When Sir Walter Raleigh went in pursuit of the mythical city of El Dorado, he was hoping to find an empire made of gold, an untapped source of wealth.
Those who went searching for the legend had reason to be hopeful, as ludicrous as it seems now. The indigenous population seemed to treat gold with little regard, unaware of the value that it possessed in Europe.
In their quest to find El Dorado, they mapped almost the entire Amazon river. Of course, they never found it, the rumours a result of a series of mistranslations and lies.
Football clubs have decided in recent years that El Dorado exists, that there are nations filled with gold and people who do not understand what they possess.
The most obvious example of it is Newcastle, who, a few years ago, started buying players deemed risky buys from smaller clubs in Germany and France. It worked – the acquisition of Papiss Cisse, Chiekh Tiote and Hatem Ben Arfa turned a side that had been in the Championship only two seasons prior into genuine top-four contenders over two seasons.
It is easy to forget that had they won another game in 2011-12 and Chelsea had not beaten Bayern Munich, they would have been in the Champions League.
However, they were risky buys for a reason. None of the players ever performed to the same standard again. Injuries scuppered Cisse and Tiote, while Ben Arfa fell out terribly with Alan Pardew.
Even more damagingly, the next set of buys were not to the same standard. While Mathieu Debuchy was good at Newcastle and received a deserved move to Arsenal, every one of Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, Yoan Gouffran, Massadio Haidara and Moussa Sissoko have been on a constant downward trend since joining the north-east side.
The problem is that the hit rate on players is probably exactly the same wherever you buy them from.
It is easy to forget the period when Brazilians of indeterminable quality started appearing in the Premier League. Leeds United fans were in awe of loanee Adryan last year, dubbed ‘the next Zico’ by fans of Flamengo, despite the fact that he rarely showed anything on the pitch to suggest he belonged in the Championship.
Anyone with a keen interest in Brazilian football said at the time that Flamengo fans tend to have a new ‘new Zico’ every few years. The association with the samba style and the famous yellow and green shirts counted for more than his talent on the pitch ever did.
Clubs have not heeded Newcastle’s lesson, or the lessons of the past. Trendy nations do not necessarily provide footballers of a good standard for the league a team plays in.
Aston Villa have decided, much like Mike Ashley’s club, that France is the place to find bargain buys, appointing Remi Garde to get the best out of this summer’s purchases. The problem is that the club have revolutionised the squad based on this sudden perception. It has left them deeply mired in a relegation battle.
Just because a club can have success buying a player or two from one nation, like Newcastle did, does not mean signing many more is the route to move from mid-table to the top end of the league.
However, this is not a rant against signing foreign players, more a note that certain clubs have to accept the reality and understand the only way they can really adjust it.
The top sides – the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal – will always pip Newcastle or Aston Villa to the top established players in a nation. Even at youth level, their academies hold more appeal to a player being picked up from abroad.
What does work, though, is rather than focusing an entire club’s efforts on one country is to have more resources than anybody else. While they lost against Leicester City on Saturday, Watford have silently established themselves in mid-table this season, and in part it comes down to their incredible scouting network.
The Pozzo family, who own the club along with Grenada and Udinese, are believed to have the second biggest system for finding players in the world.
Even before they took over Watford, they were attracting brilliant players to Udine. They signed Alexis Sanchez after spotting him playing for Cobreloa in the Chilean top flight, a club with a 12,000-seater stadium. He cost only £1.7m. It was his first season as a professional footballer.
Possessing this incredible ability to watch a player anywhere in the world in the flesh, the Pozzos have managed to carve a niche for their clubs in divisions where the resources tend to stretch beyond them.
Their scouts are never looking for an El Dorado. This summer, Watford signed 13 players of 12 different nationalities from eight different countries. They take the gold to be what it is – a rare commodity.
There are further examples of this worldwide. Two members of Borussia Dortmund’s title winning sides of 2010-11 and 2011-12 were signed for miniscule fees. However, Shinji Kagawa and Robert Lewandowski were brought in from Japan and Poland, respectively, Dortmund never assuming that one good signing from a nation begets another.
Why can that work? The reality is that the bigger clubs know they can pick these players up a few years down the line, so are willing to let the teams with less resources take the risk, preferring to pay big fees for those they know will succeed.
You hear stories, for example, of scouts from a certain top-four side attending the Madrid derby, where anyone good will inevitably cost in the tens of millions.
That gives teams with less money an opportunity to flourish, should they throw money at looking for players rather than buying them.
What Newcastle got right a few years ago, and have not got right since, was picking up a player or two who were actually undervalued and could make an impact in the Premier League.
El Dorado does not exist. There is no empire of footballing gold. There are, however, players out there who are worth finding. That is where Watford have got it right and Aston Villa have got it so wrong.
Why Academy hopefuls must show worth
Chris Powell was dismissed as Huddersfield Town manager last week, replaced by David Wagner, the former Borussia Dortmund second-team coach.
The club insisted that results were not behind his dismissal, but a failure to meet specific targets that the club have put in place, like integrating more young players from the academy into the first team.
It is a nice idea in principle, but a friend of mine summed up the problem, possibly without knowing it, asking why so many of the club’s academy graduates are so slight.
Using academy players is a worthwhile aim, but only when they are good enough.
It is hard for a team like Huddersfield, who have to compete with Leeds United and also Manchester United and Manchester City for young talent.
It also moves in cycles. Leeds are currently in the throes of a golden generation, but there have been incredibly lean spells at Thorp Arch in the past. Paul Robinson and Alan Smith were followed up by Simon Johnson and Jamie McMaster.
There is no point forcing youth players who are part of one of those downwards spells into the first team. It is not a manager’s fault if a generation simply is not good enough to use.