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FourFourTwo’s 10 most influential people in football right now

Words: Amit Katwala, Alex Hess, Seb Stafford-Bloor. 

10. Cristiano Ronaldo

After Ronaldo’s 47th career hat-trick, against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League semi-finals, a BBC Sport tweet pointed out that only one of those triples had come for Manchester United. That’s testament to the way the Portuguese attacker has continued to improve and re-invent himself, through sheer force of will and strength of character. With Lionel Messi – Ronaldo’s great rival – there’s the sense that his extreme talent has been bestowed upon him, but you don’t get quite the same feeling from the 32-year-old Madrid forward.

Everything Ronaldo has, he’s carved out for himself – and there’s enough stuff he’s won to fill a museum on his home island of Madeira. That self-obsessed streak is a stick that’s often used to beat Ronaldo with – and it does sometimes seem like he takes more joy from individual success than collective glory.

Perhaps that’s just indicative of modern football, though. In an age when we’re told many fans follow individual players rather than teams, and transfer value is as much about how many followers you have as how many goals you’ve scored, Ronaldo is perhaps the ultimate footballer.

In the last year, when you’d expect his powers to be beginning to wane, the 32-year-old Ronaldo has managed to kick it up another notch. He was instrumental as Portugal won Euro 2016, and has scored 44 goals in 45 games for club and country this season. As Rio Ferdinand said in commentary after the Champions League semi-final first leg, it is literally Roy of the Rovers stuff – and Ronaldo seems to have been scoring for almost as long as Roy Race did. AK

9. Ed Woodward

Despite the mini-drought since Alex Ferguson’s departure, Manchester United are still one of the biggest clubs in the world – they knocked Real Madrid off the top of the Deloitte Money League (the only league that matters, right?) this year, despite a season without the Champions League.

Avram and Joel Glazer are at the top of United’s management structure, but most of the day-to-day dealing falls to Ed Woodward, executive vice-chairman and director of the club.

The 45-year-old was an investment banker, and started working at United after advising the Glazers during their controversial takeover. He became the leading man after David Gill’s departure, and was heavily criticised by fans for failing to land any big-name transfer targets during David Moyes’ time at the club. The arrival of Marouane Fellaini, for a fee much higher than the buy-out clause which United missed the deadline for, was underwhelming at best.

Things have picked up since then – particularly last summer with the appointment of Jose Mourinho, and heavy financial backing from the board. Woodward seems to have grown into his role, and is now confident cutting deals with some of football’s major players. He also helped the club land a lucrative new sponsorship deal with adidas worth £750m over 10 years.

However, Woodward certainly seems to have signed more sponsorship deals in foreign countries than he has players. United now have an official noodles partner, an official mattress partner and an official lubricant partner. Sounds like a fun night in. AK

8. Florentino Perez

At most football clubs, it’s the coach who is largely seen to be in charge, while the executives take something of a back seat. Real Madrid, however, is not most football clubs.

With the exception of a three-year hiatus in the late-noughties, Florentino Perez has been president of Spain's self-styled superclub since the turn of the millennium, and in that time has ensured that the club has effectively redrawn the map in terms of how a big club is expected to behave.

Perez's initial clamber to power sparked the club's famous/infamous galacticos era, when the Real Madrid head honcho made it an annual tradition to spend an eye-watering sum of money on whoever happened to be the planet's most exciting, famous and handsome footballer (they famously opted against signing the buck-toothed Ronaldinho on aesthetic grounds). Was Perez cannily pre-empting today's age of footballer-as-celebrity, or was he brashly laying the groundwork for it?

In hindsight, probably a bit of both, with a large helping of the latter. The galacticos era may now be consigned to history and be remembered for hubris and shortsightedness rather than medals – but broadly speaking it's a policy that has not only survived at the club itself, but spread across Europe like wildfire. 

Most basely, Perez's legacy can be counted in the many trophies Real Madrid have hoovered up during his time as president. But on a more pervasive level, his influence can be felt in the way top-level football has become inextricable from ostentatious displays of transfer market brawn, and how ability often plays second fiddle to marketability when the juggernauts draw up their summer shortlists. AH

7. Jose Mourinho

It was a weary and somewhat bruised Mourinho who arrived at Manchester United at the start of the season – very different from the fresh-faced manager who’d taken the Premier League by storm in his first spell at Chelsea. Fans were split on his arrival at Old Trafford, but he’s certainly brought progress, although not the sweeping return to glory that some perhaps expected.

Instead, it’s been a gradual improvement. He’s built on the solidity acquired under Louis van Gaal, and done a slightly better job of scoring goals – although United are yet to regain that inevitably about their attack that they enjoyed under Alex Ferguson.

However, with a League Cup already in the bag, a Europa League win (and the Champions League qualification that it will ensure) would make for a solidly successful first season.

It’s been well documented that Mourinho tends to be a three-year man – that’s the doubt that hung over his appointment, and is yet to be answered. Does he have the ability or the desire to bring young talent through the academy and build a side that can challenge not for just one title, but several?

That remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: if Mourinho arrived at Old Trafford broken and humbled by his final season at Chelsea, his reputation is somewhat rehabilitated. If he stays in Manchester, he could build a dynasty. If not, he’s still one of the most sought-after personalities in the game. AK

6. Roman Abramovich

When Mikhail Gorbachev, the eighth and final leader of the Soviet Union, resigned and declared his office extinct in December 1991, few minds were drawn to the transformative effect that event would have on English football. Yet so it has proven: as Boris Yeltsin's Russia renounced socialism in favour of crony capitalism and large-scale privatisation, one of the lucky handful of oligarchs about to come into unimaginable wealth and power just so happened to like football, too. 

When Yeltsin ran for re-election five years later, Roman Abramovich was among the wealthy few who pocketed billions of dollars in state assets – in his case, oil – in return for pledging cash to the campaign. The deal, according to Forbes, was “the largest heist in corporate history and a lasting emblem of the corruption of modern Russia”.

Not that Abramovich was complaining: his man was indeed re-elected, and he spent the ensuing decade edging ever closer to the Kremlin's corridors of power (he personally interviewed all of Vladimir Putin's would-be cabinet members when the president took office; Putin owns a £25m yacht that was a gift from Abramovich).

In 2003, Abramovich went to watch Manchester United play Real Madrid. It was a bona fide classic. Abramovich was smitten, and decided he wanted a club for himself. Luckily for him, Chelsea – a team based in a wealthy London district that plays second home to many a Russian billionaire – were on the brink of financial oblivion. Abramovich pounced. Fourteen years and 13 major trophies later, Chelsea are a club transformed.

Abramovich's influence is there for all to see in the shifting landscape of the Premier League over the last decade. But his influence stretches some way beyond football, too, and is a reminder that the sport does not take place in a bubble. Or to put it another way: a butterfly flaps its wings in the Soviet Union, and two decades later Jose Bosingwa is collecting a Champions League medal. AH

5. Lionel Messi

The icon. The greatest player to ever play the game. Characterising the nature of Messi’s influence is difficult, because it’s rather implied: like the value of Michael Jordan to the NBA in the 1990s, or Joe Namath to the post-merger NFL.

Defining his actual function is impossible because, really, he’s been a symbol of his era rather than a creator of it. He’s naturally ubiquitous, of course, throughout Barcelona’s successful La Liga campaigns and their periodic surges through Europe. He’s also, quite understandably, the most desirable marketing property in the game, acting as the key piece within adidas’s brand activation strategy and enjoying all manner of commercial deals across an ever-broadening range of fields: from Dolce & Gabbana to India’s Tata Motors, to Turkish Airlines and communications giant Huawei.

Messi is not only the world’s best player, but also the game’s most bankable asset. While his influence doesn’t necessarily come from any formalised power, his inarguable excellence (and brand neutrality) helps to set the generational tone of the game itself.

For as long as football is player, the current era will be adorned with his name; as a result, the range of his influence – in the marketing, sporting and aspirational senses – is incalculable. What Messi does at the Camp Nou one day will have rippled across the world by the next morning, making him the purest kind of agenda-setter. SSB

4. Aleksander Ceferin

UEFA’s president since since September 2016, Ceferin is that rare thing: a footballing bureaucrat with a sincere appetite for change. To date, he is yet to really convince anyone that he isn’t under the partial influence of his equivalent at FIFA, Gianni Infantino, but he is evidently under no illusion about the nature of his mandate.

“It was an anti-establishment vote,” he told the New York Times (of his election) earlier this year. “It is happening all around the world. I met every association, and they all wanted something to change.”

Over the course of his tenure, Ceferin will have to lead the resistance against Champions League reform. The continent’s biggest clubs (some of them in exile from the competition) have lobbied hard – and got – historic privileges, and he has ascended to power at a time when his organisation is locked in a pattern of appeasement. Troublingly – perhaps oddly given his background as a fan of a club (Hajduk Split) from a disenfranchised nation – a new range of reforms which nakedly benefit the established leagues have already been waved through on his watch. From 2018 onwards, the top-four countries will be guaranteed four group stage participants a season, while – outrageously – historical coefficient points will boost fallen clubs like Milan.

In the past, Ceferin has also been an advocate of cross-border league competition and seems determined to find a way of increasing mobility within the game. Whether that proves realistic or not, the Slovenian will drive European football’s agenda (sort of) during his presidency, and be responsible for shaping it years after he leaves office. SSB

3. Jorge Mendes

If you ask Cristiano Ronaldo about Jorge Mendes – his agent and the man in charge of a portfolio of players worth more than £700m – he’ll tell you about a kind, thoughtful man who also spends about 20 hours a day on the phone. Mendes has four of them, and he has used them to become one of the most connected people in football – able to ring up managers and club presidents in the middle of the night and harass them to sign his clients.

But Mendes doesn’t just represent players. He’s the man you call if you’re a billionaire who’s just bought a new club and you want to make a splash. In fact, Mendes has even helped engineer those kinds of takeovers – particularly with Peter Lim at Valencia, and Dmitry Rybolovlev at Monaco. Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Deportivo La Coruna, Monaco and Manchester United have all bought multiple Mendes players when building their squads. Do you get the 10th player free, perhaps?

His methods have ruffled feathers. A number of players, including Ronaldo, Nani and Bebe were reportedly represented by other agents before Mendes swooped in at just the right time. Bebe was only signed to Mendes a couple of days before his shock move to Manchester United.

You can question his methods, and his previous involvement in third-party ownership schemes, but you can’t deny his influence. Mino Raiola might have helped shape the bulk of the action in last summer’s transfer window, but Mendes still has the ear of some of football’s biggest spenders. AK

2. Gianni Infantino

The true impossible job. Before his migration to FIFA, Infantino began his administrative career at UEFA where, among others, he occupied the roles of Deputy Secretary General and, later, the senior position itself. During that time, he was at the vanguard of a range of UEFA reforms, including the Financial Fair Play initiative, the expansion of the European Championship, and the conception of the hostless 2020 competition.

His ascension to the FIFA presidency came, of course, as the result of Sepp Blatter’s protracted demise. Having been elected to the role with a promise to “bring football back”, Infantino faces the unenviable task of sanitising what most assume to be a deeply toxic organisation. Fluent in FIFAspeak ("We enter now a new era. We'll restore the image of FIFA and make sure everybody will be happy with what we do.") and just as practiced in the art of rhetoric as his predecessor, his presidency has done little to assuage a suspicious public.

It’s not been helped by May’s releasing of chief investigator Cornel Borbely and lead judge Hans-Joachim Ecker, the two men predominantly responsible for bringing down a host of corrupt officials including Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini.

Infantino has been busy indeed: in January 2017, he led the Executive Committee in a unanimous vote to expand the World Cup format from 32 teams to an enormous 48 from the 2026 competition onwards. Irrespective of how his organisation continues to be perceived, Infantino has – and will continue to – shape global football. SSB

1. Richard Scudamore

The Premier League’s status as a relentless money-making machine is largely thanks to its executive chairman Scudamore, the 57-year-old who joined the organisation in 1999 and has overseen a vast expansion of its global reach and income. The latest television deal is worth more than £5bn, and that’s just for the domestic market – the global deals are becoming more and more valuable too.

The best players in the world might play in Spain, but it’s still the Premier League that fans from London to Laos can’t seem to take their eyes off.

Because of its position and spending power, any decision made by the Premier League has far-reaching implications. Scudamore’s critics say that the wealthy elites could be doing more to help clubs lower down the league pyramid, as well as providing more money to fund grassroots football and secure the future of the game. For all the cash involved, there’s less and less live football available to watch for free, and that’s bound to have implications further down the line.

Of course, Scudamore’s focus – and the reason he gets paid a reported £2.5m a year – is to keep the Premier League at the top of global football. This vastly experienced operator could be in for a challenging few years on that front. The threat of China’s new spending power seems to have been short-lived, but Brexit is the next potential iceberg for Scudamore to navigate.

Already, the spending power of Premier League clubs has been diminished by the collapsing pound, and it could mean a return to restrictive work permit rules for EU transfers; it’s estimated that more than 100 current Premier League players wouldn’t be eligible under potential new rules.

Scudamore has said he wants to see a new Premier League winner every six years, and has plans in place to try to encourage more Leicester City stories. But if all the world’s best players are in other countries, even British viewers might eventually switch over. AK

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