Inventing The New Germany: Youth Development and the Bundesliga

Bundesliga

One should be wary of generalising too much from a sample of five games, but Germany’s tremendously successful World Cup so far and the quality of its young players, with its youngest-ever team at the tournament averaging out at 24.7 years-old, has sparked plenty of understandable interest in its youth development system.

That system seems to be the product of far-sighted planning based on disappointment with the quality of players the country was producing at the turn of the millennium, coupled with the priorities of the elite professional structure reflecting a recognition of the benefit of development for the national team along with a strong economic incentive to prioritise young domestic talent.

We can draw these conclusions from two articles in the past few days, by Jamie Jackson today in the Observer and by long-time translator of the German game for an English-language audience, Raphael Honigstein at Sports Illustrated.

Between them, we get a picture of German soccer at a crossroads in the late 1990s. The World Cup winning team of 1990 and the fruits of reunification produced surprisingly diminishing returns as the decade wore on: disappointment at USA ’94 was followed by success at Euro’96 in England and a quarter-final exit at the ’98 World Cup. A very rare group stage exit at the 2000 European Championships was the final spark for a rethink on the structure of youth development, as the proportion of foreigners had risen massively in the Bundesliga during the 1990s, Honigstein tells us:

Below the radar. . .something strange and disconcerting was happening: Germany was running out of decent players. The influx from GDR-trained professionals that was supposed to make “Germany unbeatable for years to come” (according to Franz Beckenbauer after winning the World Cup in 1990) had dried up along with the funding for the specialized sports schools where they had been drilled from a very young age. In the Bundesliga, newly rich clubs awash with TV money had gone on a spending spree, doubling the number of foreigners from 17 percent (1992) to 34 percent (1997) in five years.

Desperate for strikers in particular, national manager Vogts ensured that South-African born Sean Dundee, a Karlsruher FC player without any German background, was fast-tracked for German citizenship. Dundee received his passport in January 1997 but never played for Germany after picking up an injury before his first scheduled game, a friendly against Israel, and losing his form soon after.

Vogts’ successor, Erich Ribbeck, equally desperate, approached another Bundesliga import, Brazilian forward Paulo Rink (Leverkusen). Rink, it turned out, had German grandparents and was quickly introduced to the national team. He picked up 13 caps from 1998 to 2000.

The cases of Rink and Dundee, both unprecedented in German football since the war, demonstrated that something was very wrong. The disappointing quarterfinal exit against Croatia at the 1998 World Cup then made it plain to see: not enough talent was coming through. In the Bundesliga, the percentage of foreigners had risen again, to 50 percent by the time the season kicked off in 2000.

At this point, Honigstein explains, a new structure in Germany’s youth development system was implemented, with 121 national talent centers built for 10-17 year-olds, emphasising technical skills, with full-time coaches at a cost of $15.6 million over five years. Meanwhile, all professional clubs in Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2 were required to build youth academies by the German Football Association.

Jackson explains the consequences, quoting Christian Seifert, the Bundesliga’s CEO:

Seifert said that the national team’s stark improvement was a direct result of the overhaul of Germany’s academy system, with all 36 clubs in the two Bundesliga divisions now obliged to operate centrally regulated academies before being given a licence to play in the league. Of the 23-man national squad now in South Africa, 19 came from Bundesliga academies, with the other four from Bundesliga 2 academies.

The most significant change, said Seifert, was insisting that in these new academies at least 12 players in each intake have to be eligible to play for Germany.

“That was the key difference,” he said. “Fifa’s 6+5 rule means only that players must have grown up in the club. For example, Cesc Fabregas was developed at Arsenal, but is Spanish. In Germany, our academies must have 12 in each group able to play for Germany.”

Since that restructuring, the proportion of Germany-qualified players in the Bundesliga has changed significantly.

“In 2003-4 we had 44% from foreign countries,” Seifert said. “Right now it is only 38%. So 62% are able to play for the national team.” In England it is the other way around, with an approximate 60/40 split of foreigners and nationals.

Interestingly, one key cornerstone of German professional soccer and one key economic development provided the underpinnings for this system to be successfully implemented.

Firstly, as Honigstein puts it, economic necessity forced a focus on cheaper domestic talent:

The Kirch TV conglomerate that had bankrolled the Bundesliga boom since the early ’90s collapsed in 2002, leaving the clubs in severe financial difficulties. Faced with huge, unsustainable wage bills, they found that the easiest way to cope was to release all the well-paid but fairly mediocre foreigners on their books and replace them with young, much cheaper recruits from their own youth teams.

Secondly, unlike in England, a unified approach and the requirement that clubs are majority owned by local supporters made it easier to put in place a focus on domestic youth development, according to Jackson:

“In 2003-4 we had 44% from foreign countries,” Seifert said. “Right now it is only 38%. So 62% are able to play for the national team.” In England it is the other way around, with an approximate 60/40 split of foreigners and nationals.

Seifert emphasised that essential to the system’s smooth operation was the unity between clubs and the German FA, achieved in part through the stipulation that no single entity can own more than 49% of a Bundesliga club.

“This way you don’t have a foreign owner who doesn’t really care for the national teams,” said Seifert. “The clubs have a very strong relationship with the FA: we are all engaged in discussions [about youth development].”

That is in stark contrast to England, where infighting between the FA, the Premier League and the Football League resulted in the Professional Game Youth Development Group being disbanded last year after just a year of operation. Since then, no single body has been in control of youth development in England. Instead, the power has rested with Premier League clubs.

Germany’s system emphasises development in elite centres from a slightly older age, and focuses on small-sided skills at younger ages. Via Honigstein: “We start with the U-9s. They play four-a-side, on small pitches, to encourage individual skills,” said Thomas Albeck, head of youth development at Stuttgart. “We then add players every year, only the U-13s are playing with full teams.”

There are many lessons here to consider for countries around the world struggling with trying to work out the best way to develop young domestic talent.


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