Steffen Freund’s appointment this week as International Technical Co-Ordinator at Tottenham Hotspur has been greeted by Spurs fans, including me initially, with a mixture of derision and apathy. The job title is classic corporate goobledygook, intending to be self-important and serious but in reality a string of buzzwords devoid of substance or meaning.
For a great example of the art of managementspeak, look no further than Spurs itself and our “strategic partnership” with Real Madrid. This one is a classic of the genre, though. “Co-ordinator” – busy but not actually doing anything. “Technical” is anything you want it to be, something to do with football presumably, that the Technical Director Franco Baldini doesn’t do. Reassuring to know that when it comes to all things technical, Tottenham have it covered.
Strip away the jargon, however, and this role points the way towards a significant development in club strategy. Freund will help develop young players on loan abroad, support partnerships at youth level with foreign clubs and scout young players. He has a decent reputation by all accounts as a coach of young German players before he returned to Spurs. More than that, alongside other developments this signals clearly that Tottenham are broadening their horizons. New club sponsors AIA are an Asian insurance corporation. Their logo is red allegedly because this is considered a lucky colour in the Far East. Spurs’ US tour was a foot in the door to the huge potential of the lucrative American market. Football is a global game and Spurs have come to play.
The general consensus on social media affirmed this gently eased Freund out of Pochettino’s way and rewarded a Spurs stalwart. However, Levy’s hardly renowned for sentiment when it comes to cold hard cash and it’s safe to assume Freund’s not in it just for the air miles. Granted Ledley King is now club ambassador but given his history and status within the club, no one begrudges him the role of Looking Slightly Ill-at-Ease in Tottenham Photos. I’m sure Freund’s passion for the club is authentic but in a ruthless commercial environment running around a lot for a few years is no qualification for job security. Levy could have sacked him in the blink of an eye. The fact he chose not to indicates there’s something going on.
The market for young footballing talent is international and Tottenham have recognised this by investing new resources, in the shape of Steffen Freund. We have already exploited it to some extent. Our development squad contains young men from Serbia, Spain, Portugal, Croatia and Ivory Coast. It’s a far cry from Spurs’ traditional links with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The arrival of 18 year old Belgian Jonathan Blondel in 2002 caused a flurry of interest because it was so unusual for such a young foreign player to come to an English club. Around that time, Iceland’s youth team captain was also on the books. I can’t recall his name: neither player made it at Spurs.
These days, however, there’s more to it than scouting. The stakes are high. For top clubs, their development policy could be the key to financial survival as well as trophies. Needless to say, in England Chelsea are the club who have taken this to extremes. A quick Google revealed that in February this year, that is after the transfer window had closed, the Blues had so many players out on loan, nobody seemed quite sure about the exact figure. Estimates range between 22 and 27.
Football writer Rory Smith provides a devastating critique into the story beneath the figures. It’s strictly business. One or two of these young players may eventually make it to the first team squad, keeper Courtois being the best current example. But to the Blues, it doesn’t matter. These kids are commodities, buy low, sell high. If they make it, fine, if not, just as good, and the key to this is the new rules on Financial Fair Play. Investment in youth development doesn’t count in FFP but transfer income from the products of that system does. Clubs need to generate income from player sales in order to allow them to keep within the FFP rules, even if they spend large amounts on transfers. Smith states:
“This is because player development, at the world’s largest clubs, is no longer about football. It is about business. It is not about honing talent. It is about making profits. It is run according to the rules of the hedge fund — spread your risk to ensure your reward — with a mindset borrowed from property development. Nurturing young players is not a team’s primary concern, just as a developer does not refit houses to live in them. Chelsea and their peers are not crafting young players. They are flipping them.”
Spurs have dipped their toes in the water. With all respect to the player, I don’t think this is Jon Obika’s breakthrough season. 11 spells on loan, yet to start for the first team, turns 24 next month. Yet we resigned him. I predict a transfer to a lower league side and if not a profit then at the very least a return on our investment. This is typically small-scale but Freund’s appointment indicates the club are significantly upping their game.
A healthy youth policy will do Spurs a lot of good but if first team chances for young players are as limited as they have been in recent years, they will become balance sheet statistics not the home-grown heroes supporters hold so dear. Pochettino has a reputation for bringing them through but as I said last week, he was forced into that position at Saints because of budget restrictions that will not be so stringent at White Hart Lane.
Also, I remain distinctly uncomfortable at the notion of young footballers as commodities. At 16 I was used to the tube but a trip from west to southeast London one day made me feel like a stranger in a strange land. What can it feel like for a teenager coming to a new country, different language, knowing nobody and having to perform at a peak level. It’s not right.
Yet it seems the entire game is moving in that direction. The PL sells passion and atmosphere, Sky sell more satellite dishes but the supporters who generate that emotion face exorbitant prices, bizarre kick-off times and have no say in the way the game is run. My 50 year loyalty is reduced to a customer reference number as far as the club is concerned, or so it appears. Under Armour and AIA are doing their thing but come August 24th I guarantee no one will have cleaned the birdscrap off Jackie’s seat. She sits in front of us – it’s our pre-season ritual. Fans and passion commodified too.
There is something positive here. Freund’s role gives him the opportunity to keep an eye on these players. Let them know someone cares about their progress, a watchful benevolent figure, and if this is part of the investment, credit is due to all concerned. Rumours, always rumours, but it has been said that Spurs do make an effort to look after their foreign players and men like Lloris respect that.
In the summer Nigerian starlet Musa Yahaya signed a pre-contract agreement at the tender age of 16. He’s hot property apparently. Maybe he came to us because we offered to care for him and to give him a better chance of getting near the first team than if he were at Stamford Bridge. I like to think that’s the way we should behave. I hope he gets further than a Youtube showreel.