After early exits at the 1998 FIFA World Cup and UEFA EURO 2000™ Germany overhauled its youth system with spectacular results: an unprecedented hat-trick of U21, U19 and U17 titles.
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Germany's triumph at the 2009 UEFA European Under-21 Championship completes a remarkable year for the nation's age-group sides. Victory for Horst Hrubesch's team in Malmo on Monday added the U21 title to the U19 and U17 crowns Germany had already won in the preceding eleven months. It is an unprecedented hat-trick and one that leaves Germany as champions of all UEFA's men's competitions below senior level. The future looks bright for German football.
Catalyst for change
The U21s' success in Sweden highlights the work the German Foootball Association (DFB) has done in youth development over the last decade, yet it was a pair of disappointments that proved a catalyst for change. Germany's quarter-final exit at the 1998 FIFA World Cup coupled with their failure to advance beyond the group stage at UEFA EURO 2000™ prompted much soul-searching, with tactical and technical failings pinpointed. Having identified the problem, the DFB set about solving it and the German game has not looked back.
"The results in 1998 and 2000 gave a huge boost to our projects," Ulf Schott, head of talent development at the DFB, told uefa.com. Germany had been selected, in 1997, to host the 2006 World Cup and there was suddenly reason to fear the Nationalmannschaft would struggle on home soil. "Back then we asked ourselves what we needed to do to have a competitive team in 2006," Schott continued. The DFB consulted with regional associations, associations abroad and even national associations of different sports to find answers.
They opted to base Germany's youth development system on two main pillars: regional centres known as Stützpunkte, and élite centres run by the 36 first and second Bundesliga clubs known as Leistungszentren. Across the country 366 Stützpunkte were established, with around 1,000 coaches paid by the DFB to train approximately 14,000 children aged eleven to 14. The best players are picked from their local clubs to train once a week at a Stützpunkt where they follow a standardised nationwide training programme.
Bundesliga clubs closely chart the progress of youngsters at the Stützpunkt, and the best are offered places at a Leistungszentrum. The Leistungszentren are the professional clubs' youth departments which, from 2001, were required by the DFB to introduce certain minimum standards for youth development. These included hiring full-time youth coaches, introducing boarding schools for the most promising players and having access to a certain number of training pitches.
"The result was that all the clubs had to invest a lot of money and the youth departments experienced a resurgence as a consequence," Schott said. Critics who argued that the DFB's grassroots approach would benefit the masses rather than fine-tune the best talent were proved wrong. More than 4,500 players have made the move from regional base to Leistungszentrum and over 600,000 youngsters are being scouted annually by the clubs, giving German football a much wider net to choose from.
Germany's recent dominance in age-group tournaments cannot be attributed solely to the new set-up, however – the victorious U21 squad, for instance, is largely too old to have profited from the changes. Fifty per cent of the team that won the U17 Championship on home soil in May, though, came through the DFB ranks, while the other half moved directly from local club to Leistungszentrum. It is a similar story for the DFB's other youth sides, suggesting the €100m invested in the system since its inception a decade ago is money well spent. The change in template has been accompanied by a change in attitude. Since his appointment as sporting director in April 2006, Matthias Sammer has promoted a "winning mentality", something Germany had previously shied away from when developing young players. "Football is only fun if you're winning," Hrubesch said. His U21 right-back Andreas Beck added: "This winning mentality is instilled in us on a daily basis."
There is now real hope that such pre-eminence will carry over to the senior squad, which has not won a title since EURO '96™. "When you consider that Spain dominated European youth competitions years ago, there is no reason to fear for the future of German football," said Reinhard Rauball, president of the German Football League. Sammer is not finished yet, however: "We are still making many mistakes when it comes to the transition of players from youth to senior levels," he noted. If that problem is tackled with the same efficiency as the DFB's attitude to improving youth development, German football will have plenty more to celebrate in the years ahead.