By Achyuta Burra
European soccer today has become a heavyweight fight between financial giants like FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, Chelsea and Bayern Munich, among others. Players aspire to join these clubs for their lofty salaries and for the chance to win the Champions League, the yearly tournament between 32 of Europe’s best clubs.
Many players who end up playing for the biggest clubs begin their careers elsewhere before moving up the ranks. There are several clubs that are unofficially considered “stepping-stone” clubs, where players prove themselves before being sold to a bigger team. These clubs are unable to compete financially with the powerhouses, so they rely on good scouting and coaching to buy young players for a cheap price then sell them for huge profits after a few years.
Of course, a club doesn’t aspire to remain a stepping stone club forever. Atlético Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, two former stepping-stone clubs, were the Champions League runners-up in 2014 and 2013, respectively. The ultimate goal for these clubs is to rise to the level, or close to the level, of Europe’s biggest clubs, just as Atlético and Dortmund have done recently.
For this article, I researched ten clubs with the reputation of being stepping-stone clubs. I only considered players who joined the club from the youth system or were bought between the ages of 17 and 24 and were later sold to a bigger club. I found the purchase and sale price (the purchase price for youth system players is €0) to calculate each club’s total profit from “stepping-stone players.” I limited the search to the last ten seasons, so only players who joined the stepping-stone club in 2005 or later were considered.
The graph below shows the profits from stepping-stone players for the ten researched clubs:
Here is a more detailed look at the five clubs with the highest profits:
AFC Ajax (Holland)
The Eredivisie (Dutch league) powerhouse is renowned for its youth academy, which has produced several of the great Dutch players of all time, including its current manager Frank de Boer. Ajax is known for its superb coaching and player development, so it draws many of the brightest young talents from Holland and Scandinavia. The seven academy products in this list have gone on to have varying levels of success in larger European leagues. Most notably, Eriksen (now with Tottenham) and Blind (Manchester United) are considered two of the most promising players in the English Premier League. Huntelaar and Suárez were bought from other Eredivisie clubs and have gone on to have excellent careers, and Suárez is currently considered one of the best players in the world.
The Ajax factory still continues to churn out more young players; the average age of the current first team is 22.8 years. Among the players who could soon be snapped up are Dutch defenders Joël Veltman and Ricardo van Rhijn, Dutch winger Ricardo Kishna, Danish winger Viktor Fischer and Polish striker Arek Milik. The first four are academy graduates and Milik, who is currently with the team on loan, will join them permanently this summer for a €2.8M fee.
Udinese Calcio (Italy)
The Northern Italians haven’t experienced much success in Serie A, in part due to their best players being poached annually by their direct competition. Despite a high rate of turnover, Udinese has stayed relatively competitive by mining for players in Italy, as well as in elsewhere in Europe and South America (Zapata, Sanchez, Isla, Cuadrado). Benatia was a particularly shrewd piece of business. He was signed for free from a second division French club then sold to AS Roma three years later for €13M, then subsequently sold to German giants Bayern Munich where he is now considered one of the best center backs in the world.
Many Italian clubs employ a technique in which they take a player on loan then buy him after one or two years. Currently, Udinese has Roberto Peyrera (playing at Juventus), Luis Muriel (Sampdoria) and Dusan Basta (Lazio) on loan at other Serie A clubs. Once they are fully purchased, they will add to the list of Udinese players bought by other clubs.
Of players currently on the team, 18 year-old Italian goalkeeping phenom Simone Scuffet, a Udinese academy product, is the most likely to be sold for a massive profit in the next few years. Also likely to leave are Brazilian midfielders Allan (bought for €3M), Gabriel Silva (€4M) and Lucas Evangelista (€4M), and Portuguese attacker Bruno Fernandes (€2.5M).
LOSC Lille (France)
In the top-heavy Ligue 1, Lille has consistently finished close to the top of the standings and is an occasional participant in the Champions League. Of the names on this list, Eden Hazard’s stands out. The Chelsea and Belgium superstar was brought into the Lille youth system and made his first-team debut at age 16 before being sold to Chelsea five years later. Lille’s proximity to the France-Belgium border also helped them sign Origi, who is Belgian, and Gervinho, who is Ivorian but previously played in the Belgian league. Origi was sold to Liverpool in June 2014, but is playing this season on loan with Lille. Thauvin is an interesting case, as he never actually played a game for Lille. The club bought him in January 2013 and immediately loaned him out for the remainder of the season. That summer, unhappy with his contract and the team’s coaching change, he forced a move to another Ligue 1 club, Marseille. Lille managed to come out of the ordeal with a €11.15M profit.
Danish center back Simon Kjær (bought for €2.5M) has been scouted by Liverpool for several years and has also been connected to Manchester United and AC Milan. Senegalese midfielder Idrissa Gueye, who joined the club’s academy as a teenager, is another player who could leave for a bigger club in the near future. Michael Frey, a Swiss striker bought for €3M, is a younger player who could raise his profile at Lille and move on in a few years time.
SL Benfica (Portugal)
Benfica, the defending Portuguese league champions, have made a business of buying young players on the cheap, developing them for a few years, then selling them for exorbitant profits. Matic is a prime example of Benfica’s excellent player development. The Serbian was bought from Chelsea for €5M as part of a swap for David Luiz. In Portugal, he was converted from an attacking midfielder into a defensive, or holding, midfielder. After two and a half years with Benfica, Matic was sold back to Chelsea for €25M, and he is now widely recognized as one of the top holding midfielders in the world. The club has had success developing and selling other Eastern Europeans, including Markovic, who is also Serbian, and Oblak, who is Slovenian.
The current team is again loaded with prospects for Europe’s biggest clubs. Argentinian wingers Nico Gaitán (bought for €8.4M) and Eduardo Salvio (€11M) have been connected to English teams for many years, and Salvio in particular is likely to leave for a large fee this summer. Dutch winger Ola John (€9M), Brazilian midfielder Anderson Talisca (€4M) and Greek midfielder Andreas Samaris (€10M) are others who have already drawn the attention of larger clubs and could move in the foreseeable future.
FC Porto (Portugal)
Porto employs a similar strategy to that of Benfica, and they have seen even bigger profits than their league rivals. The clubs compromise two of the “Big Three” teams in Portuguese soccer, along with Sporting Lisbon. Porto actually won the Champions League in 2004 under current Chelsea manager José Mourinho and has been a fixture in the competition in recent years. The club has been especially successful developing South American players, including Colombians Falcao, Guarin and Rodriguez.
Benfica has also succeeded with South American players, including Ramires, Luiz, di María and Garay. The Portuguese Primeira Liga is considered a good transitional league for South American players coming to Europe, both for style of play and cultural comfort. The league has gained a reputation as a developmental proving ground for some of the best young players in the world, as seen by the fact that Porto and Benfica’s profit each almost double the profits of the other clubs on this list.
The biggest new name to come out of the Porto machine is Brazilian right back Danilo (bought for €13M). Porto has already agreed to sell him this summer to Real Madrid for €31.5M. Two of his partners on defense, Brazilian left back Alex Sandro (bought for €9.6M) and Dutch center back Bruno Martins Indi (€7.7M), have also been impressive and will soon be on the way out as well. Other rising stars are Colombian midfielder Juan Quintero (€9.5M), Mexican midfielder Héctor Herrera (€8M) and Algerian winger Yacine Brahimi (€6.5M).