Today is Friday, April 2. As the recent international break has come to an end, we enter the beginning of the end of the 2020–21 European soccer season. The rapidly (though unevenly) increasing pace of vaccinations means we can also start to see the beginning of the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, and with it the return of life and sports to something more like normal. No doubt sensing in these sleepy days between international and club matches an opportunity to impose his vision of the coming new normal, superagent Mino Raiola has seized the soccer world’s megaphone and made the case both that the circus of old will return, and that he and his clients—in this case, the budding megastar Erling Haaland—will remain in the center ring.
Thursday morning, Raiola sent shockwaves through the international soccer scene when he was filmed arriving at the Barcelona airport alongside Alf-Inge Haaland, the Borussia Dortmund player’s father. The images of Raiola’s arrival were so surprising, so conspicuous (as England-based Spanish soccer journalist Guillem Balagué said, “If you want to get to Barcelona in secret, you can. It’s very easy.”), and so rich with portent, that several news outlets had to clarify that it was not in fact an April Fool’s joke.
An assistant of Joan Laporta’s, the recently elected Barcelona president, picked up Raiola and Papa Haaland from the airport and whisked them away to the club’s facilities for a meeting. The meeting between Laporta and Raiola set off a frenzy of intrigue and speculation amongst fans, the media, and probably rival clubs. Who set up the powwow? How advanced were talks—would the trio just be discussing preliminary details about a potential Haaland transfer, or was the process further along than that? What could this mean about Barça’s chances of re-signing a soon-to-be out-of-contract Lionel Messi? Can you imagine what a Messi–Haaland partnership would look like? But does Barcelona, a club that has been the subject of countless stories of financial hardships over the past year, even have the money to sign Haaland? And is it too late for any other potential suitor to throw its hat into the suddenly fierce race for Haaland’s signature?
Of the thousands of burning questions the little stunt raised, only that last one was definitively answered, when hours later Raiola dropped another bombshell by appearing in Madrid to meet with Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez. Not only that, the word today is that Haaland’s agent and dad will be in London on Friday, where they will hold court with officials from Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, and Liverpool. What exactly this obviously calculated and showy series of meetings actually means for Haaland’s future is unclear, but more evident is that it is Raiola’s intention to make the summer of 2021 the summer of Haaland.
One of the relatively small but meaningful revelations of the coronavirus pandemic was how it proved that the rarefied world of high-level sports is not separate from and above the rest of the world. Like so many of the most lucrative industries of the global economy, it sometimes feels like elite sports are too big to fail, and benefit from permanently ascendent economies wholly untethered from the stagnating ones of the commoners. The pandemic, however, brought the mighty world of sports to a complete halt for a while, and it postponed mega events like the Olympics and the Euros, and it cratered even some of the biggest soccer clubs’ bank accounts.
Last summer, the transfer window was pretty active, but money wasn’t flying around at nearly the frenetic rate of previous seasons. The 2020 summer window was the first one since 2015 whose biggest signing didn’t crack the top five most expensive transfers ever. But with the COVID-19 vaccines proving remarkably successful, and evidence that, armed with enough supply, even an infrastructurally and bureaucratically incompetent nation like the U.S. can inoculate enormous swathes of its population at a blistering pace, there is solid reason to believe the world will soon get past the need for strict social distancing mandates and empty stadiums, which could mean the bulk of the coming 2021–22 European soccer season could be played in more or less normal sporting and economic conditions.
With his actions the past couple days, Raiola has all but stated that Haaland, one of the two most dominant young players in the world, will be the just-about-post-COVID transfer window’s crown jewel, the most luxurious and thus expensive piece on the market, available to the highest bidder. In doing so he turned what was always going to be an intense auction process into a true spectacle for all to watch, opine on, and obsess over.
It’s not entirely clear to me how any of this will shake out, including whether or not Haaland even will be sold this summer. Even with the promise of club incomes shooting back up through the roof in the post-COVID world, it’s hard to imagine 1) that more than maybe two clubs (the Manchester ones) have enough cash on hand now to shell out the record-breaking fee Dortmund would be crazy not to insist on (not to mention the stratospheric salary Haaland will command and the commissions and fees coming Raiola’s and Papa Haaland’s way), and 2) that any of these clubs wouldn’t rather just wait a season, when reports say Haaland’s €80 million release clause will kick in, making him about half as cheap to sign then than now. But Raiola is known as one of the shrewdest agents in the game for a reason, and sticking to ideas like patience and financial prudence sounds great right until you see the agent of a potential epochal superstar walking into the office of your rival club’s president for a sit-down.
Raiola has framed the narrative masterfully, and now every club that wants Haaland knows that the clock is ticking, so they’d better start scrounging up all their cash because this one is going to be pricy. We’ll have to wait and see whether this results in Haaland moving this summer or next, for an all-time record fee or for something more manageable. But what it already has done is clarify that the future we’ve all spent an entire year waiting for is near, and its name is Erling Haaland.