Why have England's two biggest clubs linked up with struggling Belgian outfits? To get easy access to the African market, of course. Dan Brennan reports
A country that consistently manages to field a team of 30-something geriatrics in the World Cup wouldn’t seem like the first place to go looking for young talent. On the face of it, in fact, the idea of a Belgian nursery club seems like a bit of a contradiction in terms. Odd then, perhaps, that England’s top two clubs, Manchester United and Arsenal, with the world seemingly at their fingertips, should have got into bed with a pair of cash-strapped Flemish strugglers, Royal Antwerp and Beveren.
Man Utd’s link-up with Royal Antwerp is now into its fourth year, while Arsenal, having formed an informal alliance with Beveren a season ago, have just announced a five-year “technical relationship” with the Belgian club. At first glance, the benefits in both cases seem to be almost entirely in the Belgians’ favour.
Last season Beveren were bottom of the Belgian league and on the verge of financial ruin. In fact, the club’s officials say they would have gone under had the link-up with Arsenal not been secured. While there is no money changing hands, Beveren have benefited from access to Arsenal’s talented youngsters, not to mention the odd cast-off such as the Greek-passport-toting Lithuanian, Tomas Danilevicius. Youth team players Graham Stack, Liam Chilvers and John Halls have crossed the Channel for the current season, and have gone straight into the Beveren first team. Similarly, with Man Utd and Antwerp the traffic so far has been all one-way, with the likes of Ronnie Wallwork, Danny Higginbotham, Luke Chadwick and Simon Colosimo having served time in Belgium (almost literally in Wallwork’s case, who escaped a life ban after assaulting a referee while with Antwerp).
With handy extra revenue from friendlies and the opportunity to bask in the reflected glory of their English counterparts, it seems like a pretty cushy deal for the Belgians. So what exactly do Arsenal and Man Utd get out of it? True, they might be able to add a little bit to the future transfer values of their young charges, as United did with Wallwork, now at West Brom. But if all the clubs wanted was a temporary playground-cum-shop window then what is wrong with Bournemouth or Burnley? Surely the possibility of discovering the next Gerard Sibon doesn’t warrant the extra hassle and the outgoings on Eurostar tickets?
The truth is that these are merely fringe benefits. The main attraction of Belgium is that it offers a backdoor into other markets, particularly Africa. Belgian clubs, out of economic necessity and with the aid of liberal rules on overseas imports, have long been tapping into that continent’s abundant pool of talent. By forming strategic alliances with Antwerp and Beveren, Man Utd and Arsenal are putting themselves in pole position to beat other top European clubs in the race to discover the next Aghahowas and Dioufs before they acquire seven-figure price tags.
Last month, Man Utd announced the signing of Henry Gomez, the 18-year-old prodigy of Gambian football, a player they have been tracking quietly for almost two years. Instead of coming straight to Old Trafford, however, he has been put on the books at Antwerp. This will offer him a softer landing into European football, and the chance to gain some experience. More importantly though, because Belgian rules on nationality are much more lax than those in the UK, after two years in Antwerp Gomez will be eligible for citizenship, making him an EU player and removing any work permit headaches he would certainly encounter by coming straight to Britain.
Ferguson, as he says, always gets his man.However, in this latest round of managerial oneupmanship, Wenger has so far managed to go one better. While Ferguson has taken four years to unearth one Gambian gem, Wenger has opened up a whole new pipeline into Africa’s top youth academy. The relationship with Beveren is based on Wenger’s long-standing friendship with his fellow Frenchman Jean-Marc Guillou, now the Belgian club’s general manager. A former French footballer of the year and team-mate of Michel Platini in the national side, Guillou spent most of the Nineties working in the Ivory Coast. There he set up Sifco, a football academy attached to the country’s top side, ASEC Mimosas.
Sifco was founded with financial support from Monaco, but is now entirely self-sufficient and has been hailed as the finest breeding ground for young talent in Africa. In 1998 ASEC won the African Champions League, which meant they qualified to meet the Tunisian giants Espérance in the CAF Super Cup (the equivalent of the European Super Cup). To the disbelief of African football observers and the club’s own fans, they rested their entire first team and sent out a team made up 17-year-olds – the first batch of graduates from Guillou’s academy. The Tunisians, with a team full of seasoned internationals, were taken apart 3-1 in a fearless and stylish display that has since written itself into the folklore of African football.
Beveren have already benefited hugely from Guillou’s connections. Their squad this year includes no fewer than seven Ivory Coast players and the signs from early games are that they could make a dramatic difference to a team that only avoided relegation last season because two clubs that finished above them were demoted due to irregularities. What’s good for Beveren will also be good for Arsenal. Not only do they get an option on any of the African players already at Beveren, but they also tap directly into ASEC Mimosas and Guillou’s academy in Abidjan.
The strategy has already started to pay off with the signing of Kolo Touré. Touré’s arrival from ASEC last February went largely unnoticed, but the 23-year-old captain of the Ivory Coast national side is already staking a claim for a regular first-team place. In Touré’s case, because he has already played many times for his country, there was no problem with work permits. But as with Man Utd and Gomez, Arsenal will in future have the option of bringing players in from ASEC via Beveren to avoid problems with Home Office red tape.
In a manoeuvre that has left European bureaucrats and the FIFA rulemakers scratching their heads, England’s two dominant clubs have demonstrated that they are mastering the rules of globalisation. The two are reminiscent of a pair of rival generals mapping out their campaigns for global domination. Early signs are that the battle on the Belgian-African front seems to have gone to Arsenal. But with United also exploring similar links in South America, south-east Asia and Australia, the war is yet to be won.
From WSC 188 October 2002. What was happening this month