m might just be a gambit, anyway. “I think it’s Raiola playing games,” says Falk. “He’s always naming a big price so everyone gets frightened, and then they talk.”
Then there’s PSG. For the Qatari owners, who might have to stomach losing Mbappe on a free to Madrid six months before the World Cup, Haaland could be the only adequate target.
“We heard Paris were thinking about him last summer, in case Mbappe left,” says Falk. “I heard that Haaland would be interested in playing with Messi. I don’t think it’s his first choice, but we’re talking about money, and when Raiola is involved it’s always a question of money. If the Premier League can’t pay him, and Madrid can’t do anything because Mbappe is enough, I think this is absolutely the easiest way for him to go somewhere. But I don’t think it’s his first choice.”
So what is? “If you were to ask him, ‘Hey, would you like to play with Mbappe at Madrid?’ I think he’d say, ‘Great’,” says Falk. “I think he will play for Madrid one day, and they have a special plan for him, because his dad is very focused on the sporting aspect and puts that before money. Raiola is the other way around. But in the end, it’s the Haalands who decide.”
It might not happen this summer, though – Madrid president Florentino Perez has been obsessed with Mbappe for years.
“Madrid will go for Mbappe, and that’s enough for them,” says Karlsen. “Karim Benzema is still good and Vinicius Junior is doing well. I don’t think it’s a wise decision for Erling to go to the same club as Mbappe. It’s more of a fantasy football move. Even if Madrid have the money, it’s not like they have to spend it all in one window. The package they’ll end up paying Mbappe will be costly enough, so it has to be the Manchester clubs and Chelsea, with Madrid as an outsider.”
Falk agrees. “If it’s not Madrid this summer, I think the Premier League is the next step.” But, sorry Liverpool fans, not you – because “they don’t operate in this way”, according to Karlsen.
And as for Chelsea? The Blues just spent £98m bringing Romelu Lukaku back to Stamford Bridge. “Lukaku is 28, he’s got at least four years left at the top level, but my impression is that if Chelsea really want someone, and a player of Haaland’s calibre becomes available, they might find a way to justify the price,” says Karlsen.
The favourites, then, reside in Manchester. Reports say United have Haaland high on their list – to be fair, who doesn’t? – yet they too have committed funds elsewhere. Cristiano Ronaldo’s deal lasts until 2023, and the Portuguese has no intention of watching from the bench. The Red Devils also have a turbulent relationship with Raiola, to say the least. Alex Ferguson despises him for taking Paul Pogba away in 2012, and Raiola has won few friends at Old Trafford with his constant criticism of the team. “I don’t give a f**k if I never do another player with Manchester United,” he snapped in March.
But as former Reds stopper Rio Ferdinand shrugged when pushing Haaland’s case, “Sometimes you’ve got to dance with the devil.” Falk says Haaland “likes” the club but, for his part, Karlsen wouldn’t recommend the move. “United have too many forward options,” he says. “City are more stable.”
Eastlands, then, could be where the pieces all fall into place. Pep Guardiola badly needs a striker and, having missed out on Kane last summer, the club’s financial powder is dry. Guardiola has said that if the club can spend £100m on a player who can produce for five or 10 years, they might do it. And then there’s Alfie’s past at the club. When FFT sat down with Erling last year, he admitted to having a soft spot for City – his older brother, Astor, has even posted a picture of a baby Erling in a City shirt.
“Of course you become a fan,” the deadpan Dortmund striker told us. “You support them because you support your dad.”
“I’m not sure it will be City,” rebuffs Falk. “They will talk, of course. Raiola will talk with anyone who can pay. I just don’t think Erling is a Guardiola player, based on what Pep did at Bayern and how he likes to play. But if they don’t get Kane again, there aren’t that many other strikers at that level. It depends on Kane and on Madrid and Mbappe.”
The only certainty is that Haaland will move – and that Raiola will run the show. “He’s got all the cards and is controlling the dialogue,” says Karlsen. “He’ll wait for bids and play hardball. Once he’s got a club on the hook and has pushed negotiations far enough down the road, he’ll bring others in to drive up the price.”
If Karlsen could advise Haaland, which club would he pick?
“Everyone wants to play for Real Madrid, but I don’t think this is the right time,” he admits. “I’d say the club that seems the most stable, best run and the best placed to present a very good sporting project is City. And then you’ll just have to live with the fact that he might not be a ‘Pep player’. Good coaches always find room for good players. Anyway, it’s not like Pep will be there forever.
“In the end, it’s about what Haaland wants. The money is really of secondary importance because all clubs will pay a lot. He’ll be rich either way. So I have a hunch that he’ll want to play in England. I think the intensity and culture there appeals to him.”
Haaland, of course, was born in Leeds when Alfie had just joined Manchester City, although they soon moved back to Norway.
“I don’t remember much about England,” Haaland admitted to FFT last year. England, however, might well come to remember him.
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