The city had the money. Haaland had influence

Although Premier League champions City managed to persuade Aston Villa to sell Jack Grealish, the mischievous playmaker who had become his country’s star in the European Championship – making him the most expensive player in English history in the process – he had failed to land his other priority target, Tottenham striker Harry Kane.

What had always been a complex and arduous pursuit had instead turned into a dispute over who was to blame. Kane had at one point refused to train with Tottenham, the club he supported as a child, in hopes of forcing Spurs’ hand, but his act of insecurity failed. Tottenham have claimed that City have not presented an offer which could serve as a starting point for negotiations.

That afternoon the City bosses thought about their strategy, thought about why a deal hadn’t materialized, thought about what they would do from here.

As the meeting ended and his colleagues rose to leave, Khaldoon al-Mubarak, the club’s president, made a final remark. There were only two words, an ambition and an education. “Erling Haaland,” he said.

Just over nine months later, that goal has been achieved. On Tuesday afternoon, City confirmed they had reached an ‘agreement in principle’ with Haaland’s current club Borussia Dortmund to acquire the striker, one of the two most coveted strikers in world football – the 85 goals in 88 games for the German. team, considered alongside Kylian Mbappé as one of the two standard-bearers of the first post-Messi and post-Ronaldo generation of football – this summer.

In reality, of course, it hadn’t taken nine months to strike any deal with Dortmund. Haaland’s contract contained a buyout clause, somewhere in the region of $75m, which gave Dortmund little to no say over where he could play next season. All City, anyone, had to do was notify Dortmund of their intention to pay him. Haaland’s current employer was in no position to haggle.

Much more complicated was the process of persuading Haaland that City was the correct next step in his meticulously planned career. Haaland, 21, may have an emotional connection to the club: his father, Alfie, played for City at the turn of the century, and although his son has no memory of his time at Manchester, he said at the New York Times. in 2019 that he has a certain affection for all his former teams.

But, as City would have known, there has been little room for romance in Erling Haaland’s inexorable rise. Every step of his journey has been mapped out with surgical – perhaps cynical – precision by his twin sherpas: his longtime representative, Mino Raiola, the Dutch-Italian divisional agent who died last month, and his father.

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

That meant, of course, that not only was Haaland recession-proof – $75m is, by modern standards, pretty good value for a player who appears to have been engineered and engineered to score as many goals as possible – but that, when the inevitable bidding started, the bar would not be who could pay Dortmund the most, but who could be the most attractive package for the player and his advisers.

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

It was of course their job. This is exactly what Raiola, in particular, was paid for. He did it with surprising efficiency: not only because current estimates suggest the deal, in total, will be worth somewhere north of $200m, once Haaland’s salary and miscellaneous agent fees are taken into account, but because in doing so they may have invented a whole new paradigm for how agents shape the careers of their players.

The received wisdom, in football, has always been that players should – to be frank – always take the money, the big break, as soon as they can. It only takes one wound, after all, to detonate the best-laid plans; one summer’s passion can be an afterthought the next. Clubs are fickle and everything has an expiration date.

Raiola reversed that for Haaland, preferring a delayed gratification policy instead. He didn’t chase the exorbitant transfer fee – as he may have done for another of his clients, Paul Pogba – but rather built his client’s appeal a bit more slowly, gradually ensuring that he was able to not only make the jump to one of Europe’s elite teams, but to do so in a way that favors the player (and his representatives) rather than the club that held his contract at that time that time.

City’s offer is the reward. It’s not a decision without caveats: manager Pep Guardiola has worked with some of the best strikers of the modern era, but not always successfully. He spent six years painstakingly tweaking his system at City, only to completely revamp it to suit Haaland. Sometimes, however, football is a surprisingly simple game. A player who scores a lot of goals joining a team that creates a lot of chances should really only have one result.

Whether that’s the final reward, however, is another matter. Around the same time City were preparing their announcement, Mbappé was busy being photographed having lunch in Madrid. His contract at Paris Saint-Germain expires in a few weeks and despite an incredibly large stay offer, he looks set to move to Real Madrid this summer. The funding for this deal will most likely eclipse what City have offered Haaland.

It is the logical continuation of the model that Raiola and the Haaland family have developed. It is a reflection of the financial reality of football. There is no price at which City, or PSG, feel compelled to sell a player. This leaves only one option: to terminate a contract and go into the open market.

This is the challenge that awaits City, somewhere on the line. He won, this time convincing Haaland – his first true plug-and-play superstar, someone who will be considered but never qualified as a franchise player – it was his best next step. The question, for a player whose career has been planned so coldly, so ruthlessly, is whether it is also his last.

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