Inside German Football: Vorsprung durch technique - Germany’s formula for success
In the first part of a special series, Emmet Malone discovers how Germany’s World Cup success was founded on careful planning by the football federation
Ulf Schott: “After the World Cup in France, however, everybody said, ‘okay, yes, we have to do far more’.”
André Schürrle waits to get his hands on the World Cup last summer.
Ulf Schott is no evil genius, but from his office at the Deutscher Fußball-Bund’s headquarters in a leafy part of Frankfurt, Schott and the youth department he heads up have successfully masterminded world domination.
The jovial 44-year-old, a former second-division defender with Darmstadt, stresses the whole thing has been teamwork, even a national effort, with the German football federation (DFB) and its various constituent parts all simply doing their bit. But Schott was one of those asking, some 17 years ago, how an impending crisis in German football was going to be addressed – and he has been at the heart of the solution.
First the federation trekked around Europe to see how others were developing new talent, with France and the Netherlands high on the list of destinations. Then they set about applying the lessons in a German context. Resources were found (an initial €10 million per annum, which has, reportedly, doubled over the years), rules were changed, and clubs were obliged to do things very differently.
Not everyone was convinced at first. But by 2006, it is generally agreed, there was a general acceptance that they were on to something. By 2010, there was general excitement.
And in 2014? Well, you can imagine, really, can’t you? The story begins in 1997. Schott was beginning work at the federation, which was preparing a bid to stage the 2006 World Cup. The organisation was confident that the infrastructural end of things could be handled quite well if the bid was successful.
Still, here was one important concern looming over the whole project, Schott recalls. What if Germany got to stage the World Cup but its team was humiliated on home soil because the players weren’t good enough?
This was a very real worry, one that few outside the game’s inner circle were aware of. Germany were European champions, having won the title in England a year earlier, and so on the face of it everything was just fine. Within the DFB, though, was a stark realisation that wealthier Bundesliga clubs were relying increasingly on foreign imports and relatively little work was being done to develop homegrown talent. Germany was in danger of being left behind.
The difficulty was that few of those in a position to do anything about it cared – at least not enough to divert precious resources from other programmes or club first teams.
The catalyst for change came when Germany performed poorly at the 1998 World Cup in France and even worse two years later at Euro 2000. Suddenly everyone could see the writing on the wall. Fortunately Schott and others were already in a position to offer a solution.
“Yes, most of the core points were identified before the World Cup in 1998,” he says. “But the performances then and in 2000 gave us tailwind.” Before then, “everybody said, ‘yes, youth development is important,’ but when you wanted financial support or personal support it didn’t seem so important really. ‘We have other things which are much more important’.
“After the World Cup in France, however, everybody said, ‘okay, yes, we have to do far more’.”
Few could have imagined the scale of the project. The DFB wanted local and regional coaching centres across the country, with qualified coaches at every stage of the development process, and it wanted the clubs to start producing their own players at well-planned, well-run and, inevitably, highly expensive academies.
In a wealthy country of 25,000 football clubs and some 80 million people, the DFB had the resources to deliver its end and, at the time, the power to make the clubs deliver on theirs. The first “Talent Development Programme” was born.
In the years since, the number of full- time coaches working with youngsters has quadrupled to nearly 500 and the total number holding the top Pro License qualification has exceeded 1,000 – around five times the equivalent number in England.
At a network of 366 DFB training centres, the most promising 11- to 14-year-olds (14,000 in total) are sent by their amateur clubs each Monday night to work with DFB-paid coaches. Professional clubs look after their own kids; in areas where there are none, the centres also train older kids and operate as a safety net too for some of those discarded from the academy system.
“It’s important that we have a professional development of the individual careers,” says Schott, “and so Thomas Muller, for instance, was an early developer. He was one of the best players when he was 11 years of age and therefore he was playing for Bayern Munich. But there were others, like André Schürrle. He wasn’t the best one at 11 years, although he was a really good one.
“He was living in the area of Mainz and Mainz knew him. But the coach, when Schürrle was 11 years-old, said, ‘our forward now in that team, I think he’s better than him. Why should I change it?’ And so it took until he was 15- or 16 year-old old before he was switched to Mainz. Up until then he was developed in the [DFB’s] regional training centre.
“And so we have a way for the early developer, a way for the late developer as well as for a player like Ilkay Gündogan; he was one of the best, developed at a youth academy but then when he was 13 the coach said: ‘No, he isn’t so good, so we put him outside and we take another one.’ And when somebody is put outside they join a smaller club. But they can still go to the regional coaching centre, where they get the additional training sessions.
“Psychologically, it’s important for them to know ‘I’m not out of the system, I’m in the system, I still have the chance to develop myself and if I develop myself then I still have the chance to become a professional’. Of course, it’s seen as a relegation, but not to the bottom.” There’s not a club without a “one that got away” story, and Schalke, on the whole, do rather well in the development department, with Oliver Ruhnert heading up one of Germany’s most highly regarded academies. Mesut Özil started out at what is known as the Knappenschmiede or “miners’ forge”; Manuel Neuer, Benedikt Höwedes and Julian Draxler are some of its other notable successes.
Ruhnert and his coaching staff slug it out with the likes of Borussia Dortmund, Bayer Leverkussen and Bochum for the brightest and best prospects in one of Europe’s most densely populated regions. There are slight differences in approach, but Schalke look to bring in players at the age of eight. The first couple of years, Ruhnert insists, are about nothing much except enjoying the game. Well, that and forming a bond between player and club.
As the kids get older, the football they play gets more competitive and the club casts its net further for recruits. So, by the time they are old enough to play in the nationally organised under-17 and under-19 Bundesligas (initially run on the basis of three geographical regions before a play- off system kicks in) as well as the pan-European Uefa Youth League, teams can be made up of teenagers drawn from all over Germany and beyond. At every club, however, there is a preference for having a strong, local core.
The national leagues arguably represent the highest standard of domestic club competition for youths anywhere. Schalke have had some recent success in all of these competitions, winning various regional titles and the under-19 national title two years ago. And last season it reached the semi-finals of what was then known as the under-19 Champions League.
“Before there were 22 leagues in Germany but now there are only three, which is very good because the competition is hard,” Ruhnert says. “It’s a high standard and I think it was a very important step for the players to play at it.
“We have been quite successful, but that’s not the most important point. The aim is to produce players for the first team, but it’s still good [to win sometimes] because you know, football is also about being successful, and I think that a little bit of pressure is not bad for the boys.
“And so the youth Bundesliga was very important for the under-17 and now under-19 levels. These are very, very important steps.” At Bayern Munich, under-19 coach Heiko Vogel is a little dismissive of the titles won by rivals at these levels, suggesting that they are something of a distraction from the development goal. In any case, he sees the European competition, with the potential for another step up in quality, as the more attractive competition.
“The most important thing for youth development at Bayern is to prepare the young players for professional football,” he says. “The development is much more important than titles. The titles are a secondary thing, although if you have enough good players I think you are going to win some titles. But the focus is on the development in each section.
“Other clubs’ youth departments have to define themselves by titles,” Vogel says. “Here we have the luck that the club has the opinion that to prepare the player for the first team is much more important because if you have to win titles, then for me, it’s a different selection. I would pick stronger, more physical players, but to win a title now isn’t the point for me. It doesn’t matter.”
When it’s put to him that other clubs, not so much Schalke but smaller ones such as Freiburg and Hoffenheim, are proud of the ones they have won, Vogel trumps them all.
“But we also have won a title,” he says witlike a man about to deliver a big punchline. “A World Championship. Five players from [the academy at] Bayern Munich in the starting formation. This is our title!”
Ironically, the jobs of men such as Ruhnert and Vogel has been made more difficult because of the progress they have made so far, the success of filling their club sides and, of course, that national team with exciting young talents.
The average age of Bundesliga players has dropped dramatically since 2000, when a German under-21 squad was named that included just one player featuring regularly for a first team in either of the top two divisions. Then there was a total 36 players who were 21 or under playing Bundesliga football; now there are 80.
The upshot is that academy graduates no longer have to displace ageing, often mediocre Germans or the eastern European imports that flooded in when the Berlin Wall came down, when the collapse of their TV deal meant German clubs could not compete with rivals from Spain, England or Italy for pricier talent. Now, each new generation has to compete against members of another that have come through the same system.
“Yes, that has changed,” says Vogel. “And you have to be able to offer the players the prospect of playing. So you have a player of 17 or 18 years of age, a winger for example, and you say ‘please join our club for five years’. And he asks me: ‘What about Robben and Ribery? Where’s the place for me?’ And that’s a problem.
“But the world is always turning, and we have to find new solutions for that. And so if we have a player, a winger for example, we have to give him a contract for five years and send him to another club in Germany for some time. Like [David] Alaba – we gave him for half a year to Hoffenheim so he could develop.”
Having reaped the benefits of their youth systems but seen the competition grow, both Schalke and Bayern Munich have ambitious plans for the future. Schalke is about to extend the academy and redevelop a site that includes the old Parkstadion (where Ireland played the Netherlands in Euro ’88) to provide new pitches and a 10,000-capacity stadium for competitive youth team games.
For now, Schalte teams play at the grounds of nearby lower league clubs. “If we had a stadium here for all our teams and for our supporters,” Schotte says, “it would be close to the arena and I think it would have a positive effect in terms of our ability to bring in more players.
“Bayern Munich have the same problem as us and they build now, and so we have to build now. Not just a stadium – they are building a complex.”
Bayern Munich certainly are, with Vogel mentioning a budget of €35 million. That’s a lot, though €2 million short of what the club paid last year for one player (Mario Götze) developed by a rival academy. Back in Frankfurt, Schott talks about what’s to be done next at national level in fairly broad terms. It’s not clear if he entirely accepts Vogel’s assertion that the clubs are now “the engine” in all of this, but he acknowledges that the FBD has less power over them. That is perhaps not so important now that the clubs have seen the benefits of investment.
In any case, standing at the window, he gestures in the general direction of the racetrack some two kilometres, which will soon provide the federation with a new home to centralise its administrative and coaching efforts. It will, he says, be “a home” for the German game.
On the basis of “the great work” being done in other countries, he dismisses the idea that resources and sheer weight of numbers might mean the prediction will come true. Still, the federation is looking at “the lessons” of the recent World Cup with a view to planning for the future.
“What you see now are the results of 10 years ago,” he says chirpily, “so now we have to look at what we will need in 10 years. It has taken a lot of work to get to this point and we will need a lot more to get to where we need to be in 10 years, [but] we have some structures that are really good and which we can build on.”
Heaven help us all.