Last June, in South Africa, there was one Italian club with rather split loyalties. It had sent no fewer than eight players to the World Cup, representing six different nations. Had this been a perennial Champions' League powerhouse, you might not be surprised. But it was little Udinese, hailing from a town of around 100,000, tucked away in the foggy (half the year anyway), northeast of the country.
How did a club this size (its average attendance this season is just over 15.000) manage to assemble a team that included notable talents such as Samir Handanovic (Slovenia), Mauricio Isla (Chile), Aleksandar Luckovic (Serbia). Gokhan Inler (Switzerland), Simone Pepe (Italy), Kwadwo Asamoah (Ghana), Alexis Sanchez (Chile) and Antonio Di Natale (Italy)?
Same way it always has. Buy low, sell high. It's the oldest rule of business. And few clubs understand it as well as Udinese. Those eight guys named above cost Udinese a combined $16 million. Lukovic was sold for $10M, Pepe is on loan at Juventus this year, but the bianconeri will likely exercise their buy-back clause in the summer and make his move permanent for $13M. Di Natale is 33 and Juventus offered $9M for him last summer. He refused the move, much to the joy of the local supporters, who have seen him score 117 goals since his arrival in 2004. The other five guys are worth, at a conservative estimate, in excess of $90M.
We make heroes of managers and players, but often overlook the people who actually make it happen: the scouts who identify talent and the directors who negotiate to secure it at the right price. And, in that regard, Udinese has been one of the benchmarks in Europe. And it's not a recent phenomenon either. Martin Jorgensen, Marek Jankulovski, David Pizarro, Per Kroldrup, Asamoah Gyan, Stefano Mauri, Morgan De Sanctis, Vincenzo Iaquinta, Sulley Muntari, Tomas Sivok, Andrea Dossena, Fabio Quagliarella, Roman Eremenko and, most recently, Gaetano D'Agostino, Felipe, Luckovic and Pepe: the list of notable alumni, most of them bought for peanuts, is staggering.
There is no great secret to it. Just a lot of hard work and a dedicated network of scouts, loyal to the club. Unlike many, who have preferred areas of the world they like to operate in and tend to go back there for their scouting, Udinese operates just about everywhere, logging everything and trying to stay one step ahead of the competition
Udinese can't offer huge salaries or the prestige of playing for a massive club. What it does guarantee is a shop window, an honest, professional setup and a well run club in a part of Italy largely free from stress and distraction. It knows it's a stepping stone and players see it as that: they are under no illusion when they join. (Not that coming to Udinese means losing all ambition: the club finished in Serie A's top seven in six of the past nine years and, in 2004/05 reached the Champions' league.)
This season is no different. Udinese is up to sixth in the table, it even enjoyed the luxury of turning down a $25M bid for Sanchez, mainly because it believes he's worth far more than that. (Come summer, we'll find out.) And, again, it uncovered two jewels, defender Mehdi Benatia, a free agent from Clermont, and Pablo Armero, a Colombian leftback from Palmeiras who was a snip at $1.5M.
All of this costs money in terms of scouting and research, but it's an investment that has paid for itself many times over. It also requires patience and a big squad -- the website lists 26 first-teamers -- which is a lot, but, then again, wages tend to be low. Players don't join Udinese to make money or win trophies, they do so because of the paths taken by those that came before them.
The club's philosophy has remained unchanged for the last 15 years, even as different managers and directors of football came and went. (In that sense, Udinese is a victim of its own success: once coaches and executives do well, they catch the eye of bigger clubs and leave.) But the core is solid and healthy and, with UEFA's Financial Fair Play policy around the corner, you feel that this is a club that will only go from strength to strength.
Of course, in this case, given Udinese's natural dimension, it doesn't mean it will scale the heights of Serie A into Champions' League football, just that it will continue to unearth quality players and lead a dignified mid-table existence. And that's just fine. Because, deep down, Udinese knows that what it does year on year is arguably just as impressive as what Barcelona or Inter Milan do. If not more.