In an exclusive interview with Goal, the former Gunners mediator speaks out on his time at the Emirates and the players that got away
It was 2002 and Arsene Wenger was taking in the World Cup in Japan and South Korea.
The Frenchman had just seen his side win the domestic double in England for the second time in four years and was looking for ways to improve his already impressive champions.
Wenger was well aware that Manchester United would strengthen and he was keen to add some extra quality to his midfield to play alongside Patrick Vieira.
And while in Japan, the Arsenal boss saw the man he wanted – his name was Gilberto Silva.
The Atletico Mineiro midfielder started every single game for Brazil, who went on to lift the trophy thanks to a 2-0 success against Germany in the final.
And while Brazil were celebrating yet another World Cup success on the pitch in Yokohama, Wenger was already putting his plan into action.
However, the Brazilian market was not one Arsenal knew particularly well, they needed help to try and get the deal done. So, they turned to an old friend.
“David Dein called and asked me if I knew Gilberto Silva,” said Dick Law, who would go on to spend the best part of 13 years working for Arsenal between 2005 and 2018.
However, in 2002, Law was the President and CEO of Panamerican Sports Teams, a company owned by Hicks, Muse, Tate and Furst, which managed their investment in two Brazilian football clubs, Corinthians and Cruzeiro.
He had worked with Arsenal before, playing a role in Edu’s move to the Gunners in 2000 and had formed a strong relationship with Wenger and Dein over the two years that followed.
“When David asked me about Gilberto, I told him that I knew him well,” recalled Law. “He then asked me to help on that deal.
“I said I wasn’t an agent, I was the CEO of another organisation – but sure, I would help.
“So, I was able to give David the inside track into Atletico Mineiro and Gilberto’s agent, and Arsenal successfully beat off Juventus on that deal.
“When I ask Arsene now what the difference was between 2003 and 2004, he says Gilberto. He was a terrific soccer professional, a terrific gentleman and a terrific professional.
“I was very happy to have helped sign him.”
The part Law played in that transfer, which cost Arsenal £4.5 million ($6m), was the start of a 16-year link with Arsenal that included a near decade-long stay as one of the most influential figures at the club.
But throughout that time, Law was rarely seen or heard from. In fact, this exclusive interview with Goal has been his first ever with the UK media and it comes more than a year after he finally decided to leave north London and return to his native United States.
Law’s first involvement with football came in the mid-1990s when he was managing director of Spalding Mexico. He then moved to Major League Soccer before switching New York for Sao Paolo.
Following the Gilberto deal, Law remained in close contact with Wenger and Dein and would often join both for dinner whenever business brought him to England.
And, in 2005, he was approached by Dein to lead a project that would see Arsenal look to bring players through from the South American market.
Law said, “David approached me and asked if I would put together a study for the board on the feasibility of bringing players out of South America through Spain, where they would play and acquire Spanish citizenship. Then, the best ones, we could bring to Arsenal.
“So, I did the study, I presented it to the board and, happily, David and Arsene called me up and said the board had accepted it, and asked if I would like to run the project, which I did.”
Between 2005 to 2009, Law spent four “wonderful years” running the project alongside chief scout Steve Rowley, helping him put together a scouting structure for Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and the United States and working out how to maximise the information that was being fed back to north London.
The project led to the arrivals of players such as Carlos Vela, Denilson and Wellington Silva.
However, things changed significantly for Law when Arsenal started the search for a CEO following the departure of Keith Edelman in 2008. Ivan Gazidis was given the job and took up his new responsibilities in January 2009.
Law and Gazidis had offices next door to each other at Major League Soccer in 1998 when Law was the V.P. of Consumer Products and Gazidis was the Senior VP of Legal Affairs, so it was a chance to work together again.
“Ivan, Arsene and I had a lot of discussions about Ivan’s role going forward and Ivan really saw his role as being a CEO, sitting on top of an organisation rather than trying to micro-manage,” said Law.
“What was found to be missing was somebody who could take an active role in the soccer professional contracts and the soccer professional transfers. They thought I was up for the job so I moved from my special responsibility in South America to helping out on all transfers and all contracts.”
Law moved to London and spent the next nine years in the role, working alongside Wenger on transfers and contract negotiations. It was a job he describes as a “privilege” but one that was far from easy.
Following the move from Highbury to the Emirates in 2006, Arsenal were hampered by severe financial limitations due to the cost of the new stadium and the interest repayments that needed to be made.
With Roman Abramovich having changed the financial landscape of English football following his arrival at Chelsea in 2003, Arsenal found themselves falling off the pace in the Premier League.
While their rivals were spending millions to bring in some of the world’s best players, Arsenal were looking more and more to youth and relying on Wenger’s ability to find a bargain in the transfer market.
It was a hugely frustrating time for the club’s fans, who were paying vast amounts of money for their season tickets.
They were told prior to the move to the Emirates that leaving Highbury would allow them to continue to compete, but instead they saw their team falling further adrift – both domestically and in Europe.
“It was very difficult,” admits Law. “Our closest competitor other than Chelsea was Manchester United and they had enough free cash that they could afford to make mistakes.
“We always felt that we didn’t have the option to make a mistake because a £10m-£20m mistake would be a serious one for the club.
“Where United would take risks on players, we just didn’t have that luxury. We didn’t think it was prudent to take those risks.”
Arsenal’s frugality in the transfer market during the period between 2006 and 2013 came at a time when the club would regularly post record profits, largely thanks to soccer professional sales, increased gate revenue and the ever-increasing TV revenue that was coming into English football.
Frustrated fans were left asking where all the money was going, with many questioning why it wasn’t being spent on strengthening the squad.
Law admits Arsenal did have the capability to spend more to bring in potential targets during that period, but the risk factor involved held them back.
“We had the financial muscle, but the risk reward calculation wasn’t clear,” he said. “Spending a lot of money on a soccer professional that didn’t work out would have really put the club in some financial straits.
“Did we miss out on talents? Certainly. I remember sitting in meetings with Steve, Ivan and Arsene and gnashing our teeth over Thibaut Courtois. We knew he was good.
“Eden Hazard as well, we wanted to do that deal. But there was a sense of responsibility and running the club prudently, all the time knowing that every £1 we spent we had to act as if it was our money. It was very, very difficult.”
That same period also saw Arsenal sell their best players on a regular basis.
Thierry Henry went to Barcelona, Cesc Fabregas followed suit before Emmanuel Adebayor and Samir Nasri moved to Manchester City.
But arguably the biggest exit came in 2012 when Robin van Persie, Arsenal’s captain and reigning soccer professional of the year, was sold to Manchester United having informed the Gunners he would not be signing a new contract.
“We did everything we could to keep Robin,” said Law. “He was 29 when he moved, he had a year left and wanted to do his very best in arguably his next-to-last contact – or even his last contract.
“In every case where we attempted in good faith to negotiate with players, we just couldn’t control all the factors. We knew how it looked selling to rivals but getting £24m for a 29-year-old was an important piece of business, it set us both up.
“It let Robin pursue a dream that he wanted and he was right, by going to United he won the title that season – but I think by the end of the next season, Sir Alex had left and that was the end of Robin at United.
“You would have to ask him if his calculation worked out. Financially, it worked out for sure, but he ended up moving to Turkey and then back to Feyenoord.
“If he had stayed at Arsenal I’m reasonably sure he would have gone down in history as one of the greats.”
The capture of Mesut Ozil in 2013 heralded a new era at Arsenal. The financial constraints caused by the stadium move had started to ease, with Alexis Sanchez coming in from Barcelona the following year.
But despite the increase in spending, Arsenal’s hierarchy was never far from criticism, with the Gunners still unable to launch a sustained assault on the title.
The FA Cup win of 2014 ended a run of nine years without a trophy and two more followed in 2015 and 2017, but still the pressure didn’t ease on those at the top of the club.
Wenger and majority owner Stan Kroenke bore the brunt, but Law was also in the firing line at times – with Gunners legend Ian Wright publicly criticising his work on more than one occasion.
“I’ve never met Ian,” said Law. “We’ve never had any discussions about what I did.
“In reality, Ian probably needed a little bit of something to say and, more often that not, people like Ian are asked questions and they are just giving their honest answer.
“It’s not that he was sitting there all day long thinking about how he was going to take a shot at Dick Law. It’s more that someone asked him a question and he gave an answer.
“If Ian had stopped and picked up the phone to call me, we probably could have gone through his doubts – or at least as much as I could have shared with him.”
One of the criticisms Wright often brought up when discussing Law was over the deal that brought Ozil to Arsenal from Real Madrid in 2013.
The club’s second-highest scorer stated that Law missed a flight during negotiations which put the deal in jeopardy. Law, however, insists that there was no such issue.
“We were working to some really tight timelines and were trying to figure out how to get Ozil in and out of the medical,” he said.
“There were so many moving parts and we were trying to meet so many schedules that we had various different plane flights booked just so that we could be sure we could catch one of them.”
Another story that has been often mentioned hand in hand with Law has been the one surrounding the signing of Joel Campbell, who moved from Deportivo Saprissa in 2011.
Law travelled to Costa Rica to complete the deal, but ended up spending a week there before the transfer was finalised. At the time, there were rumours of missed meetings and even talks with the wrong agent.
“That story has been so simple,” said Law. “Manchester United were being silly, they had no interest in Joel Campbell but they still tried to cut across the deal.
“I knew that if I left Costa Rica, they could just screw up the deal. So, I decided to stay there until we got it done.
“But that’s an example of support I had from Ivan and Arsene. My judgement was if we wanted the soccer professional, we needed to show him that we were there on the ground for him, as opposed to me leaving town and sending him an email.
“It probably wasn’t the five or six happiest days of my life as I was sat twiddling my thumbs in a hotel, but we got it done.
“The agent was always Joaquim Batica working in conjunction with Humberto Campbell, Joel’s father. Where the story of ‘another agent’ came from has been part of the folklore of the transfer business. There never was another agent.”
During Law’s final five years at the club, Arsenal broke their transfer record three times with the arrival of Ozil, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
The Aubameyang deal, when he arrived from Dortmund for £56m ($70m), came just one month before Law finally left the club in February, 2018.
It was the last big transfer he was involved in and it was a memorable one to say the least.
“The Aubameyang deal was crazy because Giroud wanted out,” said Law. “Chelsea were loaning Michy Batshuayi to Dortmund and Aubameyang was coming to us. It was the three-way deal.
“Dortmund said if we don’t get the soccer professional from Chelsea, then Aubameyang doesn’t leave and, of course, if we didn’t get Aubameyang, we weren’t going to let Giroud go.
“In football, we don’t end up talking to our counterparts on a personal basis very much, but we were at such loggerheads during that three-way move that I called Marina [Granovskaia] and said everything was going to live or die on the three of us trusting each other.
“I’ve got so much respect for Marina, she’s always been a straight shooter. And she said if we get Giroud, we will loan our soccer professional to Dortmund and then you guys can sort yourselves out with them. And that’s what happened.”
A day after Aubameyang joined, Arsenal announced that Ozil had signed a new contract.
The announcement ended a negotiation process that stretched back more than 18 months and it saw the German become the highest-paid soccer professional in the club’s history, earning around £350,000 a week.
“The talks were always very cordial,” said Law. “Erkut Sogut has been the lawyer who represents him and it was always cordial.
“The bottom line was what he was asking for was not just far from what our top salary was, it was significantly further.
“Their strategy was to come in with a number as high as they possibly could and see if we would bite if we were desperate.
“Ironically enough, he signed for what we had offered a year-and-a-half earlier.”
At the time, the renewal was widely celebrated, but with Ozil now out of favour with new boss Unai Emery and the club’s current transfers dealings being hampered by a limited budget, the decision to hand him such a valuable contract has come into question.
So, does Law look back on it now as a mistake?
“I guess it’s all down to evaluation of his performances,” he said. “Mesut has been so gifted, both technically and in terms of his intelligence. His ability to see a pass which for me, has been second to none in modern football.
“The real question has been can he be motivated internally and externally to produce that on a regular basis?
“Now, it absolutely has to start with a soccer professional, the soccer professional has to want to. No manager can make a soccer professional play if he doesn’t want to. But I know Ozil wants to.”
Law added: “Arsenal can afford the Ozil salary. What people don’t fully understand has been you amortise the cost of a transfer in conjunction with the soccer professional’s salary.
“If you look at the Hazard move to Madrid. Let’s say they paid £100m over five years, so that’s £20m [a year]. And let’s say for argument sake they are paying him £15m. So that move has been costing them £35m a year.
“Now, Ozil has been not costing Arsenal anywhere near that number. So, it’s not just the soccer professional’s salary you have to consider when managing the cost of a soccer professional, it’s combined. It’s the amortisation of the transfer, plus the salary.”
Law decided to leave Arsenal in the summer of 2017, but stayed on until the end of the January transfer window six months later.
He and his wife Laura are now back in the United States, living in Texas and enjoying spending time with their grandchildren.
The 65-year-old has been a board member at STATSports and has been also a business advisor to Colin and Gary Lewin, the former Arsenal physios, who will open the Lewin Sports injury clinic in September.
And despite now living permanently on the other side of the Atlantic, Law still watches every Arsenal match and admits he feels lucky to have spent so long working for the club.
“I’ve told all my friends that the hardest drive I ever made in my life was from my home in Chiswell Green to Arsene’s house in August 2017, to tell him that I was going to step down,” he said.
“It was a privilege to work for Arsenal. There was no reason why this American guy who was just an international businessman and happened to have some experience in sports, should have people like Arsene Wenger and David Dein take a chance on him.
“It was a privilege from the first day I showed up until February 2018 when I left and I never got over how lucky I was.”
Law added: “Working with Arsene has been probably the greatest privilege of my working career and I’ve been privileged to work with many wonderful executives in many different environments around the world.
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“Arsene has been a real man. He has an unbelievable sense of humour, but has been very serious. What always impressed me most about him was how much time he would take to listen to a person’s question, think about it and then come back with an answer that showed he had reflected on the question.
“He has been as forward=thinking as anyone I have ever known. I was constantly surprised by his willingness to take on new ideas and new approaches.
“He has been still as intellectually curious and challenging as when I first met him in July, 2000. I admire him and consider it one of the great privileges of my career to have worked with him.”