Exclusive interview: Tor-Kristian Karlsen

Football Italiano talks to Tor-Kristian Karlsen, a well-known football scout currently employed by a European club and a popular writer who pens a monthly column for Calcio Italia magazine.
You have worked at some illustrious clubs already in you career such as Hannover 96, Bayer Leverkusen, Watford, Grasshopper Zürich and Fredrikstad. Talk us through what your role was with these clubs?
I started off as an “Overseas Scout” for Watford in 1998. Then I had a similar role (“International Scout”) at Bayer Leverkusen before I moved to Hannover 96 as Chief Scout. Then I had a spell as Sporting Director in Norway. Now I am working as an International Scout for a European club.
How did you get into this line of work?
Through a mix of a huge interest in European football during my teenage years, an analytical brain, knowledge in languages and eventually, experience and contacts – and I would like to think decent results in my job too.
Of the clubs that you have worked with, at which one have you most enjoyed the experience?
I have enjoyed every role and position I have been in, especially since I have been allowed to learn from some great people in the game. When you are establishing yourself the most important thing is learning.
Does the scouting set-up in different countries vary? And if so, how?
Hugely. The main difference is the approach to the method of scouting, the level of which clubs recognise the fact that the scouting structure is the natural way to recruit new signings. I believe Dutch and German clubs lead the way in that respect. In addition, the way scouting networks are built and organised vary a lot from country to country.
On average, how many players a year would you watch?
Thousands go through the filter, but very few are deemed as interesting and worth seeing again or following up on. No time assessing players is ever wasted though – every game and tournament adds to your knowledge. Maybe a player does not fit the bill right now, but he might reappear on your horizon in the future. Making good calls with regard to player recruitment is based on building a vast base of knowledge.
How does the media work compare to the scouting roles?
As well as enjoying the ‘art’ of writing it also allows me to use parts of my brain that rarely get stimulated during the football hours. The media work teaches you a whole new range of skills, plus I simply find the media world, and the way it works, extremely interesting on the whole.
What characteristics do you need to become a successful scout?
The ability to distinguish the level of skills and attributes of a player as well as understand how they fit into your club’s environment or playing style or system. An understanding of global football mechanism – how a player’s qualities match the price tag – is absolutely crucial. For instance, why pay a premium for a player from one of the top leagues if you can get a potentially even better player from a ‘lesser’ league for just a fraction of the cost? Cultural knowledge – how a player deals with a change in environment – is a skill that many clubs overlook when recruiting international scouts. In my opinion, this is extremely flawed. Ideally an international scout should master several languages – that way a whole new world of important information opens up – and have basic knowledge in economics, psychology and cultural understanding. Sadly football clubs are some way away from realising this, but the role and the perception of the scout will develop in the years to come. Identifying potential signings internationally entails so much more than just watching games of football and filling out reports.
Are fellow scouts in the industry secretive when it comes to their work and who they are watching, or is it a more open industry?
It varies. Generally there is an open dialogue until you ‘get serious’ about a player. From that point being too generous with information and opinion can harm your chances of landing the target.
In terms of other scouts, who do you admire and consider to have a natural talent in the industry?
As I pointed out earlier, I think Dutch and German clubs work in the most serious and structured way. In those two countries the scout’s position within the club is appreciated as a vital functioning to its sporting strategy. It is not really about natural talent, it is about being structured, organised and prepared. In Italy, Udinese have obviously shown that they know how to unearth top prospects.
If you were watching a goalkeeper and he had natural agility and shot stopping ability but poor judgment, would you say that his judgment is something that could be worked on or are you born with that as well?
That all depends on age, the individual’s ability to learn and how detrimental the flaw is to his overall game.
What is the least amount of time you have watched a player before deciding he is worth signing?
You feel the most confident when the player you sign is one you have followed over months, if not years. Snap judgements are definitely to be avoided.
What are the key characteristics you look for in a young footballer when scouting for a club?
Obviously, the desired attributes vary according to the position. However, a good technical basis, pace and body strength are extremely important in today’s high energy game. The player must also be able to convert his technical and physical skills into quick concrete moves – mental quickness, if you like. You can be as skilful and fast as you like, but if you do not know how to convert your strengths into valuable contributions in a match situation, you will not get very far.
How important is a player’s attitude in comparison to natural ability when it comes to looking for a player? Which do you rate higher?
It is an incomplete equation, really. To make it at the very highest level you need both.
Why do you think British players and Coaches rarely move to other European leagues?
People often explain this by pointing to the wage structure of English football, that there is no need for British players and Coaches to move abroad as the money is close to home. That is a simplification, in my opinion. In fact, there has never been a huge interest in British players from continental Europe, even during the days when the continental leagues paid the higher wages. It is very complex: I believe it is down to a variety of reasons, and it is a more suitable subject for a long article than in a short interview.
Do you think there is a link in England between the disregard/misunderstanding of the Director of Football role and the amount of control players have over their clubs? In leagues like Serie A, where this role is highly regarded, we do not see players holding their clubs to ransom. Are these two things connected?
A very interesting question. Having a Director of Football responsible for contracts, transfers and wage structure would in many ways make life easier for the Head Coach as his day-to-day relationship with the ‘greedy’ player would not be affected by contract negotiations. This works pretty well in continental Europe. In British football, however, if the Manager or Head Coach is not allowed a finger in every pie available he feels undermined.
Atalanta, Inter and Roma are said to have the best youth systems in Italy. Are there anymore than you think rival these academies at this moment in Italy?
Empoli should also be mentioned here, and Fiorentina are also working well. The big clubs too are spending a lot and results are showing.
What does Atalanta’s youth system possess that others do not that has enabled it to unearth some of Italy’s best talent in recent years?
Atalanta built their reputation as a ‘talent factory’ when Milan and Inter did not pay so much attention their youth systems, and Chievo were not the club they are today. Atalanta took full advantage of the huge catchment area and the very populous Lombardy region. Plus, they are very well organised at academy level and were great at promoting youth products to the first team.
Is there a north/south divide in Italy when it comes to the quality of youth development? If so, why do you think this?
It is all about structure and organisation. In the south, very little is invested in facilities and infrastructure. Therefore the players often move north.
Reggina are the current benchmark for youth development in the south at the moment, do you think other southern clubs should look to emulate them?
If they start investing in infrastructure chances are they can stop the exodus of talent moving north.
In your opinion who is the best Italian Under-21 talent at the moment?
I would pick the Germany-born Sampdoria midfielder Roberto Soriano, currently on loan at Empoli.
In one of your recent columns for Calcio Italia magazine you spoke of the talent of Josip Iličić. Just how far do you think he can go? And what of the Central and Eastern European market for footballers?
He is an excellent player, but playing with Javier Pastore has certainly helped him. Countries such as Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland all have excellent footballing traditions and produce well-schooled talents. The same goes for all the ex-Yugoslavian countries. But apart from the EU state Slovenia, work permit restrictions and limits on non-EU players make it hard to fully exploit the potential of that exciting market.
How do you explain the rising prominence of leagues such as the Slovenian PrvaLiga to Serie A scouts given it has always been just across the border? Was it a case of scouts not looking there before, or Presidents not taking the risk on their reports?
Slovenia have produced brilliant talents for a long time. However, the past few years they have been particularly prolific. Maybe clubs are exaggerating a bit now after the success of the Palermo pair. There’s a lot of ‘trend scouting’ in football, now Slovenia are in fashion.

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