How Haaland’s Advisers Worked the System on the Way to Man City

Manchester City’s most senior executives gathered in a conference room at the club’s sprawling campus to pick up what had gone right, and what had gone wrong, over the previous couple of months.

Though City, the Premier League champion, has succeeded in persuading Aston Villa to relinquish Jack Grealish, the impish playmaker who appeared in England’s breakout star during the European Championship – making him the most expensive player in the history to land its other priority target, the Tottenham striker Harry Kane.

What had always been a complex, fraught pursuit had descended, instead, into a squabble over who was to blame. Kane had, at one point, refused to train with Tottenham, the club he supported as a child, in the hope of forcing Spurs’ hand, but his act of brinkmanship failed. Tottenham claimed City had failed to present an instrument that might begin as a starting point for negotiation.

That afternoon, City’s executives reflected on their strategy, contemplated why they hadn’t materialized and considered how they would proceed. Khaldoon al-Mubarak, the club’s chairman, made one final remark. It amounted to just two words, the ambition and the instruction. “Erling Haaland,” he said.

A little more than nine months later, that has obviously been achieved. On Tuesday afternoon, the German side Borussia Dortmund has reached the “agreement in principle” with Haaland’s current club, one of the two most coveted forwards in world soccer this summer – the scorer of 85 goals in 88 games for Dortmund, and considering alongside Kylian Mbappé as one of the twin standard bearers for soccer’s first post-Messi, post-Ronaldo generation.

In reality, of course, it has not taken nine months to strike any sort of agreement with Dortmund. Haaland’s contract included a buyout clause, somewhere in the region of $ 75 million, that gave Dortmund little to no say over where he might play next season. All City, all anyone, had to inform Dortmund of an intention to pay it. Haaland’s employer was in no position to haggle.

Far more convoluted was the process of persuading Haaland that City was the right next step in his meticulously planned career. Haaland, 21, might have an emotional bond to the club: His father, Alfie, played for City at the turn of the century, and he told the Times in 2019 that he has some affection for all his former teams.

But, as City would have known, there has been precious little room for romance in Erling Haaland’s inexorable rise. Mino Raiola, the divisive Dutch-Italian agent who died last month; and his father.

When Haaland left his hometown team, Bryne, as a teenager, rejected the overtures of the English and German teams pursuing him in favor of Austria’s Red Bull Salzburg, home to both a reliable production line for Europe’s major leagues and the prospect of matches in the Champions League. When he left Salzburg a year later, he was not for England but for Dortmund, a club with a track record of developing and selling players and a willingness to set a reasonable buyout clause.

Haaland recession-proof – $ 75 million is, by modern standards, pretty good value for a player who appears to be designed and engineered to score as many goals as possible – but that, when inevitable auction started, the bar would not pay Dortmund the most, but who could put together the most attractive package for the player and his advisers.

To ensure the best possible outcome, Raiola and Alfie Haaland traveled around Europe’s superclubs, stoking interest and fanning flames. There were visits to Real Madrid and Barcelona. There were eyelashes fluttered in the vague direction of Chelsea and Manchester United. There was even, for a time, a flirtation with Bayern Munich.

That, of course, was their job. It is exactly what Raiola, in particular, was not to do. It does not have to be anywhere north of $ 200 million, once Haaland’s salary and agency fees are taken into account, but because of the course of doing so may have invented a whole new paradigm for how agents shape their players’ careers.

Received wisdom, in soccer, has always had that players should – to be blunt – always take the money, the big break, as soon as they can. It takes only one injury, after all, to explode the best-laid plans; one summer’s passion may be an afterthought by the next. Clubs are fickle, and everything has an expiration date.

Raiola overturned that for Haaland, preferring instead to a policy of delayed gratification. Paul Pogba – but has not built his client’s appeal – but he hasn’t done anything else leap to one of Europe’s elite teams, but to the point that the player (and his representatives) favored the club that happened to own his contract at that point.

City’s offer is the reward. It doesn’t move without its caveats: Manager Pep Guardiola has worked with some of the finest strikers of the modern era, but not always successfully. He has spent six years painstakingly fine-tuning his system at City, only to have it completely replaced Haaland. Sometimes, though, soccer is a startlingly simple game. A player who scores lots of goals should really have only one outcome.

Whether it’s the final reward, though, is a different matter. At the same time City was preparing its announcement, Mbappé was busy being pictured having lunch in Madrid. His contract at Paris St.-Germain expires in a few weeks and seems to be set to move to Real Madrid this summer. What City has offered Haaland.

This is the logical next step in the model that Raiola and the Haaland family have pioneered. It is a reflection of soccer’s financial reality. There is no price point at which City, or PSG, feel compelled to sell a player. That leaves only one option: running down a contract and stepping out on the free market.

That is the challenge that awaits City, somewhere down the line. It has won out, this time, by convincing Haaland – its first true, plug-and-play superstar, someone who’s never thought of a franchise player – this was his best next step. The question, for which career has been planned out so coolly, so ruthlessly, is it also his last one.

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