Five of the best sporting directors in world football

The role of a technical director is one of the most ambiguous jobs in football – many clubs have one, but what exactly do they do? 

Successes in transfer markets are often attributed to this person, with Manchester United’s poor transfer strategy post-Ferguson often blamed on their lack of someone who acts as an intermediary between the coaching staff and the board of directors. 

Ex-Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger didn’t have a clue what one was. “I don’t know what director of football means,” Wenger said. “Is it somebody who stands in the road and directs play right and left? I don’t understand and I never did understand what it means.” 

If Wenger doesn’t know, not many people can define one for sure, but we’ve had a go regardless: 

A sporting director acts as an intermediary between the on-pitch staff (the manager, players, coaches) and the off-pitch hierarchy (the board, the senior figureheads). (S)he will handle matters on a day-to-day basis off the field allowing the manager to focus on the field. The sporting director is key in transfers, both in and out, as well as contracts and other matters. This allows for the manager to put all of their efforts into the on-pitch matters. The director of football is often an experienced football figure that will remain constant throughout managerial and even ownership changes.

So, we’ve loosely defined what they are, we’ve established what they do, now let’s give some examples.

Here, we’ve listed five of the best sporting directors in world football…

Luís Campos (LOSC Lille, formerly AS Monaco) 

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Currently at Lille, who finished second in Ligue Un this season, Luís Campos is perhaps the most underrated sporting director in the game, and we could well see him move to AC Milan to replace Leonardo who departed the club last week. 

After stepping down from his role at AS Monaco, Campos vowed to replicate the “masterpiece” he created at Stade Louis II. There, the Portuguese director boasted the ‘discovery’ of the likes of Kylian Mbappé and Fabinho, as well as the huge profits he turned in sales of James Rodriguez, 

Capital gains are seen off the pitch, but Campos has thus far brought results too, with Monaco winning the Ligue Un title in 2017 and reaching the Champions League semifinal in the same year, with many of that squad signed or discovered by him.

Lille finished second to only Paris this season, with Campos’ latest jewel Nicolas Pépé, set to sell for north of €75m. His work is not limited to finding stars and selling them for huge profits though, he has an eye for transfers that will impact the squad, demonstrated with his deal for Rafael Leão – who was linked with some European giants – as well as an ageing Jose Fonte and a relatively unknown Jonathan Bamba, both of whom excelled this season.

If Milan can tie down a deal for Campos, they are getting a star that can guarantee them results and hopefully return them to the elite.

Michael Zorc (Borussia Dortmund)

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One of many sporting directors that fall into the category of ‘Arsenal tried and failed to hire’, Michael Zorc is perhaps the figurehead of the role, that many failing clubs on and off the pitch should try to emulate. 

Born and bred in the city of Dortmund, Zorc played his entire career as a midfielder for BVB in the 80s and 90s, and rarely blinked under the pressure of playing in front of the raucous ‘Yellow Wall’, a skill which he has seemingly transferred to the negotiating table.

Just this month, news of Dortmund’s trio of signings – Thorgan Hazard, Julian Brandt and Nico Schulz – went viral on social media due to the (lack of) expenditure. For little over the fee they received for the American star Christian Pulisic, Dortmund had signed three players who have proven themselves in the Bundesliga, all of whom of an age where they are entering their best years.

He has overseen a memorable decade at the club, signing unknown youngsters such as Mats Hummels, Robert Lewandowski, Ilkay Gündogan and others to the club, as well as recent sales in Ousmane Dembélé and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, both of whom were bought for nominal fees from the French leagues.

Zorc won the Champions League as a player, as they toppled Juventus in 1997, and he has rejuvenated the club back to a position where it can regularly challenge for top prizes domestically and continentally.

Michael Edwards (Liverpool)

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So far on this list, we have seen directors able to spot youngsters and sell them for profit, or those to pul the strings from above, but Michael Edwards at Liverpool does a bit of everything and he is the king of extracting value for players deemed surplus to requirements.

For example Fabinho, who is crucial to Jürgen Klopp and will no doubt grow further next season, was signed for the same value that Edwards managed to gain from the sales of Danny Ings (Southampton) and Dominic Solanke (Bournemouth). Both of the latter were surplus to Liverpool, and have gone on to have poor seasons on the south coast.

It was Edwards who negotiated the £142m sale of Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona in January 2018, with it being rumoured that those talks placed a clause that would put an additional £100m fee on any future Liverpool player Barcelona try to sign. While no one doubted Coutinho’s talent, he has flopped at Barcelona and the deal looks a huge success for Edwards now, with Van Dijk and Alisson Becker costing around that price when combined.

By using data, Edwards and his team find undervalued players like Mo Salah and Andrew Robertson and sign them for a lot less than they are worth. 

Monchi (Sevilla, formerly AS Roma)

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Now back in Andalusia after a two-year spell in Rome, Monchi is one of the most well known sporting directors in the game, with Manchester United and Arsenal both targeting him at times in the past.

Sergio Ramos, Jesús Navas, José Antonio Reyes, Ivan Rakitic, Dani Alves, Federico Fazio, Seydou Keita – we would be here all day if we listed all of Monchi’s success stories, but to cut it short, he knows his way around a transfer window and is the undisputed architect of Sevilla’s recent glory that saw them win three Europa Leagues amongst other domestic . 

When Monchi took over at Sevilla, they had just been relegated and were deep in financial trouble, but the ex-goalkeeper transformed their fortunes and made them a regular top four-six club in La Liga. 

The project in Rome didn’t go quite as well, with him leaving the club prematurely, before returning to Seville where he will look to emulate his previous successes.

Txiki Begiristain (Manchester City, formerly FC Barcelona)

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The successes of most on our list has been in the sales department, but Txiki Begiristain’s role at Manchester City has been slightly different, as a stubborn negotiator used to get City the best players in order to fight for the Premier League.

Joan Laporta, once president of FC Barcelona, appointed Begiristain in 2003 on the back of a spell of four years without a trophy after Johan Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’ and the spells of Bobby Robson and Louis Van Gaal. Barça were in trouble, but Txiki oversaw a new era at the Camp Nou, that included perhaps the greatest club team we have seen in recent history under Pep Guardiola.

He then moved to Manchester City, and he is often dubbed the man who helped City confirm the acquisition of Pep Guardiola, which is Begiristain’s biggest achievement so far.

Not all signings have worked out, but the transfer policy Begiristain has implemented has held City in good stead: rather than spend £100m on one proven talent, City often spend less on two or three talents not at the ‘top of the market’, who they nurture into top players.

City may have the money to spend, but Txiki Begiristain is the intermediary between Guardiola and the board, and as we have seen with Manchester United, having money does not guarantee success unless there is an order and strategy in place. 

Honourable mentions go to: Fredi Bobic (Eintracht Frankfurt), Andrea Berta (Atletico Madrid), Ralf Rangnick (RB Leipzig), Les Reed (ex-Southampton), Marc Overmars (Ajax).

What makes a ‘classic’ football kit?

We don’t really know. But we spoke to some people who do.

It’s 1992. Dave from Hull might only wear cheap polos and indigo jeans the rest of the time, because he doesn’t want to look like one of those ‘soft’ people that he’s always piping on about down at the Swan. But you can bet at the weekend, he’s going to throw on a bright orange shirt, with a vivid tiger print all over it, and make a tit of himself chanting ‘mauled by the tigers’.

He doesn’t care that it’s actually amber, and he doesn’t care that he’s in the midst of what football historians will come to call football kits’ ‘baroque era’. He doesn’t care that back in 2019, thanks to Versace and Paco Rabanne, animal prints are actually having a bit of a moment. But Hull are his team, and he’ll wear whatever kit the manufacturers release at the start of the season. Blindly unto the breach of gnarly orange kits he goes.

That kit is now going for nearly 200 quid online. Not that Dave gives a shit.

But what makes a ‘classic’ football shirt? It’s hard to tell. But we asked a few people who were both informed and confident enough to give it a stab.

Alan Bond is a content creator from Mundial, who have collaborated with the company Classic Football Shirts in curating an exhibition of Umbro’s best kits, to celebrate their 95th anniversary.

“It’s the design, isn’t it?” He asks. “I don’t think it’s classic until it’s got a legacy behind it, but it’s the design aspects that make it classic. I think it’s just something that fans can really relate to, in terms of the history of the specific club. It’s a very unique thing – as you look at some of these shirts, you kind of visualise a player, as soon as you see the shirt.”

So, like a time capsule – an aesthetic signifier of a specific moment in a club’s history, a tangible link to the glory of days past. “Like the Ajax one from 1995,” Alan says. “I just think, what that team achieved, bringing in the team through their own academy, was brilliant. And they achieved excellence with winning the Champions League.”

But aren’t the moments that happen in a kit important? Cantona with his arms in the air like the messiah. Bobby Moore lifted in the air in ‘66, Jules Rimet in hand. Cruyff and Holland ‘74. Henry in the claret shirt, kissing the ground after Arsenal’s last goal at Highbury.

“It’s kind of a tug of war between the design and the achievements,” says Denis Hurley, a freelance journalist who runs Museum of Jerseys (museumofjerseys.com), a website dedicated to football kits and their history.

“I would say it’s close to fifty fifty. A design that comes to my mind straight away is the Nottingham Forest 1992 home shirt, red with white pinstripes – it was a really classy design – but they got relegated in it. A quarter of a century on, it’s still regarded as a good shirt.

“Then, you’ve got a pretty ordinary shirt which a team does well in, which is still well regarded. The Brazil 1970 jersey is a nice shirt, but it’s very plain, just yellow with green collar and cuff. But because Brazil won the world cup, playing such good football, it makes it memorable.”

But you need a decent aesthetic foundation to build on, he says. “I don’t think achievement will make a bad shirt good.” He uses the 2005 Liverpool shirt as an example – the year that they beat AC Milan in debatably the greatest Champions League final of all time. “I don’t think it’s looked on with any great fondness. There has to be some positive aspects to the shirt in the first place, and then the achievements will help to lift it up another couple of notches.” You could win the treble and stop climate change, but if the design’s bad, you’ve got no chance.

So perhaps the word we’re looking for is nostalgia. That’s at least what Dr Chris Stride says, a statistician and sports historian from the University of Sheffield, who over the last 6 years has published between 10 and 15 papers on aspects of material culture in football, as well as other sports. That’s right, we got a doctor. We don’t mess about.

“I think nostalgia is what generates in people’s minds the idea of a ‘classic’ shirt. They don’t mean a ‘classic football shirt’, they mean a ‘classic football shirt’ from their childhoods,” he says. But there have to be moments that spark the nostalgia.

“Football matches can be those moments, and it’s not necessarily just the match, it’s the time spent with friends at the match, and the emotions stirred by the match. Therefore, kits worn by teams in famous games, games that are more likely to be memorable, that are going to be great moments in a club’s history, are therefore more likely to make a classic football kit.”

So it’s a bit of a cocktail, really. A bit of nostalgia, a few nice moments that happened whilst players did their thing wearing a shirt. But, you can win all you want – if it’s ugly as hell, it’s not going to work.

Kieran Ahuja is co-founder, writer and creative director for 5WFootball. Follow him on Twitter here

Julian Nagelsmann and the RB Leipzig revolution

On Monday evening, a clash between Germany’s first and second most hated clubs finished as an exciting 1:1 draw. TSG 1899 Hoffenheim played like the home team despite being almost 300 miles from Sinsheim. Leipzig, despite being incredibly flat for 85 minutes, nabbed a late equaliser through captain Willi Orban, assisted by Marcel Halstenberg. The game was more than just a European-chasing rival clash, though, as Hoffenheim manager Julian Nagelsmann, who was so close to earning a full three-point reward for his tactical masterclass, his side were better than Leipzig in almost every area – flooding men forward on the counter but always remaining defensively sound in transitions. The game was in interesting analytical piece but to me it has more to give than just what happened on the green at the Red Bull Arena.

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Diamonds are a manager’s best friend: a look at the diamond formation

“They say diamonds aren’t forever, but they certainly are for this manager.”

So go the dulcet tones of Alan Smith on FIFA’s hugely popular football simulation game. Such is the rarity of the 4-3-1-2, 4-1-2-1-2 or 4-4-2 (diamond) formation that it has been gifted its very own Worcestershire cliché when deployed on games consoles across the land. Continue reading “Diamonds are a manager’s best friend: a look at the diamond formation”

Manchester United Women: the biggest club in the world can make up for lost time

By Kathryn Batte 

Fourteen years ago Manchester United abandoned women’s football.

It’s the 21st February 2005. In three months’ time the Women’s Euros will be held in the north-west of England. The hosts will play their first group game against Finland at the City of Manchester Stadium. This is the biggest moment in the modern era for women’s football in England. So why did Manchester United, the biggest and wealthiest (at that time) club in the world, decide this was the right time to pull the plug on their women’s team?

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Remember when Shunsuke Nakamura was nominated for the Ballon d’Or?

“We have a lot of quality players, but I turned to my assistant and said ‘I think we are witnessing a genius at work’. If you are talking a pure, pure footballer, he is as good as there is.” – Gordon Strachan

Continue reading “Remember when Shunsuke Nakamura was nominated for the Ballon d’Or?”

Manchester United are staring down the barrel of transfer window tragedy

The race to finish fourth isn’t the only cause for nerves at Old Trafford at the moment. After a tumultuous season defined by personnel changes, rumours are already circulating that up to six of United’s senior players could be headed away from Manchester come summer. Having shown his capability to get Man Utd back to winning ways, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer now has to prove that he has the influence and know-how to replace potential departures. Executive Vice Chairman Ed Woodward is putting his faith in OGS, so expect to see some eye-widening signings and transfer fees. 

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