Erling Haaland’s transfer to Manchester City had quickly become an inevitability and throughout April more and more people around the club knew it.
There was a plan for Erling’s father, former City midfielder Alfie, to attend their Premier League home game against title rivals Liverpool on April 10, only for it to be scrapped so as not to arouse suspicion. At a Premier League Hall of Fame event just over two weeks later, former City captain Vincent Kompany was openly talking about the deal.
The problem for City was that nobody was supposed to know.
Even on Tuesday, two hours before the deal was confirmed to the German Stock Exchange by Haaland’s current club Borussia Dortmund, City manager Pep Guardiola said he could not comment for legal reasons. In City’s tweet confirming the news that afternoon, they stated that “the transfer remains subject to the club finalizing terms with the player”.
By now, the whole world knows about those.
There is still great secrecy over one element, though.
Sources say they spotted Haaland at City’s training ground last month. The English club dispute the claim.
The hush-hush nature of transfer negotiations means certain aspects will never be completely transparent but those familiar with that visit say it was a daring mission to get him in and out unnoticed, but even turning off security cameras might not be enough to sneak in a man who is nearly two meters (6ft 4in) tall (and appears just as wide).
But then again, the club have managed it before: Guardiola was shown the sights in the spring of 2016, while he was still under contract as Bayern Munich manager. Word of his trip to Manchester only got out years later.
Last September, just a matter of weeks after City’s move for Tottenham and England striker Harry Kane had fallen through, there was already talk that they would win the race for Haaland.
By Christmas, however, there was a real fear within the club that Real Madrid had the advantage. City were determined, though, to do whatever they could to change the Norway international’s mind.
At a board meeting early this year, City’s top brass were presented with a plan that would require a figure in the region of – but no greater than – £ 190 million. When they asked what it was for, they were told “a player”. Secrecy is a big thing for City, on every deal.
Everything had been calculated to the penny: release clause, agent commissions, wages, bonuses, everything. It took many months for the money to be put to good use – it was only last week that paperwork was signed, and that release clause at Dortmund does not have to be paid in full straight away – but City have known exactly how much they can spend for a few months.
The deal is considerably cheaper than expected. It had been commonly acknowledged for well over a year that the clause inserted into Haaland’s Dortmund contract when he joined them from Austria’s Red Bull Salzburg in January 2020 would be worth € 75 million (£ 64 million) but that was not the full picture.
That was the number Mino Raiola, Haaland’s agent, who passed away at the end of last month, had given to interested parties. City themselves only learned the true figure – € 60 million, or £ 51 million – relatively recently.
City were never going to pay anything above the amount specified in a legal document but the commissions were harder to tame. In total, another € 40 million (£ 34 million) will be paid to Raiola’s operation, now fronted up by lawyer Rafaela Pimenta, who finalized negotiations in recent weeks, and Haaland’s father.
Still, City will argue that a total outlay of roughly £ 85 million still represents at least half of Haaland’s value were he to be available on the open market.
The rest of the figure presented to the City board is made up of Haaland’s wages of around £ 400,000 per week for five years. When bonuses are included, that puts him alongside Kevin De Bruyne as the club’s top earner.
But City’s determination to outgun Real Madrid could not have been done on financial terms alone.
A big pull was Guardiola. Perhaps the big pull. But there was a problem: his contract only runs for another season.
Part of the reason Haaland is coming to Manchester rather than Madrid is thought to be because he has been given assurances that Guardiola will be staying on for at least another couple of years. A City spokesperson, however, insists there will be no talks on the manager’s future until next season.
Txiki Begiristain, their sporting director, has been credited by those familiar with the Haaland deal as a key figure in securing the most sought-after of signatures.
Begiristain and Omar Berrada, the chief football operations officer, work as a double act on City’s transfer dealings and they were inseparable on this one, going off-grid for days at a time to hold talks with the Haaland camp.
They flew to Monaco, where Raiola had been battling illness, at the start of February and made a breakthrough in talks.
The pair knew that playing for Real Madrid was, and is, a major ambition for Haaland and the 21-year-old felt that Spanish football would suit his style. Despite being one of the most physically imposing players on the planet, he believed that the generally less physical Primera Division would help him avoid injuries.
But Begiristain used this to outline why Manchester would be a better fit than the Spanish capital.
Haaland has played a lot of football since his move to Germany, with both Dortmund and Norway relying on him heavily. He has missed 16 club games this season – and it was put to him that this could easily continue in La Liga because, as a “galactico” signing, he would have to play in as many games for Madrid as possible. If not, there would be pressure on the manager. In turn, there would be pressure on the club’s president, Florentino Perez.
At City, however, Guardiola is such a strong personality that he would decide to rest Haaland if he felt it was necessary and would be able to handle any criticism that came his way over it. So if Haaland needed a rest, he would get one at City.
But it’s also true that Haaland would not be at the top of the Spanish club’s agenda this summer.
Madrid’s pursuit of Paris Saint-Germain striker Kylian Mbappe and the year left on the contract of their current top scorer Karim Benzema mean there is hardly a clear route to becoming a focal point at the Bernabeu any time soon. Perhaps in the future, although it was always expected that City predecessor Sergio Aguero would end up there one day, too.
Still, it’s not a stretch to work out why Haaland would be open to a move to City, even without considering Guardiola and his chances of success.
His dad played for the club two decades ago and he grew up supporting them – as well as Leeds United and Nottingham Forest, Alfie’s other English sides. There are various photos of Erling wearing City shirts at home, on the training pitch and at City matches.
City were in the driver’s seat after those talks in February, but time passed and nothing moved forward, with little contact between the parties. So much so that after more positive conversations at the beginning of April, City came away feeling they were close to getting their man but wary that another month, at least, could pass without further progress.
That proved not to be the case, and within days they had received the green light.
Things progressed rapidly from there, with lawyer Pimenta in the UK to finalize terms and then flying to Germany with Alfie to inform Dortmund that City would trigger the clause.
Interestingly, Begiristain did not just have to convince Haaland about the move. He had to have a word with Guardiola, too.
The City manager had preferred a move for Kane last summer, and not just because the England captain was deemed to be the more available of the two, given Haaland’s release clause did not kick in for another year. Guardiola felt Kane would be the better fit for his team.
Also of interest is the fact that several sources had suggested last summer that the City hierarchy did not share Guardiola’s passion for the Spurs striker. They were on board, but not all-in. One wonders whether Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy’s refusal to play ball was, secretly, music to the club’s ears.
Not that Guardiola was pleased. It would be easy to assume the City boss, who usually sees football differently to the media and general public, had actually grown accustomed to playing without a central striker. After all, City had won the title for a third time in four years and reached their first Champions League final last season, and by Christmas in this one, they were well clear at the top of the table.
Perhaps the lack of a striker, and the extra element of control it had offered City, was right up Guardiola’s street?
He has been desperate to sign a clinical goalscorer throughout the season, perhaps more so than anybody else at the Etihad Stadium, including fans.
He was not against a move for Haaland by any means – he is said to be thoroughly excited to work with him, and has spoken to him on the phone.
Anything that makes Jurgen Klopp concerned is certainly good news for City, too.
“How much better does he make them? A lot! Unfortunately, he’s a really good signing, ”the Liverpool manager said on Tuesday evening. Some senior players at Anfield, meanwhile, have privately referred to the prospect of facing Haaland in a City shirt as “a nightmare”.
As much as anything, Guardiola will be delighted to get a big deal done. City had originally attempted to sign Kane in the summer of 2020 but shifted focus to Lionel Messi at Barcelona. Then they returned to Kane last summer, only to end up with neither.
Those moves fell through because their respective agreements were not legally binding. Haaland’s, of course, was watertight. But City had to walk a tightrope throughout, much like with Jack Grealish’s signing last summer.
Then, City were not allowed to know that Grealish had a confidential £ 100 million release clause in his Aston Villa contract. Negotiations were tense, and even once City had made a bid that matched the threshold, Villa tried to drum up a sale to Real Madrid or Manchester United. City officials and communications staff could not provide any leaks, lest they anger Villa’s decision-makers and scupper the deal.
In this case, Dortmund gave a mandate to Raiola, Pimenta and Alfie Haaland to speak to suitors and inform them of the release clause, but little more than that. The idea was that once a few potential buyers had been identified, those clubs would deal directly with Dortmund.
As with Grealish, any leaks risked antagonizing Dortmund, who are not particularly big admirers of City. “When a player does well, we have to fight against the really big clubs with oligarchs and the Arab states behind them,” CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke said on Tuesday as his club prepared their statement on the deal.
He was talking about Dortmund’s England midfielder Jude Bellingham in that example, a player who would presumably be much harder for City to sign in the future seeing as there is no release clause involved and a considerable amount of rancor.
With Haaland, however, City knew exactly what they had to pay, exactly what they had to say and exactly what they had to do.
And they have got their man.
(Top photos: Getty Images / Design: Sam Richardson for The Athletic)