Trendsetter: Udinese's Giampaolo Pozzo.
Udinese’s success is nothing short of remarkable given their finances. The Zebrette earned €41m in revenue last season, a tiny figure compared to Inter (€225m), Milan (€208m) and Roma (€123m), all of who are currently below Udinese in the league. Their average attendance is just 15,000, their TV income (€26m) is a quarter of Juventus and Milan’s and last season’s total gate receipts (€3.6m) was 34-times smaller than Manchester United’s.
Despite all this, Udinese’s year-end accounts usually show a profit of around €6-8m. How do they accomplish this with such small revenue streams? By selling players. The Bianconeri have, over the past 10 years, received a staggering net profit of €112m from buying and selling players. They have perfect the “buy low, sell high,” model, and are cable to compete at the highest level because of it.
Club president Giampaolo Pozzo first implemented the strategy in the 1990s. Udinese’s tiny budget made it impossible to compete with the bigger clubs for transfer fees and wages, forcing Pozzo to find a more financially-efficient way of lifting the club’s league position.
The system is similar to Arsenal’s only far more efficient. Udinese eschew inflated fees and wages (Antonio Di Natale, €20k p/w, is the club’s highest earner) and spend their resources on scouting and networking instead. The Zebrette currently employ over 50 scouts and have ties with literally hundreds of local contacts worldwide. It costs just €4m p/a to maintain this scouting network, and this is almost repaid by the €3.6m Udinese earn annually from loaning players out.
It’s estimated that Udinese have a stake in over 120 players worldwide. They supplied an astonishing 14 loanees to bolster Granada’s promotion campaign last season and have leant the new La Liga side a further five players this term. Furthermore, Udinese own another 32 players who are currently on loan at or co-owned by other clubs.
The system is quick and efficient. Udinese send vast quantities of young players out on loan every season to aid their growth and thus boost their market value. It’s an effective money-spinner and a method of developing quality players without parting with swathes of cash. As an example, Samir Handanovic was signed on a free transfer in 2004. He is now considered among the world’s best ‘keepers after loan spells at Treviso, Lazio and Rimini and an extended spell in the Udinese XI, and will command a seven-figure fee if (when?) he leaves.
I think it’s a very honourable way of achieving success. Bring in a player with good potential for a nominal fee and train him until he’s ready for the first team or developed to a point where he can achieve success at a lower or higher level. It’s certainly more admirable than the tasteless Chelsea/Man City model and a clever way of doing business.
I’m surprised more clubs haven’t adopted such a model. There’s Arsenal, of course, and Newcastle United are beginning to benefit from their growing scouting network. Borussia Dortmund have built a successful team by purchasing unheralded players and tapping into their potential. Other that, I’m at a loss.
Financial Fair Play’s implementation will surely see more clubs follow Udinese’s lead. Soon it’ll make much more sense to scout and sign young players on the cheap rather than splurdge millions on Andy Carroll and Fernando Torres. FFP will level the playing field, and I can’t decide if that’s good for Udinese or not. The Bianconeri’s system has been in-place for years so they should have an immediate advantage, but what’ll happen to them when transfer fees (their primary income source) start falling?
The Udinese system isn’t perfect though. Its one major disadvantage is that cannot feasibly hold on to star players for longer than a couple of seasons. Di Natale is the obvious exception, but the Zebrette are in no financial position to reject big money bids for their prized assets.
Three of the club’s best players (Alexis Sanchez, Gokhan Inler & Christian Zapata) left during the summer, and the trend is only going to continue. Udinese are usually able to replace their stars with shrewd signings which usually negates the above argument, but it’s hard to see them progressing until they’re in a position to hond onto their top players.
Regardless, some excellent players have passed through Udinese over the years. Here are some of the Friuli farm’s biggest success stories:-
Antonio Di Natale
Why not start with the obvious? Toto, even at 34, is the peninsula’s most feared goal-getters. Signed from relegated Empoli in 2004, Di Natale has notched 143 goals in 280 Bianconeri appearances. This season’s 13 from 17 mark a healthy return for the ex-Azzurri forward, who has scored 28 and 29 goals in his last two Serie A campaigns. Loyal (he turned down a huge Juventus contract in 2010) and dependable, Udinese will struggle when Di Natale eventually retires.
Anybody who watched football in the ‘90s should be familiar with Bierhoff. The German striker was playing for Serie B’s Ascoli when Udinese signed him in 1995. Three years later he was Serie A’s top scorer and a full international. Bierhoff went on to Scudetto success with AC Milan and was a 1996 European Championship winner.
A wonderfully talented deep-lying playmaker who is criminally underrated outside of Italy, Pizarro signed for buttons from Santiago Wanderers in 1999 and was Udinese’s heartbeat until a 2005 transfer to Inter. Known for his Xavi-esque passing ability, Pizzaro’s post-Udine career has seen him win a Scudetto (with Inter) and three Coppa Italias (one with Inter, two with Roma). One of my favourite players.
Sulley Muntari & Asamoah Gyan
The two Ghanians arrived in Udine within a year of each other. Both stayed for five years and experienced varying levels of success. Muntari was a huge success, establishing himself as the club’s midfield enforcer and made over 120 Serie A appearances. He signed for Portsmouth for an estimated €9m in 2007. Gyan, on the other hand, only ever played 39 games for Udinese, but the club still earned an €8m from Rennes for his services in 2008.
Few players epitomise the Udinese model’s success like the Brazilian defender. Felipe joined the Zebrette’s youth system as a 15-year old in 1999 and had joined the senior squad by 2002. He was a key member of the Bianconeri’s Champions League squad in 2005-06, but fell out of favour in 2009 and was sold to Fiorentina for €6m last year. Felipe made 175 appearances in all competitions for Udinese but hasn’t established himself in Florence.
The Chilean forward’s sale is one of the Udinese model’s greatest successes. Signed in 2006 but immediately loaned to River Plate and Colo Colo, Sanchez didn’t make his Udinese debut until 2008. He came of age last season after switching from the wing to playing as Di Natale’s supporting trequartista. Barcelona paid €26m plus bonuses for his services after a 12-goal haul last season.
* For more on Udinese’s finances please check out this typically fascinating article from The Swiss Ramble: Udinese Selling Their Way To The Top.
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