How super-agent Rafaela Pimenta became soccer’s most influential woman

MONTE CARLO, Monaco — Even today, it still comes up. Even after a quarter-century in the gritty, muddy trench warfare that is football’s transfer system. Even after working side-by-side with the late Mino Raiola, one of the most famous and influential agents out there. Even after representing the likes of Pavel Nedved, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marco Verratti, Paul Pogba, Erling Haaland and others — a multinational galaxy of stars, from Ballon d’Or winners (Nedved) to self-anointed deities (Ibrahimovic). Even after having sat across the table and negotiated deals with the biggest clubs — from Real Madrid to Manchester United, from Bayern Munich to Paris Saint-Germain, from Manchester City to Arsenal — and sponsors in the world.

Rafaela Pimenta is a woman. And if she’s in the room and working and important, it must be because of a man. In this case, a man who had “coached her up.”

It happened to her a few months ago. She was dealing with a club executive who had been in the game for a long time, but whom she had never met. She was accompanied by a lawyer who, she says, knew nothing about football, but was well-versed in the laws of the country where the club operated. After a long and heated negotiation, they finally came to an agreement. That’s when the club executive turned to Pimenta’s lawyer and said, “Oh, you prepared her well.”

The room fell silent. Pimenta’s lawyer, who was merely along to offer advice, was visibly embarrassed, since he wasn’t the one doing the negotiating. He said he didn’t know what the man was talking about. “I said, ‘Don’t worry guys, that’s not a problem. … It’s just that now my commission for this deal has doubled. … Keep talking and it will continue to get worse for you,'” Pimenta said, recalling the episode with a laugh.

When she’s done giggling, however, the trace of bitterness in her eyes is evident.

With former director of football Marina Granovskaia leaving Chelsea after the club was sold in June 2022 and Fatma Samoura on her way out as FIFA secretary general, you can make a case that Pimenta is one of, if not the most influential woman in the game today.

IN THE WAKE OF RAIOLA’S PASSING LAST YEAR, many around the game thought their clients would gravitate elsewhere. Born near Naples and raised in the Netherlands from an early age, Raiola worked in his family’s restaurant, which was frequented by club executives, players and agents. By his mid-20s, he had parlayed those acquaintances into a career as an agent, most notably helping to broker Dutch star Dennis Bergkamp’s move from Ajax to Inter in 1993.

Raiola’s “secret sauce” was long thought to be a combination of confidence, doggedness and aggression, all packaged in a self-made man with the right dose of “street” — where most agents wore designer suits, his “uniform” was usually sneakers, jeans and a T-shirt. Somehow, that recipe appealed to footballers of all backgrounds and nationalities.

Raiola had, by far, the higher profile between him and Pimenta and cultivated the image of a “big brother” to many of his clients, who were fiercely loyal to him. “Big sister” doesn’t quite work as well for multimillionaire 20-somethings who are often believed to be driven by the usual things coveted at that age: sex, fancy cars, night clubs and bling.

“That’s stereotyping in my opinion,” Pimenta says. “I think you can have an understanding of what’s going on by simply talking to them because you’ve seen it so many times, in so many colors, with different people. Of course, some things are easier to talk about with a man. But some things are easier to talk about with a woman.” Still, in a business built on trust and personal relationships — Raiola famously claimed that none of his clients were contractually bound to him and could leave at any time — many on the outside believed that he alone was the glue that held it all together, and that Pimenta was, at best, a sidekick.

When Raiola’s cousin Vincenzo, who worked for years with Mino and Pimenta, left the agency and took some clients with him, many of the top names — like Haaland, Pogba and Bayern Munich defender Matthijs de Ligt — stuck around. That suggests that, as critical as Mino was to the operation, Pimenta had built up enormous trust with her clients as well.

She won’t go into details about the split with Vincenzo, though you can sense the acrimony: “There was a little — no, a lot — that Mino was putting up with and that I was not willing to put up with,” she says. “Maybe Mino’s life would have been easier with a different approach … so we evolved to a different model.” That model includes Manchester City’s Haaland, probably the biggest young star in the game along with Paris Saint-Germain’s Kylian Mbappe and Real Madrid’s Jude Bellingham.

Haaland and his father, Alfie (a top pro footballer in his day), specifically sought out Raiola and Pimenta when the player could have convinced just about any agency to represent him. Haaland is from Norway, a country where women in positions of power and influence are not novelties: The Scandinavian nation elected their first female prime minister in the early 1980s and, today, the heads of the country’s three biggest sports federations — football, skiing and athletics — are women.

“It’s super nice to be with them, because it’s one of the few places where I feel if I’m right, I’m right, if I’m wrong, I’m wrong, and it doesn’t matter if I’m a man or a woman,” Pimenta says. “That’s a cultural thing [with the Haalands] and it’s really refreshing because it’s one less problem to overcome.”

The agent-client relationship is a delicate one. Some players just want agents to negotiate their contracts; others their commercial deals. Some speak to them no more than three or four times a year, while some are on the phone three or four times by lunch every day. What do they talk about? Everything from how their coaching session went and why their girlfriend was mean to them, to what new car they should buy and how they can get Taylor Swift tickets.

Pimenta says that the relationships, if not properly managed, can develop into codependency. She recalls a story of one agent who made it a point to cater to a player’s every whim. “He was doing stupid things [for the player] that would make sense at 17, but no longer made sense because he was now 23,” she says. When she confronted the agent and said the player needed to learn to do thing for himself, the agent replied: “I don’t want him to learn how to do things for himself, because if he learns, he’ll be independent. And if he’s independent, he won’t need us anymore.” That agent was soon let go.

“I don’t want a player to stay with us because he doesn’t know how to do things. I want him to stay with us because he thinks we can add value, that our expertise and experience can help him make better decisions,” she says. “A good agent isn’t the guy who says, ‘I’ll do it all for you, don’t you worry!’ That’s the road to disaster.

“I tell players, ‘What if I die? Would you know what to do? Would you know where your money is?'” Pimenta continues. “And we had an example of it: Mino died. … What if I had also died?

“Players need to be empowered as they grow up and you need to let them go. And if they choose to stay, you know it’s a conscious choice.”

IT’S NOT ONLY PIMENTA’S CLIENT LIST THAT TURNS HEADS; it’s also the outsized role that agents, or at least the top agents, play in this sport.

Here is where any comparison of soccer to the NBA or NFL is off the mark. For starters, the latter are pretty much closed ecosystems with a limited number of teams and a close-knit group of owners who often view each other, first and foremost, as business partners. Even the biggest stars in those sports know there is only so much leverage they have, only so many doors on which they can knock.

Global football, on the other hand, involves clubs from all over the world, often with disparate owners — from private equity funds, to elected leaders and even royal families — and disparate goals. The pond isn’t limited to 30 or 32 fish; it’s an entire ocean with plenty of fish, some of the biggest spawning anew each year. If you advise the biggest stars, there’s a near-endless supply of fish willing to come to you.

Then there’s the fact that football has its own peculiarities. Often, there are three sets of agents when a player switches clubs, all of them involved in setting the transfer fee and the contract: one representing the new club, one the old club and one the player himself. (Sometimes the same agent will represent multiple parties and occasionally, all three; it may make little sense to an outsider, but yeah, that’s the way it works.)

Or consider the fact that even when agents represent players directly, negotiating contracts and salaries on their behalf, they get paid not by their clients, but by the club. Is that a conflict of interest? Maybe, but that’s the nature of the business and it underscores the muscle that top agents wield over the game. The sheer size of the commissions paid to Raiola and Pimenta for some transfers — like the reported £41 million ($50.2m) on the £89m ($109m) transfer of Pogba from Juventus to Manchester United in 2016 — earned them harsh criticism of exploiting their clients from some quarters.

“I’m sure that a few times [these leaks] were designed to expose us and put in a difficult position,” Pimenta says. “But none of our players were surprised. Because they totally knew. They always did.”

Multiple club executives who negotiated with Raiola and Pimenta, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that they often involved their clients or their families directly at an early stage. This is not usual practice, and it sometimes blindsided clubs, but it worked to their advantage because it solidified the trust between agent and client. It also made clear whose side they were on.

“I’m not a tough person: I’m a normal person,” Pimenta says. “But if I’m representing somebody, and there is no such thing as keeping your foot in two boats. I think sometimes some agents, because clubs are bigger than players, don’t want to disappoint the club. So they won’t go all the way for the player.”

Pimenta talks about the challenge facing agents and the fear of upsetting clubs being “a cancer” in her profession. If you anger a club, they may shut you out, which may affect future players and future deals. Is it worth it?

“The minute you ask this question, you’re doing things wrong,” she says. “If you work for a player, you need to [go] all the way for the player and that means sometimes [it will cost you]. But if you position yourself in the right way and make people understand you’re fighting for your client, often they will respect you.”

To some degree, this is easier to do when you’re a boutique agency representing several dozen elite clients, rather than a mega-agency trying to find a landing spot for an average player in mid-career. But the doggedness and intensity with which Pimenta and Raiola pushed their clients, often with little regard for potential future relationships, was noted by several people who sat across the negotiating table from them.

Those people also underscored how, when they first dealt with Raiola and Pimenta, they expected traditional gender roles. They figured the boisterous, larger-than-life macho Raiola would push the envelope and drive a hard bargain, while a nurturing Pimenta would be the compromising, problem-solving diplomat. Instead, as one executive put it on the condition of anonymity, it wasn’t “good cop/bad cop” — it was “bad cop/bad cop.”

“It’s funny because they’d think that when Mino left the room and I would take over, life would get easier, but after a while they’d want me gone and Mino back,” she says. “We had lots of disagreements between us, but once we were in a negotiation, we were perfectly aligned. And we were perfectly aligned in the way we saw our jobs, football and our clients. We would either survive or die together in a negotiation.”

That chemistry between Raiola and Pimenta dates back nearly three decades.

They first met when Pimenta was doing some legal work for a club set up by former Brazil players, Rivaldo and Cesar Sampaio. At the time, she had recently earned a law degree from Sao Paulo University and was doing some teaching, while working for the Brazilian government’s antitrust commission. The so-called “Pele Law,” which reformed Brazilian football, had just been passed, and Raiola wanted to know more about its implications. They were both in their 20s and strong-headed; not surprisingly, they clashed at that first meeting, mainly because Pimenta felt Raiola ended up lecturing her.

“If you think you know more than me, why are you here?” Pimenta told him. “If you know Brazilian law so well, why do you need me?” Years later, Raiola told her that she was one of the first people who stood up to him.

A few years later, when she took time off after a breakup with her boyfriend and traveled to Europe, Raiola persuaded her to stick around and work together. “I was going to stay six months, but I’m still here,” she says. “Mino was a one-man show at the time, a guy with an address book and a mobile phone. I felt we needed a more corporate structure and so we formed the company. And it worked. … It worked well.”

It likely worked well because their skills complemented each other, but also because they were both outsiders. Raiola, the immigrant restaurateur made good, with his hardscrabble ways and T-shirts thumbing his nose at convention, and Pimenta, the privileged, highly educated lawyer butting her way into a man’s world. They weren’t ex-footballers, they weren’t connected to football clubs, they didn’t represent blood relatives. They didn’t follow the script; instead, they wrote their own.

When it comes to the broader footballing ecosystem, Pimenta isn’t as outspoken as Raiola — who frequently railed against authority and regulation — possibly because she is, after all, a lawyer. But she echoes many of his views.

On FIFA’s attempt to regulate transfers by placing caps on commissions: “If I tell you it will cost you 10 euros to sign a player and you don’t want to do it, don’t do it. … Let the market decide.”

On what she sees as the outsized role power clubs have over players, and how they manipulate media and supporters: “If you work in a job and at some point you decide you want to work somewhere else, you should have the right to do it. … It’s not fair, in 2023, that you tell me what to do.

“I understand players get paid well, but they are paid to perform. They are not paid — and I know people hate it when I use this word — to be a slave.”

This is where some might see a contradiction. On the one hand, there’s a libertarian call for an unfettered free market. On the other, there’s a call for regulation to protect footballers because a club could go back to a player and say, “Sorry you changed your mind about being here, but nobody forced you to sign that five-year contract.” Pimenta gets that, but then she’s also very clear: she’s an agent, and her job is to represent players and fight for them.

When she spoke at a football conference last year, the talk was all about the financialization of football, where success is judged by balance sheets as much as silverware. “I think I was the only one there representing players,” she says. “It was interesting to hear the clubs’ mindset. I am not saying it’s wrong, and I understand that if you have a business to run, you have to put a value on things, decide how to monetize it and how you’re going to get your money back. But if we take this too far, and if you forget that this asset is a human being, we’re doing it all wrong.

“The heart needs to be there,” she adds. “Miserable players don’t perform on a super high level. Football is passion. Yes, there’s a lot of money, but when you’re out on the pitch, you don’t think about money. You don’t go there and risk breaking your leg in three places because of money. You do it, in that moment, because of passion.”

DESPITE HAVING BEEN IN THE BUSINESS NEARLY 30 YEARS, despite dealing with the same people time and again, Pimenta can’t escape the regular reminders that she is a woman.

“They make sure you remember, usually at the start,” she says. “More often than not, it’s actually a way to take your power away from you because you’re a woman. ‘You should not be there, this is a man’s universe.’ It’s a game of conversation, a way to gain an edge. Then they let it go to focus on the negotiation itself and what you’re saying. And then sometimes, it will pop up again.”

You can’t help but wonder: If Pimenta still deals with this, what do other, less-established women in football have to face?

“Today it’s much easier to be myself and still exist in a man’s universe,” she says. “But even though I try to get out of the box as a woman, there’s many who will still try to put you back in. Today, as a woman, you can say, ‘I can see you in an hour because I need to go home and organize dinner for my family,’ whereas before, a woman had to choose: career or family. Yet we’re so far from where we should be.

“We get stereotyped: Are you the tough one or the nurturing one? How did you get there? Who are you sleeping with? Are you really doing things by yourself? That still exists for women, without a doubt.

“And you know, for women to be truly independent, it’s not just about empowering them in the professional sphere; there needs to be shared responsibility in personal life,” she adds. “Otherwise, for a woman it’s almost impossible to do both.”

Football — male-dominated and with more than a century of deep-rooted chauvinist attitudes on the pitch, in the stands and in the board room — is probably a lagging indicator when it comes to broader change. But if — nah, scratch that, make it when — it comes, it will be in part thanks to women such as Pimenta.

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