Chris McGrath: Super Sanchez is the latest big success story of little Udinese's scouting system
Udinese have 50 scouts all around the world, concentrating on youngsters from second-tier nations. They found Sanchez at 16 in Chile. He cost €2m
Tuesday 14 June 2011
Even in Italy, you would like to think it was only a figure of speech. Before a recent, crucial match against Udinese, Edy Reja was asked how he might stop Alexis Sanchez and Antonio Di Natale. The Lazio coach replied: "We could try shooting them." The key word here, of course, was "try".
The velocity of a bullet is sometimes no more than 1,100 feet per second. Those who spotted Sanchez at the World Cup will know not only that he would consider that little more than a canter, but that he might well swivel and glance it away with his heel.
A year later, the 22-year-old has become another kind of target, with Europe's biggest clubs suddenly clashing antlers over his signature. Barcelona apparently intend to confine their summer spending to €40m (£35.2m), but rival interest from Manchester, both City and United, could leave them enough change to bring Tomas Brolin out of retirement.
As the most prized trophy of the summer, Sanchez represents a defining test of City's credibility as a new power in the marketplace. Paradoxically, however, he also offers hope to all those clubs that depict themselves as marooned by precisely the sort of disparities associated with Sheikh Mansour.
Udine is a city of 100,000 in the misty terrain between Venice and the Alps. With crowds at the Stadio Friuli typically no more than 17,000, annual gate receipts are equivalent to those trousered by Manchester United after a single match at Old Trafford. According to the erudite football blog, Swiss Ramble, Udinese's 2009-10 wage bill of €31m compared with €230m and €172m at Internazionale and Milan respectively. Only the club's ageless talisman, Di Natale, has an annual salary exceeding €1m; Sanchez himself has apparently been taking home around €700,000. Internazionale, Milan and Juventus, meanwhile, all enjoyed annual revenues of over €200m. At €41m, Udinese did not match a single Premier League club. Income from television accounted for €26m; Internazionale's was €138m.
It was entirely consistent with their resources, then, for Udinese to finish 15th that season, and begin the last one with four consecutive defeats. Less accountably, in the second half of the campaign they charged all the way through to fourth, and a place in the Champions League. They beat Internazionale 3-1, drew 4-4 away to Milan and, most staggering of all, flayed Palermo 7-0 – in Sicily.
Sanchez scored four goals that day, but his telepathy with Di Natale has been only the crowning glory of a parable that might be usefully heeded by any middle-ranking club given to self-pity. When Giampaolo Pozzo bought Udinese, 25 years ago, the club was still prey to the maddening, odious debilities that have so retarded the Italian game.
A betting scandal earned a points deduction, and relegation. But Pozzo devised a solution that has now secured 16 consecutive seasons in Serie A, and regular European competition.
Udinese built up a network of 50 scouts around the world, concentrated primarily in South America and Africa. They focused especially on youngsters from second-tier nations, and duly found Sanchez as a 16-year-old in Chile. He cost just €2m, but his sale this summer will merely consummate a policy that has already yielded a transfer surplus of €112m over the past decade.
Stars to have used Udinese as a stepping stone include David Pizarro, Asamoah Gyan, Vincenzo Iaquinta, Sulley Muntari, Andrea Dossena, Fabio Quagliarella and Gaetano D'Agostino.
Unlike so many clubs with a reputation for grooming young talent, however, Udinese have consolidated their status to the extent that they can now provide Champions League football themselves. They will always have Di Natale, clearly.
He has been there since 2004, repeatedly spurning bigger clubs, and has just been crowned capocannoniere for the second year running, with 28 league goals. Others who may now stay include Samir Handanoviè, the Slovenian goalkeeper who has so far saved 11 out of 26 penalties in Serie A; the dynamic Ghanaian, Kwadwo Asamoah; and the Swiss cog in their clockwork midfield, Gokhan Inler.
Even if these were to move on, however, Udinese will somehow pull another rabbit out of the hat. And that's because of a quite astonishing bet-hedging strategy with their young recruits. Last season they had no fewer than 64 players out on loan, including 13 with Granada, their symbiotic partners in the Spanish second division. Sanchez himself was astutely allowed to mature closer to home, loaned out for a season apiece to Colo Colo in Chile and then River Plate in Argentina.
He has, moreover, been sensitively managed by Francesco Guidolin. Weary after the World Cup, Sanchez made a mediocre start to the season and Guidolin dropped him for a month before gambling on a fresh role, just behind Di Natale.
The results were so explosive that Roberto Mancini needs to guard against any assumption that Sanchez be deployed on the wing. Indeed, his slippery interplay along the box would qualify Sanchez far more obviously for a role at Barcelona.
Admittedly, he would have to learn to work harder without the ball. As things stand, he looks very similar to Cristiano Ronaldo at the same age. He remains short of experience, but it augurs well that everything he tried at the World Cup seemed to come off.
Though nothing like as tall as Ronaldo, he has the same unpredictable blend: sometimes terrifyingly fleet and direct, sometimes teasingly elaborate. Alongside David Silva, you could certainly see him helping City to share the elite game's shift away from the antediluvian use of a number nine as battering ram.
Wherever he goes next, he will always be grateful to the enlightened men who discovered him. And so, for their example, should the rest of football.
Where are the English clubs in Jennings chase?
Here's a perplexing one from the new curiosity shop. Given the sudden boom in the value of English teenagers, can someone explain why no less a club than Bayern Munich are apparently head of the queue for Dale Jennings of Tranmere?
Jennings, 18, has been scouted by dozens of British clubs but it is the German giants who are said to be closest to buying out the final year of his contract. Bayern, whose mediocre season condemned them to the indignity of an August play-off to get back into the Champions League, are desperate for a fresh start under their new coach, Jupp Heynckes. For Jennings, meanwhile, the Bundesliga – so vibrant, on and off the pitch – could prove a sensational learning environment.
Perhaps there will be dividends for the English game in a few years. For now, however, somebody is missing a trick.
Meddle with the Triple Crown and its value is lost
Ascot opens its tercentenary meeting today with two truly magnetic champions. Those who take only a sporadic interest in the Turf are urged to check out Goldikova and Frankel; and those charged with reaching a fresh audience, equally, are urged not to break with its best traditions. A day like this shows that horses – and horsemen – can only achieve historic dimensions if measured against a corresponding standard.
In the United States, for instance, there will again be some proposing amendment to the rigours of the Triple Crown, which has not been won since 1978. But it is precisely the misfortunes of Animal Kingdom, this time round, that should discourage meddling. The Kentucky Derby winner would arguably have won the second leg under a better ride; and that would have made what happened in the third, in New York last weekend, quite unbearable. The colt lost all chance when all but brought down leaving the stalls. But we can only respect the legacy of the 11 who have won the Triple Crown if we abide scrupulously by their terms.
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