It would make for some team: Samir Handanović would keep goal behind a defence consisting of Mauricio Isla, Mehdi Benatia, Cristián Zapata and Kwadwo Asamoah. Gökhan Inler, David Pizarro and Sulley Muntari would provide tenacity, flair and energy in midfield with Alexis Sánchez and Juan Cuadrado flanking Antonio Di Natale in a mobile front three.
On the bench, Antonio Candreva, Vicenzo Iaquinta or Fabio Quagliarella could be called upon to change the game, Marco Motta, Aleksandar Luković or Marek Jankulovski to shore it up. Juventus and Roma may be the bookmakers’ favourites for the 2014-15 scudetto, but this squad, made up of players to have passed through Udinese in recent years, would surely push the pair all the way.
Udine is a small city nestled between the Alps and the Adriatic Sea in the northeast of Italy, less than 25 miles from the Slovenian border. A grand but quiet place with just 100,000 inhabitants, it is one of the few areas of the peninsula still largely untouched by tourists, and has traditionally been much more famous for its wine than its football. Yet over the past few years, Udinese, the city’s only professional team, have rubbed shoulders with the giants from Rome, Milan, and Turin thanks to a combination of astute management, talented youngsters, and a savvy business plan.
Giampaolo Pozzo bought Udinese in the summer of 1986 with the club mired in controversy having been found guilty of involvement in the infamous Totonero match-fixing scandal. A period of yo-yoing between Italy’s top two divisions ensued, until Udinese finally established themselves as a Serie A side in the mid-1990s. The Zebrette have remained in the top-flight ever since promotion in 1995, qualifying for European competition in eleven of those nineteen seasons, a staggering return for a club of their size and resources.
Such achievements have been possible due to what has become known, rather flatteringly, as the ‘Udinese Model’. Based on an extensive scouting network, succession planning and clever, targeted recruitment, the Pozzo family have presided over a prolonged period of overachievement for the club, buying players on the cheap, benefiting from their talents on the pitch, then selling them on for a profit a few years later. Over the last decade, Udinese have developed a comprehensive web of influence with various clubs and agents across the globe – evidenced by the 100-plus players whose rights are currently owned by the club – and collected over £200 million from outgoing transfers.
The Pozzos have always had a clear vision of how to run Udinese. Even early on in their tenure, the family practiced their present strategy of buying cheap and selling big, encapsulated best by Antonio Paganin and Angelo Orlando signing for Inter after benefitting from a few seasons of regular playing time at the Stadio Fruili.
Nevertheless, the model required consolidation in the top-flight to really work; the chance to play in Serie A is an enticing prospect for many young players, who are often willing to accept low salaries in return for the shop window provided. Indeed, Udinese have deliberately focused their recruitment on African and South American countries other than Brazil and Argentina, rich footballing hotbeds that produce talented footballers but lack a strong domestic league and widespread television coverage.
This approach to running the club has not only produced positive results on the balance sheet, but also on the pitch. Udinese qualified for the UEFA Cup in 1997, 1998 and 1999, and then won the now-defunct Intertoto Cup in 2000. Five years later, Luciano Spalletti led a team boasting Handanović, Jankulovski, Muntari, Pizarro and Iaquinta into the Champions League where Udinese were unlucky to miss out on the knockout stage after Werder Bremen’s 5-1 victory over Panathinaikos in the final match secured the Germans’ progression on goal difference.
A period of mid-table finishes followed until Francesco Guidolin was appointed manager for the second time in 2010, the former Verona midfielder having previously taken charge of the 1998/99 campaign. Udinese finished sixth that season, but Guidolin bettered that immediately on his return, guiding a youthful side that featured Isla, Sánchez, Cuadrado and Zapata to fourth place and qualification for the Champions League preliminary rounds.
In their playoff tie with Arsenal, club legend Antonio Di Natale missed a vital penalty in the second leg that would have put Udinese in the driving seat; instead, goals from Theo Walcott and Robin van Persie ensured the Gunners’ passage to the group stage. Undeterred, Udinese went onto finish third in 2012, denied automatic qualification to the Champions League only due to changes in Italy’s coefficient ranking.
Although they lost again in the playoffs, merely reaching that stage in successive seasons was a stunning achievement, particularly as Inler, Sánchez, Zapata and Simone Pepe had all exited the Friuli the previous summer. Udinese made a profit of £40 million that pre-season, yet went on to finish a place higher in the table.
After qualifying for the Europa League in 2013, Udinese were, for the first time in a long while, threatened by relegation last term. In the end, Guidolin steered the club to safety; the Zebrette finishing a comfortable 12 points ahead of the drop zone, yet this was not enough to prevent the 43-year-old from stepping down at the end of the campaign. Guidolin retained the unconditional backing of the Pozzo family, but there was a feeling in Udine that he had taken the club as far as he could.
At certain points last season, some supporters even turned on the owners, questioning their policy of stocking the squad with foreigners who did not know what it meant to represent Udinese and were using the club solely as a stepping stone. Udinese’s business model is a guarantee of healthy profits, but the club’s followers will seemingly not tolerate that at the expense of positive on-field performances.
It must be remembered, though, that the club is a provincial outfit that cannot expect to better the likes of Inter, Milan, Roma and Napoli every season. Guidolin was still popular among the Udinese tifosi last term but he was in danger of becoming a victim of his own success. The opportunity of a fresh start under former Inter coach Andrea Stramaccioni has probably come at just the right time.
The jury is still out on young trainer though, after his only season in management ended with the Nerazzurri finishing ninth and failing to qualify for Europe for the first time in 15 years. For Udinese’s modus operandi to continue to bear fruit, the club must remain in Serie A; the appointment of Stramaccioni is thus something of a bold one, with the 39-year-old still a managerial novice.
Guidolin has moved upstairs into an advisory role but Ghanaian midfielder Agyemang-Badu, teenage goalkeeper Simone Scuffet and captain Di Natale all remain at the Stadio Friuli, the latter again providing vital continuity at a club used to wholesale changes almost every summer. Youngsters Molla Wagué, Melker Hallberg and Alexis Zapata have joined, while Roberto Pereyra, Dusan Bašta and Steve Beleck have departed for Juventus, Lazio and Fiorentina, respectively. Even after 20 consecutive seasons in the top-flight, Udinese show no sign of changing their approach.
With UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules now governing clubs’ finances, it would make little sense to do so. Indeed, many clubs view the Pozzos’ strategy of buying players on the cheap, developing them in the first team or at feeder clubs such as Granada and Watford, and then exchanging them for large sums of money that can be reinvested in the first team, as a vital revenue stream under the new legislation.
Udinese, however, retain two advantages over any rivals attempting to replicate their way of doing things: their track record of providing a stage for young talent to shine gives them an edge over similar-sized outfits when it comes to attracting potential stars, while many bigger clubs would be unable to offer unpolished players the same amount of guaranteed playing time as they would enjoy in Italy’s north-east. With a substantial refurbishment of the stadium underway, Pozzo has even outlined a future ideal that would see a larger fanbase and increased matchday revenue allow the club to hold on to their better players for longer.
For now, though, the majority of Udinese supporters would happily settle for finishing seventeenth and extending their lengthy spell in Serie A for another year ahead of the new campaign’s kick-off. The recent flirtation with the Champions League was a minor miracle that may never be repeated, and with Guidolin having stepped aside and Stramaccioni still inexperienced, this is undoubtedly a period of transition for the Zebrette.
Within the club, Udinese are under no illusions of their size and means, and their practice of picking up players from around the globe and honing them until they can be sold for a profit is unlikely to change as long as the Pozzo family are in charge. If some of the current crop can follow in the footsteps of Alexis Sánchez, Juan Cuadrado and Mehdi Benatia, Udinese fans will have nothing to worry about.
By Greg Lea. Follow @GregLeaFootball