Wolverhampton Wanderers are one of those grand old clubs that evoke a certain image. Football of a bygone era; a working man’s club in a working man’s town. Coal mines, FA Cups and classic kits.
Jorge Mendes is seemingly the absolute opposite of all that. Glamorous millionaire; deal-maker extraordinaire. Football Inc. You won’t find a spot of soot on the suit of the man behind Cristiano Ronaldo.
And yet the two have forged an unlikely partnership, one that has resulted in Wolves taking a lightsaber to the Championship this season. And next year, you’ll see them in the Premier League.
But it wasn’t the spirit of Stan Cullis or the deeds of Billy Wright that inspired the team to rise from 15th last season – sandwiched between Barnsley and Ipswich Town – to runaway champions this season.
Wolves might have played a mesmerising brand of attacking football that Cullis would have been proud of (currently boasting a goal difference of +42), but there’s no hiding the naked reason behind the club’s rise.
The club was bought by the all-powerful Chinese company Fosun International – who control an estimated $110 billion in assets worldwide – in July 2016. That’s simple enough, but stay focused for the next paragraph.
Fosun’s chairman Guo Guangchang owns a percentage (which is undisclosed) of Start, the holding company of Mendes’s agency, Gestifute. Guangchang made the purchase through another of his companies, Shanghai Foyo.
Together, Shanghai Foyo and Gestifute have previously announced they’ve collaborated on major football “projects” in China.
Decoding that corporate labyrinth and establishing how much legal responsibility Fosun has in Gestifute and Mendes has in Wolverhampton is rather unclear. What isn’t, however, is the Portuguese agent’s ability to deliver some exceptional talent to the Molineux.
This famous old English club now has just seven English players in its present first-team squad. It has just as many Portuguese players. And there’s a Portuguese manager.
But they aren’t just any blow-ins from western Iberia. The manager, Nuno Espirito Santo, previously coached at Valencia and Porto.
The players include full internationals Ivan Cavaleiro and 21-year old sensation Ruben Neves, virtually a “cheat” player at Championship level. The rest are all – at a minimum – Portuguese youth internationals.
In attack, there's also a brilliant Brazilian, Leo Bonatini, and the pick of the bunch, Portuguese forward Diogo Jota (on loan from Atletico Madrid).
Yet the club’s professional squad has swollen so big that 24 players have been allowed to leave on loan, and those players hail from countries as diverse as the United Nations.
However, in England, the Football Association forbid agents from having undue influence over football clubs. But how would you prove it? Mendes is claimed to simply be offering advice on who to sign. Even though, yes, he represents most of these players.
In any event, before Wolves’ position in the Premier League is formally approved, they will have to meet the licensing criteria, which could lead to some curly questions.
The “fit and proper” test for owners has oft-been derided as toothless but we haven’t come across this particular model. Besides, having a club to warehouse talent – before selling them on for inflated prices – has been the dream of agents everywhere.
Yet, for all that, you won’t see Wolves fans complaining. For now, they’re enjoying the ride, even as it continues to get faster and faster.
They’ve risen from mid-table mediocrity after a flirtation with total obscurity. Now they’re racing at breakneck speed to the promised land of the Premier League.
With so many clubs going bust after false dawns, you’d forgive them for being suspicious. Yet there are owners like those at Man City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Leicester and Bournemouth who have invested capital year-on-year for several years, creating a certain stability. Could Wolves become the latest solid, top-flight citizen?
If they take their place in the game’s top echelon and the whole thing doesn’t collapse, we may well be witnessing the birth of a model that some clubs feel is their ticket from the sleepy sideshow to the untold riches of the game at the highest level. For now, watch this space.