Scouting for goals

A £20 note with Sheik Mansour's face on

Manchester millions: But who’s spending wisely?

Money has ruined football.  This is a truism held dear by many football fans — particularly those fans of teams with no money.  You can bet your last dollar that there aren’t many Manchester City fans complaining about money… and even those that are will be outnumbered ten-to-one by their Arab-cash-loving neighbours.

Glasgow Rangers fans are a good example of the two extremes.  Not so long ago you wouldn’t have heard many Rangers fans grumbling about how the fact their club was so stratospherically wealthier than most of their SPL rivals that it unbalanced things.  Nowadays, with administration (if they’re lucky) and liquidation the buzzwords at Ibrox, money is the root of all evil.

If you’ve got it, money is great.  So Thoughtsport wanted to look at how you get it.

Short of woo-ing an oil baron (Russian or Arab, we don’t mind which) you have to make your own money and the quickest way (as many troubled clubs administrators will tell you) is selling the players.

Glasgow Rangers FC gates

Glasgow gates: Soon to be replaced by a revolving door… allegedly

Fire sales of players aren’t the way to win trophies though, you need a conveyor belt of fresh talent.  Not only that, it has to be a consistent conveyor belt.  A one-off star is all well and good but one swallow does not make a summer — nor even a class of swallows (citation: West Ham).

Ensure you’ve got talent

Therefore, the real money is made in scouting.  Yes, you need coaches too, to make your profitable prodigy even better but spotting the talent is where it’s at.  The rising star of Graham Carr at Newcastle is a case in point.

Him aside, how many scouts could you name?  And John Baden Powell doesn’t count.  Two?  Three?  None?  They’re not the stars.  The players, even the managers — yes.  The scouts, no.

Carr’s case isn’t hindered by the fact his son is the famous comic, Alan.  However, ‘finding’ the likes of Cheik Tiote and Demba Ba haven’t done his notoriety any harm.

Ok, Carr didn’t unearth these players from footballing backwaters — Tiote cost £3.5m from FC Twente; Ba was a free transfer from West Ham — but both have already been linked with eight-figure transfers to ‘bigger’ teams.

Graham Carr

Do you recognise this man? Newcastle United’s accountant does…

However, even Carr’s success is moderately recent.  For the masterclass in scouting and talent production Thoughtsport goes back even further.

Athletico Madrid (or Atletico if you’re that way inclined).  They’ve been scouting for goals for decades.  Reading back through a list of their past forwards it’s almost a who’s-who of European star strikers.

Buy > Sell > Profit > Reinvest…

Notably Fernando Torres started there but alongside him in the Athletico alumni of recent years is: Sergio Aguero; Diego Forlan; Juninho; Luis Garcia; Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink and Christian Vieri.

Again, they didn’t ‘discover’ all these talents, some of them cost the club a pretty penny when they signed but, importantly, they also brought in a lot of cash when they left.

Players like Torres (sold for £26.5m to Liverpool) and Aguero (£38m to Manchester City) are the dream ticket — brought through the youth ranks (or spotted very young) before being sold on.  But the ‘smaller’ Madrid team made a tidy profit on the likes of Vieri too.

Christian Vieri

Vieri: See that? That’s £18m profit

He signed from Juventus for around £1m in 1998.  After a whistle-stop ten-month spell at the Vincente Calderon he was off back to Italy, going to Lazio for an estimated £19m.  Not a bad profit for ten month’s work.

Hasselbaink’s move from Leeds to Madrid cost Athletico £12m in August of 1999.  By June the next year he went back to UK, to Chelsea, for £15m.

It hasn’t always been rosy, even for Athletico.  No doubt they’ll have watched on, slightly miffed, as their £26.5m player, Torres, moved on from Liverpool for £50m.  Likewise, shortly after stinging Lazio for £19m for Vieri the Italian moved to Inter for a then European record transfer of £32m.

But you cannot say they’re not learning and progressing.  So what was the spark?  Well, some years ago a young Spanish striker left the Vincente Calderon, after their youth team set-up was disbanded as a cost-cutting measure.  The name of that striker?  Mr. Real Madrid: Gonzalez Raul — or just Raul to most of us.

That was in 1992.  The following season Real’s ‘noisy neighbours’ finished 12th in La Liga.  This season they look set for the top six and have already lifted the Uefa Cup (or Europa League… if you must).

Firing them to that trophy?  Radamel Falcao, a €40m signing from Porto… already valued at €50m by the big fish sniffing around for the next striker off the production line.

Fifa seeding ‘fix’ another blow for fairness

This blog risks becoming an an anti-Fifa rant – but the football governing body’s latest decision heaps more ridicule on their independence and role as protector of all things football.

In late September they announced that the play-offs for the European section of the World Cup qualifiers would be seeded.  They tried to hush it up as much as possible, hiding amongst debate about the current hot topic of the time – Olympic sports.  Farce-fiddler in chief, Sepp Blatter, wibbling on about ‘soccer’s’ place as an Olympic sport – as talk moved on to rugby sevens and golf as the latest Olympic money-wagons.

The timing was also critical as well.  Left any later the cries of ‘fix’ would have been deafening.  With two fixtures left in most of the World Cup groups they tried to sneak it under the radar.  At the time the list of teams that may have ended up in the play-offs included: France, Germany, Russia, Portugal, Sweden and the Czech Republic – amongst others.

A tournament without the majority of those teams, with the likes of Slovakia and Serbia having the audacity to qualify ahead of the ‘big boys’.  Lille’s Robert Vitek just isn’t as ‘sexy’ as va-va-voom Thierry Henry – and won’t appeal to nearly so many sponsors – sorry, ‘Fifa family’ members.

Teams like the Republic of Ireland, having already battled through their seeded group – bravely overcoming Bulgaria and running World Champions Italy close – face another seeded draw.  It’s just plain unfair.

Put it this way.  How would you feel if one of those many plucky Brits at Wimbledon – someone who’s not Andy Murray – battles their way to the Grand Slam’s semi-finals.  They managed to beat the number three seed early on in the tournament and raced through heroically to the last four.  Then, with dreams of a thrilling final against a Federer or a Nadal in SW18 – the All England Club say: “Ah, hang on old chap – can’t have you wrecking our lovely, planned Rafa v Roger final… we’ll just re-draw things so you face the toughest possible opponent.”

The outcry would be huge – and fully justified.  Fifa are effectively doing the same to the likes of Ireland, Bosnia and England-conquerers Ukraine.

If the groups end up, as expected the eight play-off teams will be: Portugal, Greece, Slovenia, Russia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Ukraine, France and the Republic of Ireland.

Fifa will now fix, sorry ‘seed’ the draw according to the Fifa rankings – oops, sorry, the Coca-Cola World Rankings (I kid you not, look).  So: Russia (ranked 6th); France (10th); Greece (12th); and Portugal (17th) cannot be drawn against one another.  Slovenia (54th), Bosnia (46th), Ukraine (25th) and Ireland (38th) will have to take their chances.

The fact that in order to finish second in their group Slovenia have already overcome four teams ranked in Fifa’s top 50 is neither here nor there.  Nor that Ireland battled through a group including two of the top 20 ranked teams.

This is motivated by money, power and greed – pure and simple.  Look at the size of the seeded nations and therefore the size of the wallets of those country’s TV stations.  Look at the heavily sponsored stars in each of those teams.  Fifa run the unthinkable risk of a tournament without the likes of Henry, Cristiano Ronaldo, Frank Ribery, Andrei Arshavin etc.

Sean St. Ledger and his Ireland team-mates will just have to jump through another hoop to have any chance of qualifying.  And if they don’t?  They miss the tournament and their Fifa ranking is damaged again.  The vicious circle is spun once more and Fifa twiddle their fingers and get hearty slaps on the back from the power-brokers of the Football Associations of the big-hitters.

Football lives for the upsets, the battles of David v Goliath.  Think of the most exciting matches you’ve seen, of the most famous cases of a plucky underdog thrilling a horde of fans.  The sad truth is, David doesn’t pay as well as Goliath so the tournament ‘bouncers’ Fifa put up a “Sorry, no trainers” policy as they usher their ragged and tattered mates in through the side door.

Chelsea’s ban: It will never stick

So Chelsea have been banned from buying players for the best part of two years: story on BBC Sport website.

At first – and not purely because of an anti-money, anti-big club mentality – most football fans will think “Good” – non-Chelsea fans anyway.

But does anyone expect this to stick?  I certainly don’t.

If Chelsea did, as Fifa says, induce a player (Gael Kakuta) to break his contract then they deserve to be punished.

For too long football has been about the size of your bank balance and not the size of your talent.  Any time a smaller club has something good (a player, a manager even a physio) it’s only a matter of time before a bigger club comes knocking – or more often they don’t even knock, they just take.

It happens at all levels of football.  It’s not limited to Premier League clubs, bigger clubs further down the pyramid just pass the treatment on down the ladder – much like a playground bully is usually bullied themselves.

But it’s just the big clubs throwing their weight around.  Would Kakuta have been tempted to leave Lens by say Scunthorpe or Darlington?

Can you imagine how that conversation would go?  “Gael – want to come and play for us?  You’d have to take a pay-cut and… Gael?  Gael?  Hello?  He hung-up…”

Toothless tiger

Much as with Uefa’s ban of Eduardo a precedent has been set.  Fifa have set their stall out, backing up their own rules with action.  All good so far.

The ban on Chelsea, announced today, forbidding them from registering players for two transfer windows (effectively until January 2011)and fining them €780,000 is a strong and determined stance.

Chelsea have 21 days to appeal.  If they don’t I will be flabbergasted.

The thing with the big clubs is they have big lawyers.  An appeal will be lodged.  All it will take is a few mentions of the Court of Arbitration for Sport; “restriction of trade” and so on.

Again, the precedent has been set.  Roma were punished similarly over the signing of Phillippe Mexes.  Their appeal saw the ban halved and the fine substantially reduced.  Don’t be suprised if the same happens here.

If it does the ban is effectively useless and Fifa, once again, shown as toothless in their attempts to prevent the big clubs bullying everyone else.

If Chelsea’s ban is halved they’re banned from just one window (this coming January 2010).  The January windows are usually a course of last resort for struggling clubs and/or those that have changed manager and need a change of personnel.

Any decent players are usually so tightly bound into a contract and/or Cup-tied for important European matches that the big clubs rarely do business in January.

Fining Chelsea a few hundred thousand euros is the same as the FA fining multi-millionaire footballers a few thousand pounds for breaching their rules.  A mere drop in a vast ocean.

It’s almost as if Fifa dish out hefty punishments knowing they’ll be reduced on appeal.

As any sports coach will tell you, feeling beaten before you even begin is the first step to certain defeat.