The German revolution
When I was in London for the Champions League final in May, I gave more interviews than I could keep track of. At one point, I even found myself hunched behind a beer pump together with Raphael Honigstein -- smartly dressed as always -- and Lutz Pfannenstiel -- wearing a traditional Bavarian costume -- to discuss German football in exhausting detail. (It was a two-hour radio show for the BBC, aired from a pub.)
In most of these interviews, talk sooner or later turned to the German revolution, to how we went from overaged, lumbering teams playing outdated football to thrilling sides full of very young footballers playing an attacking game, both at the club level and with the national team.
It was an obvious question. For the first time ever, two Bundesliga clubs were contesting a European Cup or Champions League final that night in London. And, although neither team was poor and both had spent considerable money on their squads, there were many homegrown players on the pitch.
No less than eight men who saw action at Wembley Stadium had already played youth football for the team they were now representing on the biggest stage in European club football, and the number would have been ten if Bayern's Holger Badstuber and Dortmund's Mario Goetze hadn't been sidelined by injuries.
It was also a gratifying question because, although it's not easy to answer in a few sentences, you can, by and large, relate a cohesive and instructive story that tells people how we got from Point A to Point B in more or less ten years.
The problem was the other question, the unvoiced one -- because what the English really wanted to know was if they could do it, too. Was there a way to copy the German model in order to increase the number of young English players in the Premier League and thus help a national team in decline?
Unfortunately, the answer to that is: no, probably not. The structural differences between Germany and England are simply too large. Just consider the role of the German FA (DFB) in all this.
It was the 1998 World Cup in France that convinced the DFB something had to happen. It wasn't just the results and the performances of the national team that gave cause for concern but also the age structure, not to mention such dated tactics as the sweeper formation.
One problem was surely that people had rested on their laurels and somehow presumed that the conveyor belt that had been delivering young talent and silverware for more than two decades could work in perpetuity. It was an easy mistake to make. People rarely change their way when they have success. It's only when the conveyor belt suddenly screeches to a halt that they notice something is wrong, and then it's too late.
The other problem was that the clubs, awash with television money, had no particular interest in improving their own youth setups or giving untried youngsters a chance. It was too time-consuming and too risky. As long as the money was there, it was much easier to sign players -- some of them stars, most just average footballers -- from foreign countries.
Take Dortmund. Between 1994 and 1998, the club won the German under-19 championship five years running, but not a single one of those players turned into a star. Even Lars Ricken, the only one to play regularly, would win only 16 caps. It's true that the quality wasn't there. But equally true was that Dortmund had enough resources, or so they thought, to spend enormous amounts on transfers.
And so the DFB launched two talent promotion programmes -- the first in 1998, the second in 2002. They weren't elite programmes aimed at top prospects but grassroots projects. The DFB drastically improved facilities and the quality of coaching, starting at the lowest local levels, because that's where and how kids take up the game.
The DFB could do this because, in Germany, youth football is club football, not school football. It means that whatever happened in German football happened under the watchful eye of the DFB. Add to this that when the first programme was created in 1998, there wasn't yet a league organisation (the DFL, German Football League, came into being only in late 2000) and the clubs hadn't yet turned their professional football divisions into limited companies (that only became possible in late 1998). It means the DFB still had a monolithic position and oversaw a huge network.
That was the grassroots level taken care of, but who would improve the schooling of the top prospects? Well, the clubs. And here's another important structural difference between Germany and England: The DFB had power over the clubs.
Around the turn of the century, the DFB made it mandatory for every professional club to run a centre of excellence according to very strict and precise guidelines. Some clubs didn't like this at all because it cost them a lot of money and nobody could guarantee them that all this effort would really yield results.
But they had no choice. The DFB simply said that whoever didn't meet those requirements would have his licence for professional football revoked. Put differently, a club that balked would simply have been expelled from the Bundesliga.
It's not easy to do this with teams owned by powerful billionaires or worldwide conglomerates. But in Germany, the relationship between the clubs and the DFB -- and also between the national team and the clubs -- has always been different. In the wake of the Euro 2000 disaster, the clubs even formed a "task force," chaired by Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, to come up with ideas about how to help the national team.
The last important structural difference concerns money. In May 2002, the German pay-TV company Kirch Media went bust, which robbed the clubs of income they had banked on, or even already spent. Suddenly, most of them could no longer compete with English or Spanish clubs in the transfer market, even for mediocre players.
Of course, they couldn't rely on young blood overnight, not least because there were still many established foreigners on long-term contracts earning hefty wages. But over the ensuing years, the Bundesliga clubs gradually overhauled their squads. Out went ageing, expensive legs; in came homegrown kids who were increasingly well schooled.
Players like Sami Khedira or Goetze, for instance, had been spotted and singled out so early thanks to the Talent Promotion Programmes that they joined the nearest big clubs (VfB Stuttgart and Borussia Dortmund, respectively) at eight years of age, from which point they received top-level coaching.
Finally, Germany had role models -- on the sidelines. This, of course, is not a structural difference, but the movement away from old-fashioned coaches to young, innovative managers was greatly helped over here by the 2006 World Cup on home soil.
Juergen Klinsmann and Joachim Loew thoroughly changed the makeup and the style of the national team and had tremendous success with it. This was an important turning point on an emotional level. From 2006 on, the country was ready for doing things differently.
Just consider that there are currently six coaches working in the Bundesliga who have never themselves played at this level -- and an additional four who have had only very brief and undistinguished top-flight careers. Ten years ago, in October 2003, there was only one, Bochum's Peter Neururer, because, back then, clubs still valued big names higher than smart minds.
In other words, in just a little more than ten years, Germany has managed to completely overhaul its game, from the bottom all the way to the top. Not bad for a nation supposedly incapable of revolution.