Why Jorge Mendes, football's super-agent, is revered in Portugal
He's there even when he's not there. As Iker Casillas drew the curtain on his Real Madrid career and joined Porto recently, the name of Jorge Mendes wasn't far away. The Portuguese isn't actually Casillas' agent, but reports in Spanish media since mid-June have suggested that Mendes helped to accelerate the goalkeeper's Bernabeu exit, apparently not wanting the expected arrival of his client David De Gea to be overshadowed by any awkward tale of succession.
If it's an indication of just how far Mendes' influence is believed to have spread, it was also a rare example of a deal involving a Portuguese giant going through without his direct involvement. After all, very little of value comes from or passes through Portuguese football -- and beyond -- without coming into contact with Mendes (listed at No. 2 in ESPN FC's Most Influential in Football).
That has been the case for over a decade now, following a stream of traffic brought into the light by the deal under which one of Mendes' most celebrated clients, Jose Mourinho, left Porto for Chelsea in 2004. Two others from Mendes' Gestifute stable, Ricardo Carvalho and Paulo Ferreira, followed, while Mendes also brokered moves for Deco (to Barcelona) and Pedro Mendes (Tottenham) as the Dragoes' Champions League-winning side was immediately broken up.
Nevertheless, few in Portugal hold it against Mendes. In fact, in a football economy in which large-scale selling is a simple fact of life, many revel in a Portuguese being so powerful on the world stage.
"The general feeling about Jorge Mendes is that he is extremely competent," Lisbon-based journalist Rui Matos Pereira told ESPN FC. "His achievements in his trade make Portuguese football fans proud.
"It's not uncommon for people to signal that we have the best player [Cristiano Ronaldo], the best coach [Mourinho] and the best agent [Mendes]," Pereira continues. "It's a matter of pride for such a small country amidst a global crisis." And, he smiles, "somebody who manages to sell Bebe to Manchester United can sell almost anybody or anything."
Well, quite. Mendes always had that entrepreneurial spirit. After growing up on the northern outskirts of Lisbon, he left home at 19 for the north, going to the town of Viana do Castelo where his plan was to forge a career as a footballer in one of the modest clubs based around there such as Vianense or Lanheses. It quickly became clear, however, that he had "more soul than talent," as noted in a 2012 profile in Correio da Manha.
Instead, Mendes looked to carve out a future in business. He opened a video store and then a beach bar before buying a nightclub in the Caminha district, where he DJed from time to time. The club helped him to cultivate friendships with people involved with football in the region, and one of those friendships put him on an unlikely path to fortune.
Nuno Espirito Santo -- or just Nuno, as he's known in Portugal -- was the goalkeeper for Vitoria Guimaraes. Having been introduced to Mendes through mutual friends, the pair became close and when Nuno got ready to negotiate a transfer to Deportivo La Coruna in January 1997, he asked Mendes to act for him.
The benefit Nuno talks of receiving from the relationship is one that you hear again and again from Mendes' clients. "More than being my agent," Nuno told Correio da Manha, "Jorge is my friend. He's always been there at the important moments. And we've never had a contract." That personal service has become Mendes' trademark. "They are my family," he said of his clients in a February interview with the BBC.
ESPN FC'S 50 MOST INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE IN FOOTBALL
- The list: 50-41 | 40-31 | 30-21 | 20-11 | 10-6 | 5-1 | FC TV
- Marcotti: The power is ultimately derived from the fans
- Brassell: Jorge Mendes -- A national hero in Portugal
- Chaudhary: Jerome Valcke -- The man who makes FIFA tick
- Kuper: Johan Cruyff -- Modern game's father fades from view
- Honigstein: Pep Guardiola -- Bayern boss has more to prove
- Mitten: Gary Neville -- From playing to punditry, coaching
- Merrill: Loretta Lynch -- The face of the FIFA investigation
It goes a long way to explaining why after Mendes made his initial inroads into the business, the rest started to fall like dominoes. He impressed the right people, moving the little-known Costinha in 1997 from second-tier Nacional to Monaco, where the midfielder became a huge hit. Another landmark for Mendes was his biggest international transfer to date in 2002, when he presided over 19-year-old Hugo Viana's move from Sporting Clube de Portugal to Newcastle United, a deal sealed for an eye-popping £8.5 million transfer fee.
Word spread and relationships strengthened. Mendes acted for another teenager, one Cristiano Ronaldo, in his move from Sporting to Manchester United a year later, as well as for the switch of a similarly feted winger, Ricardo Quaresma, to Barcelona (also from Sporting). In an investigative piece for The Guardian last year, David Conn wrote that Mendes acknowledged being involved with an astonishing 68 percent of transfers involving os tres grandes (the big three of Porto, Sporting and Benfica) from 2001 to 2010.
Even for the big boys, existence for Portuguese clubs is hand-to-mouth, so rather than being seen as an irritant or a negative influence in the game, Mendes is the ultimate can-do conduit for welcome business. His rise is seen not as a Marvel villain, but more as "the Portuguese [style] American dream," as Vice put it back in December.
"There's a common idea that it's better having Mendes by your side than having no business relationships with him," says Pereira, "because there's a bigger probability for him to place your players somewhere else with a better deal if you really need to sell them due to his global connections."
Those connections were rarely more apparent than in the summer of 2014 when a string of major Mendes clientele were transferred, including James Rodriguez, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa, Angel Di Maria and Eliaquim Mangala. Now Mendes is having to adjust his way of working in the light of FIFA's third-party ownership ban, a ruling he called "illegal" in his interview with the BBC: "Who has the right to stop them [the players] finding a better job?"
Mendes had already shifted his focus slightly, ostensibly working more as a recruiter. After Deportivo were promoted back to La Liga in 2012, he was mandated by then-president Augusto Cesar Lendoiro to restock the squad and brought in a raft of players including Diego Salomao, Pizzi and Bruno Gama.
Since his close friend and associate Peter Lim took control of Valencia, the Mestalla club have often strengthened with players owned by Lim's Meriton investment fund, with whom Mendes has worked extensively. Players such as Andre Gomes and Rodrigo were loaned to Valencia pending confirmation of Lim's takeover before completing full transfers this summer. Nuno, of course, is now Valencia's head coach. Lim's recent purchase of Ronaldo's image rights suggests further diversification.
Many might not like the way in which Mendes works, but he gets things done. There is the feeling in some quarters that "Mendes became so big, important and influential that players are only picked for Portugal if they are Mendes' players or with his agreement," notes Pereira, but his flagship clients continue to speak for him, without even opening their mouths.
"The idea that people have is that Mendes' role in both Mourinho's and Cristiano's careers is a good one," Pereira says, "mostly because they have been winning and performing superbly throughout their careers. They keep on working with Mendes ... and they keep on getting richer and richer."
Mendes' Midas touch looks like it will endure for a while yet.
Andy Brassell is a writer/broadcaster/producer for BBC, Guardian, Mirror, Talksport, BT Sport, WhoScored. Follow him on Twitter @andybrassell.