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The 2018-19 Premier League XI: Are agent-run Wolves shady, brilliant, or both?

The 2018-19 Premier League season is upon us. Kickoff, believe it or not, is just days away. To get you set for the planet’s most enthralling 38-game soccer circuit, Yahoo Sports’ Premier League XI will delve into the 11 most compelling questions ahead of the coming campaign. This one concerns Wolverhampton Wanderers, their rise, ethical quandaries, and the EPL’s most riveting non-mainstream storyline.

How do you breathe life into a fallen giant?

In an era of superclubs, entrenched elites and escalating inequality, the question gnaws at British football’s powers of yore. It’s nearly impossible to answer. And in a globalized English marketplace increasingly concentrated in London, it’s an especially vexing one for inhabitants of the West Midlands, a region of former industrial powers, declining influence and the UK’s highest unemployment rate.

Wolverhampton Wanderers, a former soccer power, are one of those inhabitants. Wolves were a founding member of the Football League, and could lay unofficial claim to the European Cup – now the Champions League – as well. After a series of continental friendlies that preceded the inaugural competition, they were, in the words of manager Stan Cullis, “champions of the world.”

But in 2014, they found themselves in League One, the third tier of English soccer, having spent only four seasons in the top flight since 1984. Their high-water mark was 15th place. Their prospects were bleak, their trajectory yo-yoing but capped by the exclusivity of the modern game’s lucrativeness.

They had dozens of equals, trudging along on the Football League’s treadmill of mediocrity. None of their contemporaries have found a way off.

But Wolves had a plan. Specifically, Chinese investors had a plan. Just two years after their purchase of the club, it is back in the Premier League, this time with the seventh-best title odds and European ambitions, but accompanied by ill will and skepticism. How the heck is all that possible?

Wolves have been built on money, yes, but more so on relationships – the extents of which are at the heart of the Premier League’s most fascinating controversy.

A superagent, a takeover, and Mendes FC

Look up and down the roster, and you’ll recognize some names. There’s Euro 2016-winning goalkeeper Rui Patricio. Over there is 113-cap Portugal mainstay Joao Moutinho. Oh, and there’s precocious midfielder Ruben Neves, formerly Porto’s captain in the Champions League as an 18-year-old.

Look further, and you’ll start to notice a trend: Up front, there are Portuguese winger Diogo Jota, and Portuguese attacker Helder Costa, and Portuguese forward Ivan Cavaleiro.

That Wolves have a strong Portuguese contingent is no coincidence. (Getty)

But their commonalities extend beyond nationality: All six share an agent. They, like Cristiano Ronaldo and Jose Mourinho, are Jorge Mendes clients. Mendes is the third-most powerful sports agent in the world. And he’s the reason prospects like Neves, who had his pick of a host of Champions League contenders, chose the EFL Championship.

The story begins in 2015, when a subsidiary of Fosun International, the Chinese conglomerate that would eventually buy Wolves, purchased a 20-percent stake in GestiFute, Mendes’ agency. A year later, Fosun paid a relatively meager $58 million for the club. Somewhere along the way, Mendes took up an “advisor” role with Fosun.

And suddenly, his clients were matriculating to the West Midlands. Kevin McDonalds and James Henrys were displaced by Costas and Cavaleiros. Within a year of the takeover, Paul Lambert was replaced at the helm by Nuno Espirito Santo. After a while, transfer rumor roundups became Mendes client lists.

Oh, and in year two, Wolves got good.

The strongest newly promoted team in recent memory

It isn’t just the Mendes signings. Wolves have spent smartly elsewhere. They’ve been active in the loan market. And Espirito Santo has helped transformed the most British of British teams into a worldly one that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Premier League last year. It won the second tier with 99 points and a plus-43 goal differential.

Espirito Santo flipped Wolves to an adaptable 3-4-3 with a multi-faceted attack. He turned Liverpool product Conor Coady, once a midfielder, into a ball-playing central defender. They boss games with possession when they can, but are wary of not letting it become stagnant, and have the ability to go long or play on the counter. That should suit them well in the top flight.

So should the summer additions. Patricio is a significant upgrade. Moutinho, even at 31, brings dynamism in the middle of the park. Mexican striker Raul Jimenez provides a new dimension up top. Adama Traore, signed from Middlesbrough for a club-record fee, is a bulldozing dribbler who’s inconsistent but terrifying to play against.

Depth remains a slight concern, but it’s a concern that’s disappearing by the day. This was a mid-table Premier League side playing down a level last year. Now it’s a seventh-place challenger.

The rise has been remarkable. And those who haven’t been able to halt it have diverted attention back toward the source.

So, Wolves: Shady or brilliant?

With Wolves on their way to the title last year, several Championship clubs – fellow promotion candidates – complained about Mendes’ influence, arguing that it breached third-party ownership rules. The EFL launched an investigation. But it concluded that no, Mendes “holds no role at the club.”

Still, though, there are doubts. The mere fact that “Jorge Mendes not in charge of recruitment at Wolves, says club managing director” is a real, actual headline says a lot.

Nobody is quite sure what the relationship between Mendes, Fosun and Wolves actually entails, but embedded somewhere within it is a clear conflict of interest. Fosun’s financial well-being depends on the success of both GestiFute and Wolves. Crucially, the operation of one can influence the prosperity of the other. Mendes and GestiFute can direct players to Wolves. Wolves can grant them favorable deals, boosting the agency’s reputation and depositing “agent fees” in its accounts.

Fosun, as a minority shareholder, is not in charge of GestiFute, just as Mendes technically has no official decision-making power at Wolves. But its interests now overlap so extensively with those of Mendes that the two are acting with each other’s fortunes in mind. If more than half of Wolves’ first-choice 11 are Mendes clients, he’s incentivized to ensure the club wins, therefore boosting the value of those players. On the other hand, with Mendes seemingly feeding players to Wolves, Fosun is beholden to Mendes.

It’s a beneficial arrangement for both parties. It’s also legal – apparently. And in that sense, it’s brilliant.

But it probably shouldn’t be legal. The wild world of agents is soccer’s ugly underbelly. It’s woefully unregulated. Agents negotiate a cut of most transfer fees, meaning they’re incentivized to shuttle players from club to club – to act in their own best interest, rather than that of their clients.

The Fosun-Mendes-Wolves triangle leaves all three parties – sketchy company, superagent, Premier League club – susceptible to exploitation and illicit behavior. It hasn’t been problematic yet. That’s not to say it won’t be.

But until then, we can revel in the incredulity – at the fact that an agent sure seems to be running a Premier League club. We can enjoy what Wolves will bring to our TV screens. And we can dream of a 2021 title race featuring Mourinho and Ronaldo, clad in gold-ish orange, restoring the glory of the 1950s at Molineux.

The rest of the 2018-19 Premier League XI

Monday: What could derail Man City’s title defense?
Monday: Can Sarri revolutionize or stabilize Chelsea?
Monday: Who’s getting relegated?
Tuesday: Who, if anybody, can break up the top six?
Tuesday:
Is Liverpool closing on City?
Tuesday:
What to expect at Arsenal post-Wenger?
Wednesday: Is a Mourinho flameout already underway?
Wednesday: Is Spurs’ trophy deadline approaching?
Wednesday: Wolves: Shady, brilliant, or both?
Thursday a.m.: Predictions
Thursday p.m.: Transfer window winners/losers

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.