As Portuguese enclaves go, post-industrial Wolverhampton in England’s West Midlands seems unlikely, but the football business never fails in its ability to throw up such situations.
Where there is muck, there is always brass.
When Joao Moutinho signed from Monaco last week for £5m, Wolves added one of European football’s steadiest midfield performers of the last decade, a seventh Portuguese player to play for compatriot Nuno Espirito Santo, the club’s manager.
Their presence has seen last season’s Championship winners, the club back in the top division for the first time since 2012, hailed as one of the strongest newly promoted outfits in Premier League history, and heavy odds-on to avoid relegation.
— Wolves (@Wolves) July 24, 2018
The reason for that rich seam of Iberian talent turning out in old gold is little secret. Jorge Mendes is the former nightclub disc jockey for whom being agent to both Cristiano Ronaldo and Jose Mourinho is by no means the limit of his business ambitions.
From Portugal to Spain to Greece to Turkey Russia, he has developed close – and often controversial – links with a number of clubs across Europe, but his relationship with Wolves, described by managing director Laurie Dalrymple as a “friendship” has been a marriage of his English and Chinese interests.
Mendes was the broker in the deal that saw Chinese owners Fosun International buy the club in July 2016. Since China’s government decided it wanted Chinese businesses to expand into football, Mendes, never shy of spotting a gold rush, has been only too happy to assist with such objectives.
Fosun, in turn, have a significant share in his Gestifute agency.
After a couple of managerial misfires with Walter Zenga and Paul Lambert, the arrival of Nuno at the start of last season changed things up. Nuno, Mendes’ first ever client when he was a journeyman goalkeeper, had previously managed Valencia and Porto, two further clubs with close Mendes links, with not too much distinction.
The English Football League Championship, though, proved a slam dunk for Nuno, especially when given the use of players like Diogo Jota, Helder Costa and Ruben Neves.
It was Neves, who at 18 with Porto became the youngest ever Champions League captain and joined Wolves as a 20-year-old, who raised eyebrows highest.
Though Neves’ trajectory at Porto had stalled a little, mostly because of injury, he was a name on the scouting list of top clubs, with Liverpool heavily linked.
His £15.8m fee, though a record for Wolves, appeared low for a player of such potential, and the suggestion was he was being parked in England so that he might take the eye of more elite clubs.
Last season, as Wolves cruised to promotion, he was the best midfielder in the Championship, and the execution of a supreme volley scored against Derby on the title run-in was evidence of a talent playing well below his level.
Liverpool were again linked, only for Neves to say he wanted “to enjoy the Premier League with this fantastic club”. After missing out on Portugal’s World Cup squad, he committed himself to a contract until 2023.
The presence of Neves and the Portuguese contingent did not meet with universal approval with Wolves’ Championship rivals last season. Mendes, as he has wherever he has pitched up, is a lightning rod for criticism, with Leeds owner Andrea Radrizzani complaining of the “evident benefits” of Wolves’ relationship with the “super agent”, and saying “we have our own problems but we should play in a fair competition”.
We have our own problems but we should play in a fair competition. Not legal and fair let one team owned by a fund whom has shares in the biggest players agency with evident benefits (top European clubs giving players with options to buy ..why the other 23 teams can’t have same
— Andrea Radrizzani (@andrearadri) March 7, 2018
Wolves hierarchy has repeatedly doubled down against such criticism by fiercely defending the relationship with Mendes, while an EFL investigation found that “he holds no role at the club” and no rules had been broken.
Dalrymple, speaking on the club’s behalf, said: “We think we’ve operated shrewdly and we think we’ve done our business well.”
And they have addressed the imminent challenge of the Premier League by repeating the practices that achieved promotion. Mendes’ contacts book has again taken the strain, with six Portuguese players signed up, including the conversion of Jota’s loan into a permanent deal and the capture of goalkeeper Rui Patricio.
Euro 2016 champion Patricio escaped from the wreckage at Sporting Lisbon, where several players cancelled their contracts, and at just 30 would have been on the wanted list of many European clubs yet joined Wolves. Angry Sporting have demanded £50m in compensation.
And meanwhile full-back Jonny joined on loan from Atletico Madrid, another club with Mendes links, having only just been signed from Celta Vigo.
Mexican striker Raul Jimenez has also been borrowed from Benfica.
During Saturday’s friendly defeat to Derby, full-back Matt Doherty and club captain Conor Coady’s names stood out among Mendes-sourced talent.
The new, unconventional Wolves are going to be an exotic Premier League addition.