Youth development is strictly business
By anybody's standards, it's an impressive piece of business. Three years ago, Chelsea signed Romelu Lukaku from Anderlecht for 11 million pounds, with a further 7 million payable depending on whether the young forward met a variety of performance and achievement targets. Given that he made only 10 Premier League appearances for the Stamford Bridge side, it is unlikely he managed to do so.
On Wednesday, Chelsea sold him to Everton for a fee that could rise as high as 28 million pounds. Take away the wages they paid him for his first season at Chelsea -- about 60,000 per week, or about 3 million -- and the same again for the portion they covered during his two loan spells, first at West Bromwich Albion in 2012-13 and then at Goodison Park last season, and you are still left with a potential profit in the order of 11 million pounds.
Well done, then, to all concerned. Cigars all round.
At first glance, there are no losers in the story of Lukaku's time in west London. Chelsea have their profit. Everton have their striker. Lukaku is a full Belgian international, a top-class Premier League forward, and a very rich man with the peak years of his career still ahead of him.
True, perhaps if he had remained at Anderlecht for the last three years, he would now be on the verge of joining one of Europe's superpowers -- a Barcelona, a Real Madrid, a Chelsea -- and, true, perhaps if Anderlecht had held on to him for longer, the Belgian side might have gotten an eye-watering fee for him. But they did not do too badly -- 11 million pounds, minus a 3.3 million payment to his family -- and who knows whether Lukaku would have fulfilled his potential playing in the altogether less-rarefied surrounds of his homeland. Everyone, when all is said and done, is a winner.
And yet there is something slightly unedifying about the entire episode. It is this: In terms of football's traditional values, the story of Lukaku and Chelsea is a failure. The club signed one of Europe's most promising players, at some considerable cost, to be the heir to Didier Drogba, and it did not work out. But in terms of football's new reality, that does not matter at all. Chelsea will not feel any embarrassment about signing Lukaku in 2011. They will be delighted they did so.
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.
It is not just Chelsea. Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham are all doing it. Barcelona's attempts to join in the fun ended up with them being hit with a FIFA transfer ban (which has since been suspended). Porto and Benfica, Udinese and Parma, Ajax and Feyenoord: The methods and aims vary, but the principle is the same. Agents Jorge Mendes and Gestifute, Nelio Lucas and Doyen do it, as does the Aspire Academy in Qatar.
Chelsea, though, are doing it best. Their structure and their process are ingenious. They trawl Europe -- and, occasionally, further afield -- for young players. They sign them from their native clubs, bring them to their Cobham training base, and give them the benefit of some of the best facilities and coaching in the world.
Then the club send them out on loan, often to Vitesse Arnhem, their partner club in Holland, but sometimes -- as with Lukaku -- to other clubs in the Premier League (or, as in the case of Thibaut Courtois to Atletico Madrid, to a suitable side abroad).
A very few, like Courtois, will one day be brought back and assimilated into the first team. If manager Jose Mourinho is telling the truth, then the same might have happened to Lukaku, if he had been prepared to prove his worth. The majority, though, will never make the grade for Chelsea. They will, at some point, be sold on, a premium fee guaranteed by having attended finishing school at one of the world's elite clubs. Chelsea are essentially running a recruitment and development business completely unrelated to their first team.
Their motive is not just the accrual of profit. Mourinho pointed out Wednesday, as he discussed Lukaku's sale, that Chelsea's strategy is designed to maximise efficiency under the rules of Financial Fair Play. Investment in their youth structures is exempt from FFP. But the money the club raise by selling players is not. They are making their money work for them. As one observer put it to me Wednesday, they are "gaming" FFP.
This is not illegal. It is completely within the rules. It is also not immoral. Chelsea would claim that they are, in fact, giving these young players the best chance of fulfilling their potential, by giving them access to the sort of coaching and facilities that most can only dream about. That is certainly the view of Aspire, the Qatar-funded project that has given a chance to dozens of players from Africa that they would not otherwise get. Like the Lukaku deal, it is a win-win for all concerned.
Except, of course, that it is not. The Netherlands squad at this summer's World Cup contained a host of players from Feyenoord, the Dutch club whose financial strictures had forced it to trust its youth system to provide the core of its side over the course of the last six years. For five years in a row, they have been voted the best academy in Holland.
Damien Hertog, the man who oversees their work, knows that the likes of Stefan de Vrij, Jordy Clasie and Bruno Martins Indi will move on as soon as they have made it. Indeed, Feyenoord not only accept that they will go but, to some extent, encourage it. Those fees are how they sustain themselves and ensure that they never again skirt with financial oblivion.
But, speaking to The Times last month, Hertog admitted that when English clubs come and poach young players before they are ripe -- as was the case with Rodney Kongolo, the 16-year-old brother of Terence, who moved to Manchester City -- it "is not good for the club as the fee is not as big, it is not good for the player because they need to play to develop, and it is probably not good for the English national team, either, to have so many places in academies taken up by foreign players."
By scouring the world for youngsters, the vulture clubs are depriving the game's lesser powers of crucial funds, and by extension, are starving their native leagues of quality. For every Lukaku who makes it, there are many others who do not, who return to their homelands without the scope for a successful career, and to base a judgment of what is right or praiseworthy on the exception is foolhardy in the extreme.
Indeed, if Lukaku -- who cost 11 million pounds and was already playing first-team football -- cannot make it, then what about the chances of those who are signed earlier in their development, who do not have the Belgian's unquestionable ability?
Just because Lukaku did develop into a Premier League player in Chelsea's system does not mean that it's the only way to bring young players through, or even that it's the best. Hertog, like many others, identifies playing high-level, competitive football as the crucial final stage in any player's development. For the few sent on loan to Atletico or Porto or Vitesse, that stage comes. For those farmed out to the lower leagues, or not at all, it does not.
Chelsea and the others are hedging their risk, but they are also interfering with the natural course of events. Hertog knows there is little that can be done to stop it. EU law means that this harvesting of young talent will continue; it is hard to chastise Chelsea and the others for doing it when it is not illegal and it is not wrong.
Perhaps, then, what is required is a clearer understanding of what that offer from a top Premier League club to a young prospect means. It is not a dream move. It is simply a business deal. They will polish you up. They will coach you and train you and guide you through. They may turn you into a player, if you are the lucky one of many.
However, they will likely not turn you into a player for them because, to them, you are a commodity, a property, and you are there to be flipped.
Rory Smith is a columnist for ESPN FC and The Times. Follow him on Twitter @RorySmithTimes.