At first glance, there’s really not a lot of similarity between war-torn Donetsk, debt-ridden Porto and metropolitan Lyon.
The urban trio are not the surprise frontrunners for European city of culture, nominated by a hipster whose concerns are more esoteric than realistic, nor are they the latest cities to be twinned with Slough, a dystopia desperate to ship its industrial reputation for a bright European future. The answer, in truth, lies with three men you’ve likely never heard of.
If you’re aware of Rinat Akhmetov, Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa and Jean-Michel Aulas, you’ve much less seen them in the same room. An oligarch, a lifelong club director and an accounting innovator make unlikely bedfellows but the presidents of Shakhtar Donetsk, FC Porto and Olympique Lyonnais have far more in common than their biographies would suggest.
Ultimately, each has led their club into the brave new world of modern football with aplomb, mastering the secrets of the transfer market to buy small and sell big. What then is this secret, that so eludes the grandees of English football?
Porto have long been looked at with envy. Their ability to boast a stellar list of alumni like James Rodríguez, Hulk, Radamel Falcao and João Moutinho is all the more exceptional given their tendency to sell the cream of their crop whilst replenishing them every year. By 2005, every single outfield player who had started the Champion’s League final of the previous year had been sold. Porto never looked back.
According to Yahoo! Sport, between 2001 and 2011, Porto amassed a £342m surplus off the back of £850m worth of sales to clubs ranging from Madrid to Moscow. In an age where outfits in weak domestic leagues, like Ajax, have increasingly faded into European obscurity, Porto have stayed ahead of the tide by surfing on the crest of a religiously observed scouting policy and an aggressive brand of transfer negotiation.
Porto are not alone. Despite being the most notable of this cadre of nouveau-riche traders, Porto were late to a game pioneered by Lyon, whose sales of Karim Benzema, Michael Essien and Mahamadou Diarra first brought them to real European attention.
Nor would Shakhtar Donetsk be happy to be ignored, having sold Fernandinho, Willian and Douglas Costa for over a hundred million euros in the last five years alone. The combined cost of every one of these starlets, in France and Ukraine both, barely exceeds forty million euros.
What, then, is this method that has proven so devastatingly effective? For Porto general director Antonio Henrique, the answer is simple adherence to three principles: recruitment, development and yield.
Ostensibly, this seems like pithy obscurantism, more management speak as a means of smugly dodging the question at hand. Ultimately, however, Henrique is right – Porto, Shakhtar and Lyon have no great secret. They simply succeed at the basics.
A president with vision is vital to any recruitment drive, in any line of work. This trio possesses vision in abundance. Under Rinat Akhmetov from 1996, an indifferent Ukrainian outfit was transformed into national titans and European regulars as the appointment of Mircea Lucescu, manager since 2004, comprised the final piece of the puzzle.
For da Costa, in office since 1982, success is no less impressive. Stagnation and adaptation to football’s new era has proved too much for many European clubs – just ask Marseille, Celtic and Red Star Belgrade – but da Costa has not just dextrously avoided this pitfall but left it long behind.
All of this surely pales into insignificance, however, beside the work of Jean-Michel Aulas, whose arrival at a second division Lyon in 1987 hardly portended seven successive Ligue 1 titles from 2002.
All three presidents have presided over a system scouting potential in the poorer regions of world football as a means of exposing market undervaluations for huge profit, most evident in Shakhtar’s concerted project of ‘Ukrainian Defence, Brazilian Attack’. Circumventing limits on the number of foreign players in Ukrainian teams, Lucescu and Akhmetov’s sides deliberately aim to recruit Brazilian youth prospects into the midfield and attack.
Most clubs, however, have efficient scouting networks. Whilst Shakhtar Donetsk may have pinched Porto’s chief scout in 2010, in a 2013 interview Luís Gonçalves revealed that he had done very little to change Shakhtar’s scouting system. Efficient scouting may help, but it is not the answer.
For all that Liverpool have embraced new, American style statistical methods of identifying transfer targets, players like Iago Aspas have still proven a flop in the Premier League despite their success both before and after their time at Merseyside.
Given Aspas’ failure to adapt to the language and culture of his new home, however, this is hardly surprising. Few lines of work expect an immediate transition from their overseas talent. In the formative years of a player’s career, the need for this familiarity is all the more prescient.
|Karim Benzema||€35 million||France, French|
|Michael Essien||€33 million||Ghana, Ghanaian*|
|Mahamadou Diarra||€26 million||Mali, French|
|Dejan Lovren||€11.5 million||Yugoslavia, Serbo-Croat|
|Miralem Pjanić||€11 million||Yugoslavia, Serbo-Croat*|
|James Rodríguez||€45 million||Colombia, Spanish*|
|Hulk||€40 million||Brazil, Portuguese|
|Radamel Falcao||€40 million||Colombia, Spanish*|
|Anderson||€31.5 million||Brazil, Portuguese|
|Danilo||€31.5 million||Brazil, Portuguese|
|Fernandinho||€46 million||Brazil, Portuguese|
|Willian||€35 million||Brazil, Portuguese|
|Douglas Costa||€30 million||Brazil, Portuguese|
|Henrikh Mkhitaryan||€25 million||Armenia, Armenian|
|Dmytro Chigrinsky||€25 million||Ukraine, Ukrainian|
For both Lyon and Porto, their top five sales since 2004 who arrived at the club before the age of 24 were generally native speakers of the national language. Those who weren’t were greatly familiar with it (*) – Michael Essien had already spent three years in France before signing for Lyon whilst Miralem Pjanić grew up in neighbouring Luxembourg.
Similarly, at Porto, the linguistic similarity between Spanish and Portuguese made the transition far easier for Rodríguez and Falcao than it was for Aspas at Liverpool.
Ostensibly, Shakhtar buck this trend. Whilst Mkhitaryan can perhaps be explained away given that, in also hailing from the former Soviet Union, the cultural shock was mitigated, this does not apply to the Ukrainian club’s Brazilian imports. Shakhtar, however, are not a typical Ukrainian case.
Brazilians adapt far more easily to life at the Donbass Arena given Lucescu’s fluency in Portuguese, the club’s strong links with Brazil and the overriding Brazilian culture present in the side’s style of play.
The club’s earliest South American imports proved indifferent, with Damían leaving a year after his 2002 transfer to return to the continent of his birth and Brandão taking some time to adjust. Similarly, attempts to recreate Shakhtar’s transfer strategy at Metalurh Donetsk proved overwhelmingly ineffective, bankrupting the club in 2015.
Without the creation of a familiar club culture, Ukraine proved too much too soon for these professionals. The lesson learned was not to change the scouting practice, but the development technique.
Similarly, whilst Liverpool identified potential in the likes of Luis Alberto, Suso and Tiago Ilori, the trio amassed less than twenty five games between them. Conversely, Pjanić was given time to develop at Lyon despite early indifference whilst Fernandinho, Willian and Douglas Costa spent a minimum of five years in Ukraine each.
The secret is not so much that Shakhtar, Porto and Lyon are identifying better talent than the likes of Liverpool – it’s that they are offering the conditions for them to realise their potential far better.
The impressively long tenure of Akhmetov, da Costa and Aulas proves most effective, however, in terms of maximising yield. As experienced businessmen governing stable clubs they provide the kind of hard-nosed negotiation that makes the likes of Daniel Levy look like an easily won-over kitten.
In an age of newly enriched clubs rolling in oil money, da Costa knows full well how to deliver Hulk to Zenit St. Petersburg for the princely sum of €60 million, whilst Akhmetov solicited €30m for Douglas Costa, a man notoriously unhappy at the situation in Ukraine and the fact that civil war forces the club to play their home matches six hundred miles away in Lviv.
Shakhtar Donetsk, FC Porto and Olympique Lyonnais may be unique in the exceptionality of their presidents, but their transfer ‘genius’ is nothing of the sort. In being prepared to devote the time, energy and resources necessary to realise the potential of their talent, they set a precedent English clubs would do well to heed. Even in Ukraine, France and Portugal, it takes time and effort for talent to adjust.
In a Premier League notoriously hard to adapt to, the emphasis needs to shift to development over recruitment. Success is never going to come quick.