Arsenal news: Meet Danny Karbassiyoon, the Arsenal scout who discovered Gedion Zelalem and Joel Campbell

Voyage of discovery unearthed hidden gems for Arsenal

Danny Karbassiyoon played and scored for Arsenal, achieving something that might have felt like an unreachable dream to him as a teenage boy. And yet it is what he has done for the club since having his career cut short by injury at 22 that has made the biggest impact.

Within months of being forced to retire by persistent knee problems, in early 2007, the club found a new role for him. Arsene Wenger and chief scout Steve Rowley decided that his intelligence and enthusiasm could be best used in a different way, as their scout responsible for north and central America.

So Karbassiyoon (above, left) has spent the last few years flying and driving across a continent looking for youngsters who would be able to play the Arsenal way. He has found two who have made their way into the Arsenal first team: Joel Campbell and Gedion Zelalem, now out on loan at Rangers.

These two finds, the product of years of hard work, give Karbassiyoon a more lasting legacy than his unfortunately brief playing career. “With Joel and Gideon I have contributed more to Arsenal as a scout than I did as a player,” Karbassiyoon tells The Independent, taking a modest perspective on his winner in the third round of the Carling Cup in 2004-05.

“Getting Arsenal to the fourth round of the Carling Cup, in the grand scheme of things, didn’t do too much. But finding them two players who could potentially make an impact on the first team, it means more.”

That work started in April 2007 when Karbassiyoon, still just 22, was given a three-week crash-course in scouting, attending “an inordinate amount of games”, from youth level up to Champions League, learning how to evaluate players the Arsenal way.

“You have to learn to watch games in a completely different way,” explains Karbassiyoon, over coffee in London, where he now lives. “If you look at the type we have, it is clear what the boss wants, so I was at an advantage for having played for him. Most guys that made it at Arsenal were very technical, very intelligent, concentrated and aware of what was going on around them.”

Having learned what Arsenal expect, Karbassiyoon started driving and flying around north and central America, building contacts, watching players, hoping to find someone who might be good enough to wear the famous red shirt, as well as qualifying for, or even not needing, a work permit. “If you don’t go,” he says, “you don’t know”.

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Karbassiyoon during one of three appearances for Arsenal, all in the League Cup

The first player Karbassiyoon sent on trial to Arsenal was Luis Gil in 2010, a young midfielder from California who decided to play in Major League Soccer and now plays for the United States national team. But later that year he got an email he will always remember.

“Sorry for the cold e-mail, but I have a 13-year-old who has a European passport who is special,” wrote Matt Pilkington, coach of Olney Rangers, a boys’ club in Washington DC.  Pilkington and Karbassiyoon had a mutual friend, who recommended Zelalem too, so Karbassiyoon went to take a look.

“I saw Gedion in a training session, and he was very different from what I am accustomed to seeing, from a typical player in the US” Karbassiyoon remembers. “Technically he was very, very gifted, he rarely looks like he’s under pressure and always has a way out. I hadn’t seen that in players in the US, his intelligence and awareness were on another level.”

Zelalem was especially appealing because he was born in Germany – he had started at the Hertha Berlin academy – and therefore had an EU passport. While there are a few teenagers  in the US who are good enough to play for Arsenal, almost none of them are eligible to do so. Zelalem, though, was both.

Karbassiyoon had travelled across the US, Mexico and the Caribbean looking for players but had found the best one five minutes’ drive from his old house in DC. So he kept watching Zelalem every weekend, started sending reports back to Arsenal, as well as building up trust with Zelalem’s father. “I was a 26-year-old guy saying I work for Arsenal and want to take your son to London,” he says. “It’s a lot to take in. Scouting is much more than just recommending good players, you have to represent the club as well.”

Arsenal were sufficiently attracted, having seem him play in the Dallas Cup, that in the summer of 2011, the 14-year-old Zelalem had a two-week trial at London Colney, with Karbassiyoon driving him in from the team hotel in Ellstree every morning. “Initially Gedion was training with the under-16s,” he says, “and he did really well, so he was put in with the under-18s, and continued to do well. Two days before the end of the trial, he was thrown in with the reserves, and continued to impress. When a kid comes on trial you want him to make a difference, not just do enough to be part of the group. And he was influencing sessions with senior players.”

Wenger had seen enough and so, when Zelalem turned 16 in January 2013, he signed as a scholar, making his first-team debut in the FA Cup days before his 17th birthday.

It was a very different process with Joel Campbell, who signed in the summer of 2011 but did not make his debut for another three years. Karbassiyoon saw him first as an 18-year-old, playing for Costa Rica in the CONCACAF qualifiers for the2011 Under-20 World Cup, in front of crowds of just a few hundred. Costa Rica were runners up, but Campbell top-scored with six goals.

“I really liked him,” Karbassiyoon recalls. “His directness really impressed me, when he gets the ball he’s super-confident, goes towards goal and wants to shoot. He had that raw ability, and I was excited about getting him to Wenger to fine-tune and polish it.” That was a busy summer for Costa Rica, at the Gold Cup, Copa America and U20 World Cup itself, and Arsenal had soon seen enough to buy him from Deportivo Saprissa, despite competition.

The problem was that, unlike Zelalem, Campbell did not have an EU passport, so needed two seasons of loans before he was eligible for a work permit. Now, though, he is in the Arsenal team, and Karbassiyoon is delighted. “I’m really pleased now to see him have a good run of games, scoring some good goals and making them,” he says. Campbell is now doing what Karbassiyoon only did briefly, and Zelalem may yet follow. “Playing for Arsenal was the highlight of everything,” he says, “but being on the other side is something I cherish.”

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Danny Karbassiyoon’s book ‘The Arsenal Yankee’ is out now on Kindle and next week in paperback

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