(by Rory Smith)
Takumi Minamino was the first of Red Bull Salzburg’s prized assets to go, snaffled up by Liverpool almost as a souvenir of the European champion’s winter visit to Austria.
Erling Braut Haaland took a little longer. According to his agent, a dozen clubs had been pursuing Haaland, the 19-year-old Norwegian striker. including Manchester United and Juventus. Haaland took time to consider each and every one before deciding, in those drifting, dozing days between Christmas and New Year’s Day, to join Borussia Dortmund.
For Salzburg, the departures of Minamino and Haaland will be bittersweet. Sweet because they represent further vindication of the club’s model, its focus on identifying and developing young talent, granting starlets the chance to play intense, adventurous soccer at a far younger age than they might elsewhere, and then selling them on to richer pastures.
Now, the next time Salzburg alights on a player it covets, the club’s scouts will be able to add Minamino and Haaland to a list of inspirations that already includes Sadio Mané, Naby Keita and Dayot Upamecano.
And bitter, of course, because it is only a year since Haaland arrived in Austria; only a few weeks since Salzburg’s courageous, quicksilver young team — melded together by Jesse Marsch, its American coach — was fraying the nerves of Liverpool and Napoli in the Champions League.
It is odd to feel sympathy for a venture that is essentially a marketing strategy for an energy drink, but still: It would have been nice to see how a full-strength Salzburg did in the Europa League, for Marsch to have two of his finest players available to him for a full season.
For Haaland, though, this is how it was meant to be. His career, guided in no small part by his father, Alfie — a Premier League player with Leeds United and Manchester City — has been mapped out in the finest detail.
He left his hometown club, Bryne, for Molde, in 2017. There were bigger clubs chasing him — he visited a dozen or so of Europe’s elite, to see what plans they might have for him — but, together with his inner circle, decided Molde, Norway’s current powerhouse, was the best place for him.
He stayed for 18 months before moving on again: not for one of the teams in Germany or England that were now sending scouts to watch him most weeks, but for Salzburg, the first European rung on the Red Bull ladder.
Haaland wanted to play regularly, first and foremost, and the Red Bull model would allow him that. He needed exposure in European competition: given that Salzburg has won the Austrian league for most of the last decade, that would not be an issue.
And he wanted to go to a club that would not stand in his way when the time came to leave. The pathways afforded to Mané and Keita would have helped there, but he made sure to have a $22.5 million release clause inserted into his contract just in case.
Haaland and his advisers seem to have used the same rationale in picking Dortmund. Dortmund needs a traditional striker, and needs one now. It is a regular in the Champions League. (It also reportedly agreed to pay exorbitant fees to Haaland’s father and his agent, Mino Raiola.)
And, crucially, it knows its place in the pecking order. Dortmund can point Haaland not just to all of the players it has developed, but to all of the players it has sold: some begrudgingly, to Bayern Munich, but others more willingly. Haaland was not looking for a final destination, not yet. He knows that Dortmund understands it is just a point on his journey.
In the modern market — in which almost every vaguely well-run, ambitious club has pivoted to signing young players with potential rather than established stars — that self-awareness is crucial. It is tempting to wonder if a lack of it counted against United and Juventus, in particular.
Had he looked at Paul Pogba at Manchester United, priced out of a move last summer away from a club he very clearly no longer wishes to be at, or Eden Hazard, compelled to wait until his late 20s to get his move to Real Madrid, he would have seen that England’s powers-that-be are happy to buy, but often are unwilling to sell. Certainly, joining one of the Premier League’s big beasts would have complicated subsequently moving to any of the others.
That, now, is a disadvantage for everyone except, perhaps, Real Madrid, Barcelona and possibly Bayern Munich and Manchester City. The very best young players do not want to find their options limited, their best-laid plans stymied by an employer that wants to hold on long after they had hoped to let go.
This is an era in which the players hold the leverage. They have, and are aware of having, agency. Clubs have to bend to that, with only a handful of exceptions. To buy, you have to make it clear that, one day, you will sell.
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