Skip to main content

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

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

Last May, MilanâÂÂs 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 worldâÂÂs top clubs â including Manchester City, Liverpool and Juventus â and three times as many agents meet in a room and are left to it.

If you havenâÂÂt heard of it, youâÂÂre 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 ArsenalâÂÂs Emirates Stadium for the latest instalment of footballâÂÂs newest and most exclusive event. Could this be the future of the transfer market?

âÂÂThey missed out on a player because they couldnâÂÂt find the DVD among the 300 stacked in the officeâÂÂ
A suave, strapping thirtysomething in a fitted suit and skinny tie, Matteo Campodonico couldnâÂÂt 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 LazioâÂÂs director of football, now with city rivals Roma.

âÂÂOn the last day of the January transfer window in 2008, he missed out on a player because he couldnâÂÂt find the DVD from the 300 stacked in his office,â recalls Campdonico. âÂÂHis chairman went nuts. It got me thinking that there must be a better way.âÂÂ

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.

âÂÂA decade ago we nearly had to strengthen our floors because of all the VHS tapes we received,â says Rennes sporting director Jean-Francois Creachcadec. âÂÂFive 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 itâÂÂs all on a computer or iPad. Wyscout is a revolution.âÂÂ

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 â around â¬10,000 a season â but Wyscout takes no cut of any transfer fee.

âÂÂWe can see more players and decide which ones to watch in the flesh,â says Fulham chief scout Barry Simmonds. âÂÂNothing 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.âÂÂ

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

âÂÂIn just one day, I can inform all the agents or clubs I choose about who my club wantsâÂÂ
Lined up alphabetically across three cavernous Emirates rooms, the clubsâ tables serve notice of the forumâÂÂs 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 â whose name tags are coloured red, yellow and blue respectively â jostle for position to meet Liverpool or Chelsea. Whether itâÂÂs players or private jets being pitched, knowing whoâÂÂs talking to whom adds genuine intrigue. So do hushed conversations in the corridors connecting one room with another.

âÂÂItâÂÂs a great chance to meet other clubs and agents,â says Kiko Espinar, EspanyolâÂÂs head of video analysis and one of the first in La Liga to use Wyscout. âÂÂIn 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 canâÂÂt buy or sell, but we can begin the process.âÂÂ

âÂÂFor us itâÂÂs about establishing and developing relationships with clubs,â agrees Nantes consultant and former player Bruno Cheyrou, fresh from a meeting with old club Liverpool. âÂÂWe wonâÂÂt be offered Ibrahimovic or Ronaldo; itâÂÂs about finding footballers from smaller countries who we can develop.âÂÂ

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

âÂÂEuropean clubs take us seriously by being here. WeâÂÂre not some graveyard for old players in search of a final pay cheque â we want to take younger players who look at us to provide a route back to Europe.âÂÂ

âÂÂItâÂÂs a tough sell: clubs are already bored of you by the time you open your mouthâÂÂ
After lunch, the rumour mill goes into overdrive. Sunderland and Aston Villa are both looking to offload, allegedly, while Chelsea â who declined to talk to FFT â 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 â a more conservative version of Formula OneâÂÂs Red Bull posse â 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 ArgentinaâÂÂs most powerful agents, in no small part because he was Diego MaradonaâÂÂs right-hand man until 1985.

âÂÂThis event is all about improving our image and meeting new agencies and clubs,â says Cyterszpiler while doodling a largely illegible âÂÂstarting XIâ of his current stars â captained by MalagaâÂÂs Martin Demichelis â just for FFT. âÂÂOur transfers donâÂÂt happen here, but we enjoy being here, meeting new, intelligent people.âÂÂ

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. âÂÂItâÂÂs 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,â says Angel. âÂÂWe donâÂÂt want to throw 100 names at a club just because weâÂÂve got them. We want to offer the right player. That establishes a relationship based on trust.âÂÂ

Away from the elite loungeâÂÂs designer suits and overpowering aftershave, the situation is different. Independent agents pinball from table to table, offering their clients with mixed success. âÂÂClubs are already bored of you by the time you open your mouth,â says one, who asked not to be named. âÂÂItâÂÂs great to get your foot in the door, but itâÂÂs a tough sell.âÂÂ

One squat Eastern European â a balding man approaching 50 years of age, sporting a grey goatee â is accompanied to every table by his ravishingly statuesque wife. Towering above him, FFT wonders if sheâÂÂs there as negotiator-in-chief or an aide memoire that clubs canâÂÂt forget.

âÂÂWyscout gives people the chance to speak to someone at Manchester City that they otherwise may not get,â says Rob Newman, the Premier League championsâ senior scouting and recruitment manager. âÂÂWeâÂÂre here to show our doors are open. There have been a couple of snippets of information and products IâÂÂve seen today that could save us millions.âÂÂ

So lots of relationships, then, but little transfer activity. As the forumâÂÂs 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?

âÂÂThat was the third time IâÂÂve been offered the same playerâÂÂ
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 eventâÂÂs secrets. âÂÂWhether clubs admit it or not, this is the perfect place to recruit or offload players, especially just before the transfer window,â says Hearts director of football John Murray, who is missing the dress rehearsal for his sonâÂÂs wedding to attend.

The event 12 months ago was a perfect example. Wolves had spent some time watching the Jambosâ Icelandic midfielder Eggert Jonsson and chose the forum to touch base with the Scots. âÂÂWe had time to find a replacement, and didnâÂÂt play him much over the festive period so he wouldnâÂÂt get injured,â admits Murray. âÂÂThis could be the future.âÂÂ

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

âÂÂTo negotiate you go to a Mayfair hotel, otherwise proper agents arenâÂÂt interested â itâÂÂs too open here. But with everyone already here, what better time to do it?â He confirms that negotiations took place the previous evening with a member of the Premier LeagueâÂÂs traditional âÂÂbig fourâ for the January move of their star international midfielder.

âÂÂIâÂÂve been a scout for 15 years and IâÂÂve seen nothing else like this,â says FulhamâÂÂs Simmonds. âÂÂIn five years, this will be huge â theyâÂÂll have to book Wembley! ThereâÂÂs a lot of cat and mouse and any deals are pretty embryonic but itâÂÂs great to put names to faces.âÂÂ

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 MilanâÂÂs 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? âÂÂThat would be my dream,â says Di Marzio, a more excitable version of Sky Sportsâ Jim White. âÂÂInstead 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.â 

âÂÂIt would be amazing to get federations here to ratify transfers in the future, especially now weâÂÂve launched the transfer zone facility,â agrees founder Campodonico. âÂÂClubs also want these forums in South America in the future, so that could also be the next step. ItâÂÂs all very well knowing where good players are, but teams want to contact them easily. Premier League clubs are especially keen.âÂÂ

With the event winding down, agencies in full debrief mode and clubs slowly filtering towards the exit, FFT catches the eye of CityâÂÂs Rob Newman, who has been in deep conversation with a South Korean agent. âÂÂDo you know what?â begins Newman with a weary look. âÂÂThat was the third time IâÂÂve been offered the same player today. You do get a few too many chancers, but weâÂÂve got what we came for.âÂÂ

What that might be, he wonâÂÂt say. While no transfers were finalised in FFTâÂÂs dizzying two days of transfer speed-dating, a few wheels have been irrevocably set in motion at the Wyscout Forum. âÂÂThere are definitely deals that get done here, at least conceptually. Otherwise, why bother coming?â says one unnamed agent. âÂÂItâÂÂs obvious, isnâÂÂt it?âÂÂ