Editor's note: Tor-Kristian Karlsen is a Norwegian football scout and executive, formerly the chief executive and sporting director at AS Monaco. He has worked as a scout and sporting director for several clubs across Europe and will write regularly for ESPN on the business of soccer.
The coronavirus outbreak has impacted soccer all over Europe, with postponements, domestic and cup games taking place behind closed doors, and travel bans preventing teams from traveling. There's also a growing concern over transfers and, more immediately, the logistics of finishing the 2019-20 seasons on time. There's also a genuine possibility that this summer's major tournament, Euro 2020, could be postponed/rescheduled, given that it's scheduled across 12 countries from June 12 to July 12.
Behind the scenes, soccer teams are struggling to conduct basic business when it comes to scouting and planning their summer transfer business. The knock-on effects of this outbreak could be significant. With no access to an increasing number of matches across top leagues, and travel becoming increasingly difficult to those games where spectators are still allowed, can they properly scout the players they need to improve their squads?
Italy, the first European country to be widely disrupted by the coronavirus, has already been experiencing major disruption to its football -- both on and off the pitch -- for weeks. From precautionary measures like postponing youth games in the north of the nation, where the virus first appeared, to playing games nationwide behind closed doors, the Italian FA is considering suspending Serie A altogether.
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While the plight of fans and players is attracting most attention, scouting is also seriously affected. The international chief scout of one of Italy's top clubs tells me: "Youth games have already been suspended for weeks and now all the Serie A games are being played behind closed doors, so obviously it's impossible to attend. Early in the crisis we had problems assigning some of our scouts, as they lived in the red zones [infected areas]. But now with the general travel ban, it's affecting everyone in Lombardia and the neighbouring areas."
As with any other business, the blanket ban on travel has also made it difficult to schedule scouting and sporting strategy meetings at home and abroad, and for an industry that functions very much on relationships and where key decisions are taken face to face, video conferencing is an unsatisfactory alternative. It's still a culture of clandestine meetings in hotels to thrash out contract details; that's much harder to do over Skype.
Also, international scouting operations are slowly coming to a standstill.
"During the past couple of weeks, we've only sent our people to games that are reachable by car, like Marseille, Monaco and Nice," my contact continues. "But now, as most European leagues are closing access to games entirely, it makes any travel pointless."
When asked whether South American trips -- usually high on the agenda for top clubs Europe-wide, especially at this time of the year, when the local leagues and continental competitions are reaching their climax -- are still being carried out, he answers, "We are very reluctant to send anyone by intercontinental flights now. As the virus is spreading, we cannot be assured that we can get the scouts back, as flight schedules are being disrupted on a daily basis, and we cannot guarantee the general safety of our employees."
The views of the Italian club's chief scout are echoed by a colleague at a dominant French club. "Our main problem is that we are now only able to plan on a week-by-week basis," he explains. "Under normal circumstances we would have our schedule worked out months in advance, even with flights and hotels booked in certain cases. Now we don't even know what the next few days might bring."
Emphasising that scouts are still actively travelling around Europe, he adds: "We are monitoring those leagues that are still open to the public. Actually, it gives us the opportunity to travel to countries that aren't usually that high up on the agenda. Some of the scouts are not so keen on travelling under the current circumstances, but they're professional and get on with it."
It's likely then that leagues such as those in Eastern Europe and North Africa are getting more attention than they'd usually attract, which could provide some benefit for territories often ignored by the scouting circuit.
The main scouting activities are now transitioning to the screen: Practically all professional football clubs are hooked up to at least one of the two major video streaming services, InstatScout and Wyscout, which provide footage of all top league games worldwide. But the inability to make the final checks on transfer targets in person is about to create headaches for clubs. Several of the insiders I spoke to raised the same problems: Though the prospective summer signings when the transfer window opens on July 1 have already been watched live by senior scouts, it's usually toward the end of the season when the real decision-makers (think sporting directors, head coaches or even chief executives and owners) fly out for final assessments. With transfer fees often pushing $100 million, signing players solely on video evidence is out of the question.
The dilemma facing one particular high-ranking club executive will be familiar to his peers: "We have already had our first internal meetings on how to deal with the summer transfer market if coronavirus persists. When we present a prospective transfer target to the board, we hand over a multipage dossier containing scouting reports and personality analysis, as well as detailed statistical and analytics-based information. If we are now facing a travel ban and inaccessible stadiums for an open-ended period, there will be challenges ahead.
"The live scouting aspect, especially the recent observations, weigh heavily in the final decision-making process. And the deeper assessment of a player's character is something that is usually concluded towards the final months before the upcoming transfer period. At the moment, everything is up in the air, but we have to try to be as prepared as we possibly can."
That could mean clubs rethinking their transfer strategy completely in order to respond to the likely uncertainties. While the high-profile, huge-fee deals that might be affected will take the headlines, most scouting activity operates on similar principles of reviewing video and cross-checking in person, which means there is potential for any transfer between different countries being affected.
Will we see clubs looking at signing more players from their own domestic leagues, rather than risking forking out a fortune on a half-scouted foreign option? If so, it will be fascinating to see the potential effect on transfer fees: It's likely that prices will inflate to reflect the restricted, lower-risk local market, not to mention clubs' reluctance to sell to domestic rivals. As for those clubs that rely on developing and selling players to survive, how will they manage with a potential worldwide market suddenly closed off?
It's clear that there are some tricky decisions ahead for those in the transfer market, and already at the back of the minds of some is a worst-case scenario that could further complicate matters. While we're worrying about getting the 2019-20 season finished across Europe, can we even be sure that the next one will be able to start on schedule? With no way of knowing how long the crisis will continue, will clubs get cold feet over spending millions to add to their huge payrolls when there may be no games for their new signings to play in for weeks, even months?
It's clear that football and the transfer market are vulnerable to the effects of the coronavirus, and if this situation continues or even escalates, it could make for an interesting summer.