World Cup 2010: Scouting for talent
By David Ornstein
Every four years, the finest players on earth step into football’s biggest shop window and offer clubs an unrivalled opportunity to replenish their stocks.
Gheorghe Hagi, David Platt and Thierry Henry are just some of the names who shot to global prominence and earned lucrative moves off the back of impressive World Cup performances.
But whose job is it to cherry-pick the stars, how do they go about their business and what will they be looking for at this summer’s finals in South Africa?
“We have people travelling all over the planet on a daily basis in search of new recruits,” said a senior official from one of the Premier League’s top four clubs.
“But it’s very exhausting, expensive and time-consuming to maintain a year-round international scouting network, so the World Cup is hugely important.
David O, BBC Sport
“It offers us a unique chance to assess the top talent at the highest level, under intense pressure, in one place, across a four-week period. You could call it a scouting goldmine.”
Getting paid to visit a fascinating country and watch match after match in football’s blue riband event – it is at times like these that scouts appear to have many a supporter’s dream job.
Yet that would be some way from the truth.
The men in question spend most of their working lives away from home, clocking up thousands of miles, sifting through hundreds of candidates and vying with a bulging group of rivals in the typically fruitless search for tomorrow’s Lionel Messi. For them, the World Cup is no holiday.
“Scouts usually return from World Cups extremely tired,” explained St Etienne sporting director Damien Comolli, who occupied the same role at Tottenham and also scouted for Arsenal. “Every day involves horribly early starts and late finishes; it’s a really intense period.
“I’m planning to watch 12 or 13 matches over 10 days in at least five of the 10 host cities. In between games I’ll spend hours in my hotel room rummaging through information and writing detailed reports on every player I see.
BAD WORLD CUP BUYS
Daniel Amokachi: Club Brugge to Everton, 1994, £3m
Ilie Dumitrescu: Steaua Bucharest to Tottenham, 1994, £2.6m
Stephane Guivarc’h: Auxerre to Newcastle, 1998, £3.5m
Aliou Cisse: Montpellier to Birmingham, 2002, £1.5m
“I need to keep in constant contact with my club, visit our players, network and get in and around team hotels and training sessions to learn everything about our targets – who are their agents, what are their asking prices, when do their contracts expire, how do they behave off the pitch?”
The stereotypical notion of an old man in a long coat stood pitchside waiting for a player to catch his eye before reporting back to the manager is not entirely outdated.
But modern-day scouting is a 24/7 global operation utilising low-cost airlines, state-of-the-art technology – everything from statistics, data and cutting-edge software to dossiers, DVDs and internet resources like YouTube – and an array of highly knowledgeable individuals to ensure no markets remain untapped and few individuals slip under the radar.
“If you go to the World Cup hoping to unearth the next Wayne Rooney you’ve already missed the bus,” said Aston Villa chief scout Ian Storey-Moore, who prioritised May’s Under-21 Toulon Tournament ahead of the World Cup in his search for the next wave of talent.
“With the possible exception of North Korea, virtually every member of every squad will be well-known by clubs before a ball has been kicked.
“Occasionally, a player you’ve never heard of catches your eye but buying on the basis of one tournament is incredibly dangerous. It’s easy to get seduced by the spectacle of a major competition but it’s the cold light of a November midweek game that will provide the true test.
“World Cups are a culmination of many months’ hard work. You’re following pre-targeted players and discovering how they cope at the highest level. This is the final test.”
You’ve got to understand where you are in the food chain – West Brom need to scout players who will keep them in the Premier League, Chelsea and Manchester United need to scout players who will win them the title
Dan Ashworth, West Brom technical director
Scouts are not provided with tickets by Fifa so they apply for accreditation through their national associations, often travelling with their rivals and sitting alongside each other in stadiums.
They will base their itineraries around matches and players they wish to view and might even seek advice from trusted colleagues, but Comolli stresses: “When it’s time for business you go it alone. You don’t want to risk giving anything away to other teams.”
Not every Premier League club intends to deploy scouts in South Africa but you can guarantee they will still be monitoring proceedings.
Newly-promoted West Brom, for instance, are following the event on television from their Great Barr training ground, with technical director Dan Ashworth and seven of his staff writing 11-man reports on each match involving players who might be of interest to the Baggies.
Their decision not to travel to South Africa was influenced by several factors, including safety concerns and financial constraints.
Ashworth added: “Scouting at major tournaments is horrendous. You’re usually sat behind some bloke with a great big orange hat or waving a massive flag in front of your face.”
Storey-Moore, his Fulham counterpart Barry Simmonds and Stoke’s Lindsay Parsons are others who intend to keep a close eye on the World Cup from afar, but for clubs with greater resources it is a spectacle not to be missed.
“Scouting is best done live,” said Manchester United’s chief scout Jim Lawler. “We’ll have several staff out there and they’ll do reports throughout the tournament. There are some players we’ll already know and others we’re looking to discover more about.”
Liverpool agreed a deal for Diouf just before he starred for Senegal in 2002
Who exactly those players are, Lawler would not divulge. But Storey-Moore admitted Villa boss Martin O’Neill would only be interested in men with Premier League experience, while Parsons claimed Stoke manager Tony Pulis was keen on several stars from the four West African squads.
Recruitment programmes differ from club to club. While Fulham will dig for bargains at pre-World Cup warm-up matches involving players who are not going to the finals, West Brom plan to focus on individuals from less-heralded World Cup nations such as Slovenia, Slovakia and Chile.
“We won’t be scouting any of the top eight seeds,” conceded Ashworth. “We’ve only just been promoted so, let’s face it, we’re not going to attract members of the Brazilian national team.
“You’ve got to understand where you are in the food chain. West Brom need to scout players who will hopefully keep them in the Premier League whereas Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal need to scout players who will win them the title.”
Clubs will be aware that if a player they have been tracking catches the eye this summer, a scramble is likely to ensue and his price is sure to rocket.
“This is why clubs are trying to tie deals up prior to the World Cup starting. They’re doing it as we speak,” added Comolli.
Liverpool signed El-Hadji Diouf and Salif Diao just before the pair starred in Senegal’s shock run to the last eight in 2002.
Four years later, Arsenal completed the acquisition of Tomas Rosicky a couple of weeks ahead of his wonder goal in Czech Republic’s opening game.
Inevitably, however, some players will blossom from relative obscurity. Who knew about Daniel Amokachi before 1994, the Senegalese and South Koreans before 2002, and Antonio Valencia before 2006?
The stage is set, it’s time to impress the judges.
Derek Bragg is a former player and coach and is now director of football operations at The Scouting Network
Mesut Ozil (Germany)
Club: Werder Bremen
Scouting report: Excellent technique, vision and awareness. Runs at the heart of defence and plays team-mates through. Germany regular, set up the winning goal as they won in Russia to reach the World Cup.
Club: Zenit St Petersburg
Position: Attacking midfielder
Scouting report: Quick and direct with clever movement and awareness. Man of the match in the 2008 Super Cup win against Manchester United, now fully recovered from a knee ligament injury.
Alexis Sanchez (Chile)
Position: Right winger/forward
Scouting report: Diminutive, extremely quick and direct with good vision and passing. Known in Chile as El Nino Maravilla (the Wonder Kid), made his international debut at 17 and has started to score regularly for club and country.
Aleksandar Kolarov (Serbia)
Scouting report: Tall, strong and physical defender. Attacks the ball brilliantly in the air and on the ground. Calm and composed in possession with attacking ambition and a good range of passing and crossing.
Seydou Doumbia (Ivory Coast)
Club: CSKA Moscow
Scouting report: Pacy, strong in the air and prolific in front of goal. Struck 50 times in 65 games for Young Boys Bern, named Swiss Super League Player of the Year last season and will join CSKA Moscow after the World Cup.
Gregory van der Wiel (Netherlands)
Scouting report: Quick, mobile and disciplined full-back, can also operate at centre-half. Energy and skill to push forward and overlap, likes to beat a man and cross. Troubled youngster but now settled.