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Talent in the world's greatest shop window

As agents from Liverpool to Los Angeles look for new acquisitions, Tim Rich dips into the secretive world of scouting

In 1958 it was a 17-year-old from the village of Tres Coracoes who appeared from nowhere to become Sweden's brightest northern light. Forty years after Pele, another teenager, another son of a footballer, took David Beckham's pass, accelerated breathtakingly past Roberto Ayala and Jose Chamot, and became at a stroke one of the most valuable footballers in the world.

The difference with Michael Owen was that, four years before that goal in St-Etienne, the boy from Chester had already had an offer from Manchester United. The Wales team that was finally broken down by Pele in the Ullevi Stadium in Gothenburg had never seen him play before the World Cup. Now, because of organisations such as the Scouting Network, there are files on footballers who play in the Conference North.

There are more than 50,000 names on the database, which four years since its inception already makes it the largest in the world. If you want information on North Korea's right-back, Cha Jong-hyok, they have it. In the 2-1 defeat by Mexico in March, for example, the Scouting Network reported that Cha was "more effective going forward than defensively" and that he "struggled to deal with a quick and effective opponent, failed to get tight enough and lacked awareness when tracking his opponent's movement".

Cha's crossing was "poor" and his tackling "timid"; verdicts that would hardly please North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-il, who according to one of his officials "has proposed the tactics that helped the team qualify". They say he communicates with the bench via an invisible mobile phone.

The Scouting Network relies rather more on eyesight and intuition and, unlike some of its rivals, is not owned by football agents. "We are completely independent," said the database manager, Paddy Connolly. "Clubs will ask us to check recommendations they have had from an agent or via a DVD. The agent might describe their client as the best attacking midfielder in Peru, who has scored five times in the last month. We'd send a scout and he'd discover he is a holding midfielder, who usually never crosses the halfway line and has scored five times in his career."

The network's clients tend to be from the smaller clubs in the Championship downwards. Watford, for example. "Our bread and butter is analysis of their next opponents," said Scouting Network's director, Chris Huckle. "We go into every detail of the team they will face next Saturday. It comes in around 15 pages and they don't want it in flowery language, which may be why we don't employ football journalists"

Their report of Northampton's 2-0 victory over Shrewsbury on 24 April runs to 14 pages and includes diagrams of their free-kicks, of how they defended corners and attacked with them. The key performances are summed up. Northampton's centre-half, Dean Beckwith, is described as "excellent in the air and did well at keeping his opponent in front of him. However, he does lack pace but this was not exploited on the day".

Since Northampton were playing Bradford next, the report was presumably commissioned by the Bantams. Bradford won 2-0.

When it comes to analysing a footballer on behalf of an interested club, the detail becomes ever greater. The report on Baye Djiby Fall, a Senegal striker on Lokomotiv Moscow's books, is an intense analysis, conducted by a senior scout. His performances over four matches are divided into nine topics, from ball control to running the channels, heading and link-up play.

There is also analysis of Fall's technical ability, his athleticism and his character, which includes mental and physical courage. It concludes by saying Fall would "do well in most European leagues". He is now on loan at Molde, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's old club, where they have pencilled him in as a replacement for Mame Diouf, who has gone to Manchester United.

It does not entirely take away the risk but it makes the buying of players rather more scientific. Eleven years ago, Peter Reid, then at the height of his success as manager of Sunderland, bought a fast but little-known winger called Carsten Fredgaard and played him on their pre-season tour of Denmark. "Carsten can play better than that," said Reid after what was to prove a typically underwhelming display at Odense, adding in a voice tinged by fear. "At least, I hope he can." He couldn't.

Rising stars hoping to catch the big clubs' attention: Chosen by the Scouting Network

Mesut Özil, Germany

Midfielder, age: 21

Became Bremen's playmaker at the age of 21. He has excellent technique, can run at the heart of the opposition defence and has shown great vision and awareness to play in colleagues during an excellent season, one of the highlights of which was setting up Miroslav Klose for the winning goal in Russia.

Milos Krasic, Serbia

Right midfield, age: 25

A skilful, right-sided midfielder/winger who looks to get the ball down and run at opposing defenders. Over the past couple of seasons he has added goalscoring to his vast array of skills, as he has chipped in with a number of crucial goals. Now in his seventh season at CSKA Moscow, he is looking to join a top European club, following some decent displays in last season's Champions League.

Danny, Portugal

Attacking midfielder, age: 26

Following a serious knee injury (cruciate ligaments), which ruled him out of the second half of the Russian season and put paid to talk of a move to Chelsea, Danny has made a bright start to the new season. Venezuelan-born, he plays as an attacking, creative midfielder and is quick, direct and aware. Was man of the match when Zenit beat Manchester United in the Uefa Super Cup in 2008.

Alexis Sanchez, Chile

Right winger/forward, age: 21

Small but extremely pacy, very positive and direct in his play. He can play on either wing or in the hole behind the main forward. Known as the Wonder Kid (El Niño Maravilla) in Chile, he made his debut for the national team as a 17-year-old and has scored eight goals in 26 appearances. Linked with a number of top European clubs following impressive displays for Udinese that saw him score five times in their last six games.

Antonio Di Natale, Italy

Striker, age: 32

Leading goalscorer in Italy (Capocannoneri) with 29 goals, Di Natale has had an excellent season for Udinese and will be hoping to make Marcello Lippi's starting line-up. A small, mobile forward, he offers great movement off the ball in and around the final third and will be hoping to continue his fine goalscoring form in South Africa, although he may have to operate in a wide role.

Seydou Doumbia, Ivory Coast

Centre-forward, age: 22

Doumbia earned himself a move to CSKA Moscow last January following some scintillating performances in the Swiss league. He has scored 49 league goals in two seasons, starting the majority of games on the bench in his first season. He is pacy, good in the air and has an eye for goal, but his chances of a start may depend on Didier Drogba's injury and Salomon Kalou's role.

Gregory van der Wiel, Netherlands

Full-back, age: 22

A troubled youngster, Van der Wiel has now settled down on his return to Ajax and is starting to fulfil his potential. A quick, mobile, disciplined defender, he shows good energy and skill when pushing forward on positive overlapping runs, where he likes to take on his opponent and deliver crosses into the box. Prefers playing at full-back but can also cover as a central defender.

Samuel Inkoom, Ghana

Full-back, age: 21

An attack-minded defender, he was one of Basle's best players this season in picking up a league and cup double in his first season abroad. He is pacy and enthusiastic, with good ball control and looks to push on to support in the final third. Inkoom impressed in the World Under-20 Championship and was given his chance when Ghana sent a young squad to the Africa Cup of Nations last January.

The Scouting Network, leading experts used by top clubs throughout Europe, will be profiling emerging stars every day during the World Cup, only in 'The Independent'