Some might say that money is Basel’s secret, the reason why they are the only Swiss club to enjoy a real impact in European football in recent years. To some extent that could be true, because in the modern game, without money it is impossible to achieve at the highest level. Money however is not enough on its own to build a competitive team. The power of ideas, in developing young players, scouting talents and organising correctly, is still vital – especially for a club that do not play in one of Europe’s top leagues.
“Basel want to play their part in modern football, not just survive in it”, chief scout Rudi Zbinden told Inside Futbol. Alongside a productive youth academy, Basel have a superb scouting system too. In the last ten years, the Swiss giants have made approximately €45m from player sales – and without losing their competitiveness. Since 2010, Basel have won four Swiss Super League titles in a row, reached the Champions League Round of 16 and the Europa League semi-finals.
We went to meet Rudi Zbinden to explore the secrets of Basel’s success.
Inside Futbol (IF): Mr Zbinden, how did you come to take the role of chief scout at Basel?
Rudi Zbinden (RZ): From 1999 to 2001 I worked as Christian Gross’ assistant. In that period I began to scout in Switzerland. Soon I discovered that most of the time players were watched only through videos and this led to a series of transfer failures. In January 2002 I was promoted to chief scout and I said that something had to change. We became the first club in Switzerland to have a professional scouting structure.
IF: How does Basel’s scouting network actually operate?
RZ: We have a scout in Buenos Aires who covers all the South American youth tournaments, from under-15 to under-21. We had another one in the Czech Republic and one who follows the [Swiss] Challenge League. In Basel there is a technical committee that I am part of, alongside the club’s president Bernhard Heusler, the current coach Murat Yakin and two other people. We decide the transfer policy. In the time of former president Gisela Oeri [the wife of one of the heirs to the pharmaceutical giant Hoffmann-La Roche, who left the club in 2012, ed.], the technical structure was made up only of her, me and the coach. With this committee, we have gone a step further, because now we are a larger group and we can divide the tasks.
IF: And without a big financial backer like Miss Oeri, Basel need to be run on a self-financing basis of course.
RZ: Precisely. Scouting and developing young talents is fundamental for us. We have a precise philosophy. Talking about the scouting, for example, the coach does not have a role in that process. He knew from the beginning that he must accept our policy. This doesn’t mean he is not involved in our discussions, when we ask ourselves what kind of players we need for a certain kind of football or which nationalities we can integrate into the team. Of course, we will never sign players that the coach doesn’t want.
IF: How can you compete with the scouting systems of clubs like Barcelona, Arsenal or Ajax?
RZ: You need to be fast and to know when and how you can take risks. In a global world, there are no “easier” markets anymore. You need to travel a lot to find good bargains. Watching the players through videos can be okay only for the first level of scouting, but when you have found a player who is worthy of a more in-depth view, you have to go and see them in action live. Does he celebrate with his team-mates after a goal? What does his body language tell me? You only know these kinds of details if you are there. The more you travel, the larger your amount of options when you need them.
IF: How difficult is it to convince a player to play in a smaller league like the Swiss Super League?
RZ: In the last ten years Basel have become a club that are well-known in the whole world. Today it makes a difference to say “I’m going to play for Basel” rather than “I’m going to play in the Swiss Super League”. This is something we are very proud of. The players and their agents know that Basel can be an excellent springboard for a career at the highest level. Look at Felipe Caicedo, Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka, Mladen Petric, Ivan Rakitic.
IF: Has the football world changed a lot in the last ten years?
RZ: The wages of players have developed enormously. There are clubs today that offer big contracts even to 17/18-year-old players. Moreover, the agents have become more powerful and aggressive: they offer their players everywhere if they are not satisfied with the contract and it doesn’t matter if they signed a new one just six months before. I’ve seen youngsters who had five consultants standing behind them. And I’ve seen some agents threaten the players and their families.
IF: Recently Basel bought players from Egypt (Mohamed Salah, Mohamed Elneny), Chile (Marcelo Diaz) and Austria (Aleksandar Dragovic). Is it easier to find good bargains outside Switzerland?
RZ: Yes it is, because in recent years it has become increasingly difficult to sign a player from the national market. The clubs want too much money, especially if they see Basel in front of them. Of course there are some interesting players in Switzerland, but we need to move fast, before they bloom, as was recently the case with Fabian Schar. We bought him from Wil [a Swiss second tier club, ed.] in 2012 and many wondered who he was. Now he is a Swiss international and a regular in Ottmar Hitzfeld’s team.
IF: Who have been your best signings?
RZ: One of the best I made happened when I wasn’t a scout yet. In the second half of the 1990s I coached Basel’s youth teams. Once we played a game against a local team named Arlesheim. They had a tall and powerful striker up front who was almost unstoppable – that youngster was Marco Streller. Among the others, I can say Christian Gomez from Lugano, because he was a player who made history at Basel under Gross; then Felipe Caicedo, who I signed from FC Rocafuerte for only €330,000 and sold to Manchester City for €7m. Of course, I cannot avoid mentioning Aleksandar Dragovic. We signed him during the 2011 winter transfer window from Austria Vienna for €1m and sold him this summer to Dynamo Kyiv for €9m after he had a wonderful season with us.
IF: And your worst transfer was?
RZ: The Argentine striker Cesar Carignano. We bought him from Atletico Colon, he was the most expensive transfer in the history of Basel. Carignano had a lot of potential, but dramatically lacked mental toughness. He played at his best only at home, when he was close to his family.
IF: Even for an experienced scout it is hard to judge the character of a player…
RZ: Yes, in that sense every transfer carries a risk, because only time can tell you more about a player’s character. Especially for the ones who come from far away, we try to help them acclimatise quickly: we show them our facilities, guide them through the city. However, looking back at what we have done in the last decade, I can be satisfied.