— Basel is a club that is very dependent on developing unknown players and then reselling them for a higher price. How popular is this model in Europe? Have you worked with a similar system in your career?
— Yes, I`ve worked in a similar system before. In the ordinary club football world, most teams work predominantly like Basel does. You have a certain budget, which consists mainly from revenues of ticket sales, TV rights, sponsorships, and the premiums of club competitions. Planning a season in advance, you can more or less rate the height of your revenues, because there are existing contracts with sponsors, the TV rights contract is in place, and you have the numbers of season ticket sales plus the estimated ticket sales on match days. The only major number which is not known is which European club competition your club will participate in, especially if you have to take part in qualification rounds. Due to the fact that Basel has a very low total budget compared to a lot of other European clubs, especially from the major leagues, it`s vital to the club to play in the Champions League. Playing in the Champions League is financially much more advantageous than the Europa League. If they don`t make it to the Champions League, they are forced to sell one or two of their best players to cover their budget. Furthermore, because Basel has the reputation of being good at developing and selling players, they attract many young talents, since the club is a good starting point for players making a career in the big leagues.
— It seems like for such clubs as Basel, football is just a business. Can you expect your team to be successful when you regularly sell off your best players?
— Doing business and continuing to exist as a club are sometimes very closely-knit items in a football club. It`s important and vital for clubs to have a clear view of their possibilities regarding their country, strength of league, and financial framework. If you know your internal and external presuppositions and conditions, then you have to set up a vision and make deductions from this vision. You must work with defined strategies. From my point of view, Basel did and does its job very well. A few years ago FC Basel always had a sponsor which covered possible losses, in case the club didn`t perform as expected. But now they have to strictly follow their financial framework, depending on the success they have. Additionally, it is important for them to get revenues from transferring talented players.
It is very difficult, or even impossible, to be successful and win on a certain level when you always have to sell your best players. You can substitute most of the players with a good recruiting policy, but not from day one. You need time. The new players and the team as a whole need time to play homogeneously together and be successful again. This bears risks and needs time. Do not underrate it!
— Basel made 44% of its revenue in 2011 from ticket sales. This shows that people go to the stadium in Basel. But the club made only 3% of its revenue from television rights. This suggests that people don`t watch the Swiss league on TV. Is there a contradiction in these two figures?
— You`re right that Basel always has a big crowd at their matches. This is the result of more than ten successful years of football dominance in Switzerland, mainly started under the 10-year management of Christian Gross, as well as top-level work in youth development and integration of home-grown players. And all this based on the foundation of a traditional club, with a modern and exciting stadium, in a big city by Swiss standards. The reason for the low TV rights income is the fact that there is no culture in Switzerland of spending a lot of money on pay TV. And let`s not forget that it`s a country of only 8 million inhabitants.
— Can you make a top club in a country where it`s impossible to earn money from television broadcasts?
— In the framework of their economical and demographic circumstances, Basel was able to make a top club in the last decade. The club regularly played in the Champions or Europe League. Basel cannot compete with the top clubs in terms of cups won in international club competitions or maximum turnover, but they are a top club in their ability to develop players who either play for Basel, or will be transferred to the major leagues. Did you know that almost 40% of the players fielded by FC Basel in 2012 were home-grown players? And half of them were players under 21 years old. This is a big achievement.
— Probably every club dreams of buying players for a low price and developing them to a top level. But not all clubs are successful. Why not? Are they buying the wrong players, or they don`t know how to develop them?
— There are a lot more reasons, I think. It also depends again on the vision and goals of the club. You can hardly find a club which is successful in all areas. But there are clubs which are doing their work better than other clubs do. The vision of Arsenal London under the management of Arsene Wenger, for example, was to have a young team with top players and top talents, playing dominating, fast, athletic, technically perfect and exciting football, which a lot of football enthusiasts were inspired by. Arsenal followed its vision, and from my point of view they succeeded for a very long time. But now the manager is under pressure, and everybody asks," Mr. Wenger, where is the silverware?" Maybe he would have won cups if he had fielded a few more experienced players who would not have failed at a certain level of competition, as younger players tend to do. If you want to develop young players, you often need patience. To develop young talents, you need to give them time to fail at first. This is sometimes a contradiction. So, it`s either difficult to bring everything together, and/or not satisfying. The club needs to find the right mixture and approach.
— How difficult is it to assess a promising young player? What does it take to bring the player to the next level?
— There are a lot of talents out there, but in the end, given that the player has all the technical and athletic skills, it`s about his mentality, whether he will come through or not. It`s better to lack a bit talent and perfect skill, but you can`t lack the right attitude to your game. You have to have the right mentality and willingness.
Just a few weeks ago we followed a talent with the gifts you need to be a very good player. We observed him at training sessions with his team for almost a week. He didn`t show the right attitude and mentality. He was not keen on winning duels against his opponent. If he won, that was OK, if not, that was OK as well. He needs to change 180 degrees or he won`t make it at the highest level that we are expecting from a player.
It`s very important that his club be responsible for him, and give him holistic development and perfect integration in the phase of transition from a youth player to a first team player. On top of that, without confidence in the player and a few chances for the young boy in the first team, it will be very difficult to succeed. It`s not easy to find the perfect fit, but it`s worth it to put the most possible effort into the player.
— Do the acquisitions of Djordjevic, Rodic, Solovyov and our home-grown player Evseev mean that Zenit is also relying on young, talented players?
— Our team has been very successful over the last ten years. It`s a big achievement that the club was able to keep the best players in the team. But we cannot keep the status we have now forever, because time goes on and the club has to go on as well. Therefore it`s important to try to integrate young players by the side of our successful and experienced ones. Only on their side can they grow and continue the club`s heritage at a certain stage. This is how it works. On the other hand, when making recent acquisitions, we reacted to the fact that the average age of our total squad was quite high compared to our opponents. Hulk (25), Axel Witsel (23) and Luis Neto (24) are all quite young.
— Is it part of Zenit`s new transfer policy to buy players from the Russian national youth team? Can we expect more purchases like that in the future?
— For sure it is our policy to have the best Russian players in our team. It`s been so in the past, it`s the case currently, and it will in the future as well. The important thing is that we have to develop our own players through our youth academy in the near future, because I don`t think there is more hidden, raw talent in Moscow or somewhere else in Russia than there is in St. Petersburg. But we will definitely follow the Russian market of young talents.
— So you`ve already had the chance to analyze the Russian market of young players? How promising is it?
— I put a lot of effort into getting an overview of the Russian market of young players. I follow matches live and I watch them in TV or on the Internet. Additionally, I often ask our scouts about different players, schools and academies. I also visited our youth team`s training camp in Turkey for a few days, and I try to spend as much time as possible in our academy. In general there are a lot of talents in Russia, but it seems that most of these talented young players have their difficulties in the age between 18 and 21, when leaving their youth teams and getting a spot in the first teams. The transition from youth football to adult football is not easy to handle for the players and for the clubs. Those players who don`t make it directly to the Russian Premier League seem to have great problems gaining ground in the FNL. A lot of clubs have other goals than developing young talents. For example, the FNL clubs usually prefer a lot of older, mature, and experienced players in their line-up. We, as Zenit, have to face the problem, and we need to find solutions to provide our talents with match practice at the highest possible level.
— Basel has an interesting principle: According to Georg Heitz, “When signing a player from, say, an African country, we always have in mind that the team must have at least one more player from the same region, or from a region with a similar language, customs and culture. Foreigners in the club should not feel lonely, or isolated, because it doesn`t contribute to good results." Do you agree with this approach?
— I think this approach makes total sense. If you follow our signings, you`ll see that we also look at these facts. We`ve learned a lot through our own experience and sociology.
— Basel`s motivation is to play in UEFA competitions as long as possible in order to earn more money. Zenit`s motivation is to win every tournament. Whose motivation is greater?
— In general the chance to advance to the last 8 of the Europe League is a lot of motivation for both teams. In contrast to Basel, we`re playing the deciding match at home, at Petrovsky, and we`ll have the chance to decide the match today and the aggregate score in front of our fans and supporters. This gives us a lot more motivation.