Inside the secret transfer network of Arsenal, Man City, Liverpool, Chelsea...

Some of the world’s top clubs and most influential agents met to very little fanfare at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium last month. FFT sneaked in to find out exactly why... Words: Andrew Murray Pictures: Daniel Lynch

Last May, Milan’s out-of-contract star Gennaro Gattuso nearly joined Boca Juniors. Within minutes of being told the two-time Champions League winner was a closet fan, club and agent were in face-to-face talks. Reluctant to uproot his family to South America, Gattuso joined Swiss side Sion instead.

But how could this happen so quickly? The answer is the Wyscout Forum, where 100 of the world’s top clubs – including Manchester City, Liverpool and Juventus – and three times as many agents meet in a room and are left to it.

If you haven’t heard of it, you’re not alone: this is one of the most guarded events in the already cloak-and-dagger world of scouting. Held twice yearly to coincide with the opening of the summer and winter windows, the forum is marketed as speed-dating for transfers, as clubs and agents sit down for a series of pre-arranged 30-minute meetings to thrash out future deals.

Armed with an access-all-areas pass and with ear pinned firmly to the ground, FFT has arrived at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium for the latest instalment of football’s newest and most exclusive event. Could this be the future of the transfer market?

“They missed out on a player because they couldn’t find the DVD among the 300 stacked in the office”A suave, strapping thirtysomething in a fitted suit and skinny tie, Matteo Campodonico couldn’t less resemble the traditional notepad-clutching scout shivering by a windswept pitch. Yet that's how all this started, nine years ago.

A former semi-pro who played in Serie D, Campodonico collected a friend and a video camera and began filming entire games for Serie A clubs from 2004. But things really changed when he met Walter Sabatini, then Lazio’s director of football, now with city rivals Roma.

“On the last day of the January transfer window in 2008, he missed out on a player because he couldn’t find the DVD from the 300 stacked in his office,” recalls Campdonico. “His chairman went nuts. It got me thinking that there must be a better way.”

A year later, he launched the Wyscout computer platform. It's now one of the biggest scouting tools in the world, with more than 60,000 full games available, 500 more added each week, and 30 full-time analysts dedicated to 120 leagues from Serie A to Cyprus and Africa. Three hundred teams worldwide use the technology, including the whole of Serie A, 75% of Champions League clubs and 70% of the Premier League.

“A decade ago we nearly had to strengthen our floors because of all the VHS tapes we received,” says Rennes sporting director Jean-Francois Creachcadec. “Five years ago, I got a satellite dish and tried to persuade a friend in Sweden to give me the viewing card so we could watch Scandinavian football. Now it’s all on a computer or iPad. Wyscout is a revolution.”

The technology allows clubs to watch full games or assess tagged attribute highlights such as passing, aerial challenges or aggressiveness. You can look for players by position, narrowing the search by goals scored, age and even EU passport. All this comes at a cost – around €10,000 a season – but Wyscout takes no cut of any transfer fee.

“We can see more players and decide which ones to watch in the flesh,” says Fulham chief scout Barry Simmonds. “Nothing will ever replace putting your coat on, getting in your car and going to a freezing cold stadium to watch a player, but it saves a huge amount of money in travel and hotel costs.”

An extension of this player database, the Wyscout Forum began in Milan in 2011. “The idea is to add a transfer dimension to the scouting platform,” says Campodonico. “It’s difficult for sporting directors and agents from different countries to meet; our forum gives them that chance.” The latest update includes a transfer zone, where clubs can list available players or agents their unattached clients.

“In just one day, I can inform all the agents or clubs I choose about who my club wants” Lined up alphabetically across three cavernous Emirates rooms, the clubs’ tables serve notice of the forum’s worldwide appeal. Boca Juniors are beside Bournemouth, Watford next to Werder Bremen.

As the first morning develops, ordered chaos ensues. Clubs, agents and product developers – whose name tags are coloured red, yellow and blue respectively – jostle for position to meet Liverpool or Chelsea. Whether it’s players or private jets being pitched, knowing who’s talking to whom adds genuine intrigue. So do hushed conversations in the corridors connecting one room with another.

“It’s a great chance to meet other clubs and agents,” says Kiko Espinar, Espanyol’s head of video analysis and one of the first in La Liga to use Wyscout. “In just one day, I can inform all the agents or clubs I choose about who my club wants. To do that without the forum would take a year. Most people here can’t buy or sell, but we can begin the process.”

“For us it’s about establishing and developing relationships with clubs,” agrees Nantes consultant and former player Bruno Cheyrou, fresh from a meeting with old club Liverpool. “We won’t be offered Ibrahimovic or Ronaldo; it’s about finding footballers from smaller countries who we can develop.”

Though dominated by clubs from Western Europe, emerging markets are loathe to miss such an ideal networking opportunity. “We’re the only team here from the Middle East,” says Liam Weeks, head of performance at Emirati champions Al Ain, home to ex-Sunderland forward Asamoah Gyan.

“European clubs take us seriously by being here. We’re not some graveyard for old players in search of a final pay cheque – we want to take younger players who look at us to provide a route back to Europe.”

“It’s a tough sell: clubs are already bored of you by the time you open your mouth”After lunch, the rumour mill goes into overdrive. Sunderland and Aston Villa are both looking to offload, allegedly, while Chelsea – who declined to talk to FFT – are interested in forging links with Mexican up-and-comers Jaguares.

Whether offering players or showing off swish scouting models, 30- to 40-year-old men beaver away on an endless stream of laptops and iPads. English and German teams listen intently, Spanish and Italian clubs are a blur of swift hand gestures, while the harem of Wyscout showgirls – a more conservative version of Formula One’s Red Bull posse – provide glamorous directions between tables.

Jorge Cyterszpiler, however, rarely leaves his seat, conducting all his business from the VIP suite reserved for elite agencies. Carrying a slight paunch and a limp, he is constantly flanked by an entourage. This is one of Argentina’s most powerful agents, in no small part because he was Diego Maradona’s right-hand man until 1985.

“This event is all about improving our image and meeting new agencies and clubs,” says Cyterszpiler while doodling a largely illegible ‘starting XI’ of his current stars – captained by Malaga’s Martin Demichelis – just for FFT. “Our transfers don’t happen here, but we enjoy being here, meeting new, intelligent people.”

We hear a similar message from Leon Angel, the chairman of Base Soccer, one of the first agencies in the UK to use the Wyscout database to find future clients. “It’s not somewhere to conclude a deal, but the forum is a very useful way to put a face to a name you may have spoken to on the phone,” says Angel. “We don’t want to throw 100 names at a club just because we’ve got them. We want to offer the right player. That establishes a relationship based on trust.”

Away from the elite lounge’s designer suits and overpowering aftershave, the situation is different. Independent agents pinball from table to table, offering their clients with mixed success. “Clubs are already bored of you by the time you open your mouth,” says one, who asked not to be named. “It’s great to get your foot in the door, but it’s a tough sell.”

One squat Eastern European – a balding man approaching 50 years of age, sporting a grey goatee – is accompanied to every table by his ravishingly statuesque wife. Towering above him, FFT wonders if she’s there as negotiator-in-chief or an aide memoire that clubs can’t forget.

“Wyscout gives people the chance to speak to someone at Manchester City that they otherwise may not get,” says Rob Newman, the Premier League champions’ senior scouting and recruitment manager. “We’re here to show our doors are open. There have been a couple of snippets of information and products I’ve seen today that could save us millions.”

So lots of relationships, then, but little transfer activity. As the forum’s first day comes to a close, FFT is beginning to wonder if this is just one big flirtation. When are we going to see some action?

“That was the third time I’ve been offered the same player” Possibly put off by an especially crisp north London morning, fewer delegates return for a second day. But those who do are more relaxed and reveal some of the event’s secrets. “Whether clubs admit it or not, this is the perfect place to recruit or offload players, especially just before the transfer window,” says Hearts director of football John Murray, who is missing the dress rehearsal for his son’s wedding to attend.

The event 12 months ago was a perfect example. Wolves had spent some time watching the Jambos’ Icelandic midfielder Eggert Jonsson and chose the forum to touch base with the Scots. “We had time to find a replacement, and didn’t play him much over the festive period so he wouldn’t get injured,” admits Murray. “This could be the future.”

“Yesterday we met representatives of 10 players and clubs who we’re interested in doing business with in January or the summer,” says a chief scout at an up-and-coming continental club whose players are rumour mill regulars.

“To negotiate you go to a Mayfair hotel, otherwise proper agents aren’t interested – it’s too open here. But with everyone already here, what better time to do it?” He confirms that negotiations took place the previous evening with a member of the Premier League’s traditional ‘big four’ for the January move of their star international midfielder.

“I’ve been a scout for 15 years and I’ve seen nothing else like this,” says Fulham’s Simmonds. “In five years, this will be huge – they’ll have to book Wembley! There’s a lot of cat and mouse and any deals are pretty embryonic but it’s great to put names to faces.”

Covering the event for Sky Sport Italia is Gianluca Di Marzio, well schooled in round-table meat-markets thanks to the Calcio Mercato. In the final days of each transfer window, Serie A and B clubs converge on Milan’s ATA hotel to beat the stress of the last-minute fax. Loitering outside waiting for his move to Siena to go through, Luca Toni was collared by Fiorentina and signed for the Viola instead.

Can the Wyscout Forum replicate this system? “That would be my dream,” says Di Marzio, a more excitable version of Sky Sports’ Jim White. “Instead of relying on text messages or calls from clubs frantically trying to do late deals, everyone who means anything in the European game is under one roof to rubber-stamp deals.” 

“It would be amazing to get federations here to ratify transfers in the future, especially now we’ve launched the transfer zone facility,” agrees founder Campodonico. “Clubs also want these forums in South America in the future, so that could also be the next step. It’s all very well knowing where good players are, but teams want to contact them easily. Premier League clubs are especially keen.”

With the event winding down, agencies in full debrief mode and clubs slowly filtering towards the exit, FFT catches the eye of City’s Rob Newman, who has been in deep conversation with a South Korean agent. “Do you know what?” begins Newman with a weary look. “That was the third time I’ve been offered the same player today. You do get a few too many chancers, but we’ve got what we came for.”

What that might be, he won’t say. While no transfers were finalised in FFT’s dizzying two days of transfer speed-dating, a few wheels have been irrevocably set in motion at the Wyscout Forum. “There are definitely deals that get done here, at least conceptually. Otherwise, why bother coming?” says one unnamed agent. “It’s obvious, isn’t it?”