how to become sports director

How to become Sports Director? Wyscout meets Marseille’s Albert Valentin

Albert Valentin, Deputy Sports Manager at Olympique de Marseille and FC Barcelona‘s former Technical Secretary, talks with Wyscout to explain how he started his career and how he has become one of the most influential personality in the football environment.

Valentin gives us a rich extract from the book “Sports Management in a Professional Football Club“. In this exclusive essay, he underlines the importance of Sports Management as a key role to manage the complexity that clubs are acquiring in terms of internal structure.

How do you become a sports director?
I don’t know exactly. I suppose that, in general, it is a professional outlet for people linked in one way or another to football. In my case it was totally vocational. From the first moment I was attracted to the possibility of managing a football club in a different way to the one I had observed when I was a player.

Who influenced or still influences your training?
Everyone influences me, but only a few leave a mark.

Special Interviews  become-sports-director-albert-valentin-zubizarreta-833x1030

Albert Valentin with OM Sports Director Andoni Zubizarreta

How was it to go from a player to a sports director? How did you understand that managing was your career?
As a player I had already founded a Football School in my home town, Cornellá de Llobregat, Spain. It was time for me to go and I was lucky that my last club, U.E. Figueres, give me the opportunity to carry out an innovative, daring project. I didn’t come from being a prestigious player, so I climbed one step to the next and I consider that to be a good thing, since I got to know and work with all the facets of a club, using a small club as a laboratory for new ideas. There was a time when I was pressured to work as a coach but I never felt attracted to it, despite having the right qualifications. Then I went through cycles in different clubs where, despite some disappointment, my love for this profession increased.

You brought champions like David Villa, Suarez, Rakitic to Barcelona. How do these signings come about?
First of all I would like to clarify that I don’t believe that there is any player whose signing can be attributed to a single person. That is the first mistake about our work. A Sports Director is never the sole protagonist for a player’s signing. It annoys me that the teams of people who work on all decisions are not given respect. I had the privilege of participating in the decision regarding these players, but it was FC Barcelona, with all its structure, that hired them.

In an interview on Sky Sports, you said that your biggest success was bringing Neymar to Barcelona. Can you tell us how you got to sign him?
It was actually an interview in English and I said, or wanted to say, that “we” considered it to be a success. I’m not talking about spotting his talent, which was obvious to any professional, but the fact of actually taking a risk to think strategically about the progressive renewal of a team which had been the champions, with the addition of a player who could be the next Messi.

The youth academy is a fundamental part of the success of Barcelona in recent years. How is a structure like this organised? How do you work with the youth sector that can affect the first team?
Whenever something is successful, it begins with an idea, something that generates an identity which is respected and evolves, and it is never challenged. This idea was in the air at FC Barcelona, you could sense it and it worked almost by mimicking the prowess of the first team. Winning is very difficult, but winning by being yourself is much more rewarding. And when this is implemented as a philosophy, as was the case at Barça, it can’t be challenged even in defeat. A season without winning is the best “stress” test of a sports model.

How did your profession change over time?
My passion has led me to know the ins and outs of any club at almost every management level. I consider myself a Sports Director who is prepared to exercise similar functions as has happened in recent years. Sports Area Coordinator at RCD Espanyol, Technical Secretary (Chief Scout) at FC Barcelona and Sports Management Assistant at Olympique de Marseille. In the end, the teamwork of recent years with Andoni Zubizarreta and Narcis Julià has been one of the most enriching chapters.

How does technology help you in your work?
Sometimes I’m afraid of being countercultural. When I started this job back in ’95, I incorporated technology into a second division team which was then considered useless. During these years I believed that we had to fight against the immobility of old football and I have been incorporating different tools, mostly always as a pioneer. Interestingly, now I have to position myself critically against those who defend that Big Data and artificial intelligence are going to decide the future of this sport in the coming years. Technology is a valuation tool, which can learn everything you teach it based on algorithms used for Big Data. But no machine can understand a sport that has infinite variables, where emotions play a fundamental role and where the randomness of the game factor will continue to exist. Data without context doesn’t mean anything. Statistics without the expert analyst are deceptive. In short, at the end of any process, we will find professionals. Nowadays we are in danger of suffering from an over-saturation of information which is impossible to convert into knowledge. The funny thing is that I’ve spent my whole life promoting the use of technology and now I’m trying to stop it from being used excessively. That’s why I feel a little countercultural.

Before you were involved with Spanish football, now French. Are there differences in your work between one country and another?
Yes, of course. All countries have their own culture and values which are impregnated into society. This is also the case with football, which is above all a social expression. We can’t import a way of how things are understood in Spain and copy this in France. This would be a serious error. Projects have to be come about according to their environment. Providing new elements from Spanish football in order to enrich French football, from our humble position, would be a positive approach. Similarly, we are increasing our potential by incorporating new cultural elements which will undoubtedly make us better over time.

Let’s talk about the more operational side of things. When, and how, does the preparation for the market session begin?
Nowadays the market is a continuous process. The Scouts team has assigned markets where management is in continual process without an end or starting points. This is what we call permanent information. Then there are periods called filters when, depending on the needs, you select the elements that may be suitable according to position, economy, market opportunity, etc. This is what we call circumstantial information. We use three filters: November, February and May. The latter only contains items which are part of the final decision.

Scouting has become very important in a club’s economy, both on and off the field. How do you organize your scouts network?
Taking into account the product, the market and the experience of the Scout. There are usually people who are experts in young players. Others are experts in a certain market or country. I also like to combine people with experience who cover less market but who are more reflective in their decisions alongside enthusiastic young people who have the ability to cover a large amount of market space. Combining them and making them interact is an exciting experience.

Running a club means making decisions, taking responsibility. How do you manage the economic and the sports side of things at the same time?
Each Club has its own balance of power and responsibility. Some clubs have a financial director who negotiates signings. The president himself does this in other teams. I believe that the Sports Director should conduct the negotiation because he has the capacity to assess quality, needs and market price. This doesn’t mean that, due to understandable management mechanisms, he shares the responsibility of negotiating with a Financial Director.

How does your relationship with players and staff work?
In general the Sports Director must be close to the coach and therefore with everything that happens off the field. The key is to respect each person’s responsibilities. Coaches should be chosen by the Sports Director, then the two could be closer to the Club’s sport model, thus ensuring that there is continuity with sports policies. This would help to create a cordial relationship between both professionals.

Read more: 5 key steps when you find a new talent by Richard Bredice,  first-team opposition analyst at Manchester City.