On 25 July, 2011, Barcelona fans rejoiced when they received confirmation that Chilean superstar Alexis Sanchez – fresh off his dazzling performances in the 2010 World Cup and a stellar season for Udinese in Serie A – would become their newest signing. For the fee of €26 million (plus a further €11.5m in bonuses), the then-22-year-old attacker packed his bags to leave the Stadio Friuli in Udine, Italy for the big lights of the Camp Nou in Barcelona.
In addition to Sanchez’s departure, Udinese sold ever-present Swiss international midfielder Gokhan Inler for €12m to fellow Serie A rivals Napoli, along with star Colombian center-back Cristian Zapata leaving for Spain’s Villarreal for a reported €7m fee. In the case of most teams, to sell off three of their best players in addition to a raft of loan departures would be considered tantamount to suicide, but for the Zebrette, it’s simply a way of life.
With arguably the most widespread scouting system in the world, Udinese has long-term staff stationed in each of the four corners of the earth, dedicated to continuing their unique transfer policy. For years, Udinese has unearthed some of the world’s best young talent, only to develop and sell the same players for staggering profit. Each year, Udinese imports a number of these players, some for immediate insertion into the Bianconeri first team, and many to be shipped out on loan around Italy. As the seasons go by, the players that prove themselves worthy will be slowly integrated into the lineup, or, for those who catch the eye of outside admirers, sold on for a considerable profit.
This system has seen Udinese finish in fourth place in Serie A to clinch a Champions League playoff place in 2010/11. Despite the loss of Alexis, Inler, Zapata and more, Udinese narrowly missed out on Champions League play for the 2011/12 season in a thrilling two-legged affair against Arsenal, but improved on last year’s showing to finish 3rd in Serie A. Helping them to this position were summer signings Danilo, Neuton, Antonio Floro Flores, Gabriel Torje, and more, further bolstering the credentials of Udinese’s business plan.
The one constant in Udinese’s black and white has been totemic striker Antonio Di Natale. Now 34 years old, the striker has scored a stunning 135 goals in 264 matches since his signing in 2004. Unlike the dozens of other players to come through their ranks, ‘Toto’ Di Natale refused the overtures of Serie A’s biggest clubs, preferring to stay in the Northeast of Italy. Incredibly vital for Udinese, the diminutive striker is never far from the top of the scoring charts, with 28 Serie A goals in 2010/11 to win the capocannoniere top scorer award, and a further 23 in 2011/12, finishing fourth behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Diego Milito and Edinson Cavani.
This summer has seen Udinese continue along with their impressive blueprint, selling star midfielders Kwadwo Asamoah and Mauricio Isla to champions Juventus for a combined fee of around €28m to be paid over two years, plus half the registration of Juventus youth product Cristian Pasquato, another one for the future. Despite these departures, one should not expect Udinese to struggle, but rather look for the emergence of tomorrow’s stars.