The 10 best stepping stone clubs for Europe’s Top 5 Leagues


We’ve all had the dream of following the perfect career path in football. You start off somewhere smaller to learn the ropes, before earning yourself a move to a mid-tier side. A few good performances later, and you’re on the radar of the big boys.
That’s how it works in football. Many teams focus entirely on developing young players, safe in the knowledge that they can sell each and every one of them for a tidy profit. After all, football is business.
Thanks to the ​CIES Football Observatory, here are the ten sides from where current players left to reach one of Europe’s top five leagues.
Anderlecht – 13
As Belgium’s most successful side, Anderlecht have a long history of creating some top stars, and they use plenty of the money raised from player sales to reinvest in their youth recruitment.
Their record departure was Youri Tielemans’ €25m move to Monaco in 2017, and the Belgian is currently tearing it up with ​Leicester City in the Premier League. He does so alongside Dennis Praet, who is also a former Anderlecht graduate.
Romelu Lukaku, picture above, Aleksandar Mitrović and Leander Dendoncker are just a few more examples of the 13 players who have left Anderlecht in search of the big time.
Basel – 15
Basel’s total of 15 players is leaps and bounds ahead of any other Swiss side, with their closest competition being Young Boys and Sion on six.
A certain ​Liverpool winger by the name of ​Mohamed Salah, pictured above, came through the ranks at Basel before joining ​Chelsea in 2014, and ​Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka was also at the club before leaving for Germany.
Most of their exports have been to the Bundesliga, where Breel Embolo, Manuel Akanji and Yann Sommer all plying their trade in the league.​
Porto – 15
Porto are a real mixed bag when it comes to departures. They make plenty of young stars, but they do offer one of the biggest platforms of any side outside the top five leagues. If you want to get noticed in Europe, joining Porto is usually a good way to do it.
Of the 15 players which have left Porto for a top side, their €50m sale of Éder Militão was the biggest, but there have also been expensive moves for the likes of Eliaqium Mangala and James Rodríguez.
However, there have also been cheaper moves for stars like Rúben Neves, Diogo Dalot and Ricardo Pereira, who are all flying the Porto flag in the Premier League these days.​
PSV Eindhoven – 15
PSV Eindhoven took their tally to 15 players when they sold winger Steven Bergwijn to ​Tottenham Hotspur in January, continuing their trend of selling wingers for big bucks.
Hirving Lozano left for ​Napoli for a club-record €42m last summer, just a few years after current Lyon star Memphis Depay sealed his own sizeable move to ​Manchester United in 2015.
Georginio Wijanldum, Dries Mertens and Kevin Strootman have all passed through PSV en route to the prime time, and if you look at their current crop of youngsters, it won’t be long before a few more names get added to the list.
Genk – 16
Leading the way for Belgian sides are Genk, who have shipped out no less than 16 players who are currently playing in a top league.
Genk are one of those sides who are often featured in those ‘What if They Never Sold Their Best Players?’ articles, and rightly so. After all, they did sell the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, pictured above, Thibaut Courtois, Sergej Milinković-Savić and Kalidou Koulibaly.
Those four could do the job of an entire team on their own, but when you throw Leon Bailey, Sander Berge ​and Wilfried Ndidi into the mix, you get a good idea of just how much star power Genk have had in the past.
Sporting CP – 17
Given Liga NOS’ reputation as perhaps the strongest league outside the top five, it should come as no surprise to see that the biggest sides often look there for talent.
Sporting CP have offloaded 17 players to those elite sides, including United’s drawn-out acquisition of Bruno Fernandes in January. United actually love dealing with Sporting, having struck deals for ​Cristiano Ronaldo and Marcos Rojo as well (and Nani, but he’s not in Europe these days).
Monaco trio Islam Slimani, Gelson Martins and Adrien Silva all came through Sporting at some point too, generating some huge money when they all eventually left.
Real Madrid Castilla – 17
​Real Madrid’s academy is usually full to the brim with young talent who are just waiting for a real opportunity, and teams in Spain are usually fighting to be the ones to offer that.
The Castilla have sold Mario Hermoso, Rodrigo Moreno, and Pablo Sarabia in the past, while right-back Dani Carvajal was shipped out to Bayer Leverkusen before being brought back to the senior side.
Plenty of their sales end up benefiting Spain’s mid-table sides, but there are still big names like Marcos Alonso and José Callejón who have earned bigger moves elsewhere.
Red Bull Salzburg – 20
Red Bull Salzburg are the name on everyone’s lips after they helped produce Erling Haaland before shipping him off to ​Borussia Dortmund, but the Norwegian is just one of 20 players to have benefited from Salzburg’s teachings.
Liverpool have ended up with plenty of their graduates, including Naby Keïta, Sadio Mané and the recently acquired Takumi Minamino, but there are plenty of other big names who have passed through Salzburg.
RB Leipzig centre-back Dayot Upamecano is up there among the best, but there’s also ​Manchester City and United target Duje Ćaleta-Car to look out for as well.
Benfica – 21
The clear winners when it comes to talent production in Portugal are Benfica, who have sold no fewer than 21 players who are currently playing in a major league.
You’ve probably heard of their most expensive export João Félix, whose €126m move to ​Atlético Madrid last summer was one of the biggest of all time. Other sales haven’t been quite so lucrative, but there were still big transfers for Ederson, Axel Witsel and Raúl Jiménez.
That’s far from it. Jan Oblak, Nélson Semedo and Ángel Di Maria are another trio who owe Benfica a lot of credit, and the same goes for Victor Lindelöf, Renato Sanches and Gonçalo Guedes. It’s a real who’s-who of football.​
Ajax – 22
Leading the way are Eredivisie giants Ajax, who have about as rich a history as you’re likely to find when it comes to developing young talent and selling them on for insane profits.
Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong’s departures from Ajax were two of the biggest stories last season, but that’s just the start. Davinson Sánchez, Arkadiusz Milik and a certain Luis Suárez are all noteworthy names too.
Add to the mix the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimović, Christian Eriksen, Jan Vertonghen and Justin Kluivert and you’ll begin to understand what Ajax are all about.
By 90min
Edited by Tiyani wa ka Mabasa

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