Brazilian football agent Rafaela Pimenta was on her way to the funeral of her business partner Mino Raiola when she received a phone call from West Ham United. The London club wanted to negotiate the contract of goalkeeper Alphonse Areola.

Meanwhile, other agents were trying to poach her players. And so, at a moment of supreme emotion, football’s only female super-agent emerged from behind the scenes to manage what many in the sport had considered to be Raiola’s one-man show.

Pimenta and Raiola had worked together for more than 20 years. The Dutch-Italian fronted their agency in Monaco, One Sports Business Strategy, which manages players including Erling Haaland, Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Raiola, one of football’s most fearsome and best-paid dealmakers, died last April, aged 54.

Pimenta is an expensively dressed figure, at home among football’s super-rich, but that is an acquired identity. When she met Raiola in about 2000, he was expanding operations in Brazil, where she was teaching international law at a public university. “They paid me, like, €6 an hour,” she says in English, one of her several languages, during a recent visit to London. “With €6 an hour, you wouldn’t pay the parking.”

Ditching her PhD, she followed Raiola to Monaco, where she says they became equal partners. Their office was “as big as this table, probably”, so they took turns making phone calls. They kept their agency relatively small, handling only about 30 players, so they could offer each one a “boutique service”. Besides negotiating contracts and transfers, they might monitor their players’ diets, plan their holidays and stop them investing in dubious schemes suggested by friends. Some other agencies have many more clients, but Pimenta says: “If we would have 100 players, it’s 100 mothers, 100 fathers, 100 girlfriends.”

She thinks Raiola was the “quicker decision maker” and she stronger on detail — traits she suspects are gendered. Travelling around Europe together negotiating with clubs, she would be introduced as the “lawyer”. Raiola thought that sounded “chic”, and she laughs that she has a lawyer’s ability to be “a pain in the arse”, but she also admits: “For years, I would not let anybody say I was a football agent. People have so much prejudice against agents that it influenced our self-esteem.”

Pimenta also encountered sexist prejudice. “If Margaret Thatcher would be an agent, they would question her. She could run a country but not be a football agent. Because in football many men believe they are the only ones that know,” she says.

The only woman she dealt with regularly was Chelsea’s former director, Marina Granovskaia.

“In the beginning, [prejudice] was much stronger towards me, first because we were small. When you’re small, people are more abusive,” Pimenta says.

But as she got to know people at clubs, they “understood that I come to do my job, and they would have some respect. But it’s still a very male-dominated industry, where some people honestly believe, ‘She cannot know how to do a transfer. She’s a woman.’”

She recounts one negotiation with a club executive who was trying to renege on paying her player agreed bonuses. The executive said: “I exchanged a lot with you by email. So you really exist . . . I thought you were just a hooker from Brazil.”

She says she still does business with that man. “I don’t think it’s humiliating to be a woman. So I don’t care. If that’s how you try to make me feel bad, that’s very stupid. And I’ve seen women in the industry help me because I was a woman.”

While Raiola was dying, she says, they never discussed the business transition. “There was something bigger in his head: his own life, and the review of his own life. ‘How did I live my life? What do I still want to tell my kids?’ And above all, ‘How can I manage my health, so that this day is not worse than yesterday?’”

Did she consider closing the agency? “No. Because — and I know that sounds delusional — in the back of my mind there is, ‘Maybe Mino doesn’t die.’ I refused to ask myself, ‘What am I going to do when Mino passes?’ Until Mino passed.”

When he did die, football’s biggest agents, such as Jorge Mendes, offered Pimenta their support, but others were “very patronising”.

Some called her, saying, “I’ll take care of the players for you”. Certain rivals phoned her players directly: “Your agent’s just died, work with me!” Some of the predators were her own agency’s collaborators — typically, minor agents who managed the everyday handling of players in particular cities. These people, she realised, hoped “to become the local Mino”.

But her players stayed loyal. If she had doubted whether to go on post-Raiola, “The answer was given by them, when they rely on you to continue.”

Alone, Pimenta wrapped up last summer’s most important transfer, Haaland’s move from Borussia Dortmund to Manchester City. “Mino never knew that Erling actually went to City,” she sighs.

But like so many transfers, it was a move they had been plotting for years. “We cannot be sitting and waiting, ‘Maybe they will call me because Haaland is fantastic’. You cannot expect a club to just wake up and say, ‘What a beautiful day, I’m going to spend 100 million’.

“You need to plan this and walk through the process with the club, so the club is confident that when it puts this budget together — and maybe that will take one, two or three seasons — you need to be on board, to make sure this happens.”

Pimenta spends the football season touring clubs, planning transfers: “Who’s going to retire? Who’s getting older? Who’s injured? Who’s doing bad? It’s like a chess game and you try to anticipate the move.”

The agency represents one female footballer, the Italian Barbara Bonansea, but Pimenta is due to meet a potential second recruit. “It would be important to me that women footballers are perceived as footballers,” she says. “They are not body dolls, cute things for Gillette commercials.”

She believes in awarding jobs on merit but wants to promote more female staff. “At the stage where we are, there’s a need to give [equality] a push.”

For now she works with three full-time employees, all women, three self-employed men, plus part-time consultants in various cities. Footballers’ needs have grown too complex for the old-style “one-man-show agent”, she says.

One service the agency now offers footballers is “image branding” to enhance their work with sponsors. But she tells players: “This is not your second job. Because you don’t have a second job. You have one job, and that’s to play football. You’re not an influencer. You’re not supposed to be looking at your Instagram the whole day to see, ‘What is my follower growth? What should I post today?’ Because this takes time and energy.”

She defends the high salaries of male players. “You’re in an industry where there’s a lot of money, you’re entitled to that. What upsets me is where there’s this disconnection with reality: ‘I make a lot of money, I can do whatever I want, I can say whatever I want, I’ll take the Ferrari and go to Monaco.’ Then you’re an arsehole.”

While she recruits the agency’s next generation of footballers, she tries to ask herself why she does her job. Her answer? “Because that’s who I am. It takes your full soul to be an agent. You cannot split it, say, ‘I’m an agent, sometimes’. You can change the lives of people, when you do it right. I think it’s priceless when you meet somebody that is sleeping on the floor in favelas in Brazil and, after a few years, he has a capacity to provide for the next three generations of his family.”

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