If asked to identify the football ties that bind London to the likes of Côte d'Ivoire, Spain, Denmark and Finland, chances are you would hazard a guess at players such as Chelsea's Didier Drogba, Fulham's Jari Litmanen and the Arsenal duo of Cesc Fabregas and Nicklas Bendtner. Yet while this all-star quartet are certainly among their nations' better-known representatives in the English capital, a bold but low-profile behind-the-scenes initiative by second tier Charlton Athletic has established strong and enduring links with these same countries - and several more besides.
Teams in China PR, Belgium and South Africa are also closely allied to a club that, while far from London's most fashionable or successful, has nonetheless carved out a superb reputation for its progressive and innovative community and youth development work. It is only over the past few years that this 103-year-old club has opted to use this expertise to develop its appeal round the world, and pick up a few talented players in the process.
The most recent of Charlton's partnerships was struck up
only last week, with Shandong Luneng - the Chinese club from whom
the Addicks bought Zheng Zhi - agreeing a series of player and
coaching exchanges at youth level in exchange for the London club
devising a management model for Shandong's youth academy.
Charlton will also tour the region over the next three years, while
the 2006 Super League champions have agreed to give their English
partners first refusal on their players and alert them to other
up-and-coming Asian talents that may be of interest.
It represents a ground-breaking alliance, and yet the most eye-catching of Charlton's overseas initiatives is to be found in Africa, with their partnership with Ivorian giants ASEC Mimosas and, more specifically, the Abidjan outfit's world-renowned youth academy. It is not for nothing that ASEC's prolific production line has been described as African football's 'crown jewels', with its graduates including the likes of Kolo Toure, Didier Zokora, Yaya Toure, Salomon Kalou, Emmanuel Eboue and Aruna Dindane.
Charlton's view was that it was folly to wait until the likes of Kalou and the Toure brothers were known to the football world and beyond a club of their means, so in May 2006 they struck up a deal with ASEC that gives the Addicks first pick of the latest Ivorian crop. As Charlton chief executive Peter Varney explained: "We invest, and actually part-finance, their academy to make sure it continues to exist and then there is an arrangement by which we can take the better players."
Already, in fact, the alliance has enabled Charlton to sign five young Ivorians, although none have been brought directly to Britain due to the UK's stringent work permit regulations. This is where the English outfit's European 'partners' come in.
Two of the players in question, Ismael Beko Fofana and Konan
Serge Kouadio, have been farmed out to Norwegian side Fredrikstad,
Nancy in France have agreed to take on another two, while Belgians
Germinal Beerschot have recruited defender Soro Bakary. "We
retain the rights over the players," said Varney, "but we
are looking to see them developed with other clubs where they have
the ability to attain a work permit.
"This isn't about Charlton getting three players from the Ivory Coast next week. This is something we will look back on in four or five years time and somebody will say Charlton had the vision to set this structure up around the world."
European ties pay dividends
Charlton's network certainly extends far beyond their involvement in Côte d'Ivoire, and indeed with Beerschot, a club with whom they carry out exchanges at youth academy, management and commercial level. In Finland, for example, striking a near-identical four-year collaboration deal with MyPa 47 enabled the London club to beat the likes of Inter Milan to the signing of sought-after Finnish prodigy Jani Tanska.
A similar situation developed in Denmark with Herfolge Boldklub
when, in the process of negotiating the transfer of U-21
international Martin Christensen in March 2007, the club entered
into a three-year agreement that has enabled both sides to share
information, coaching methods and, of course, players.
However, Charlton's longest-standing foreign venture is in Spain, where a programme launched in 2004 has mushroomed into a mammoth undertaking that sees football and community initiatives delivered to Spanish children as well as British holiday-makers and ex-pats. CAFC Soccer Espana, as it is known, provides coaching for more than 500 children per-week, with the most promising brought over to London for trials and further development. Charlton, whose sponsors and kit manufacturers are Spanish, further extended their influence in the country when they struck up an agreement with La Liga giants Valencia in 2006 that, once again, facilitated the exchange of players, coaches and expertise.
Their attempts to unearth the next generation of European, Asian and African stars while marketing the club's 'brand' can only be described as innovative, and it is to Charlton's credit that they have not merely focused on areas where they can expect a tangible return. In South Africa, the club's commitment has been to several townships in Johannesburg and Cape Town, where their representatives have worked in conjunction with partners including the British government and Ajax Cape Town to help educate and develop the local children not only as footballers, but as citizens.
It has not yielded any first team stars-in-the-making, but Charlton's staff insist the work in South Africa has been their most rewarding yet. If the old saying is true and good deeds do not go unrewarded, perhaps the Addicks will be back in the Premier League sooner rather than later.