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Feb 2, 2011

Coming of age

Of course I don't know how regularly you're been reading these articles, let alone when it was that you first came across one. However, I guess it's fair to assume that none of you remember the columns from the first half of 2004.

Unless, maybe, you're one of the people that clicked the "Any thoughts on this article? Email us" link we used to have at the bottom of the pieces to accuse me of being a notorious nagger who hates the German national team.

I got quite a lot of such mails in the build-up to Euro 2004, because I wasn't happy with then-national coach Rudi Voller's decision to send a geriatric side to the tournament in the hope of winning it with experienced players instead of blooding youngsters and building a team for the impending World Cup on home soil.

Oh, I wasn't the only journalist who voiced discomfort, far from it. In fact, the public pressure became so strong that Voller finally relented and called up two Under-21 players by the names of Lukas Podolski and Bastian Schweinsteiger as a token gesture to silence his critics.

As you'll recall, a German side known as the 'Jurassic Park Team Mk 2' (Mk 1 was Erich Ribbeck's Euro 2000 squad) lumbered though an embarrassing tournament, Voller stepped down and nobody wanted his job because everyone knew there were no promising players with whom you could contest a World Cup on home soil - there just wasn't enough young talent.

Well, then Jurgen Klinsmann and Joachim Low took over and quickly proved that it wasn't that we lacked good youngsters - we just needed the guts and the faith and the nerve to play them.

Thus only a few months after Voller felt forced to go with veteran defenders such as Christian Worns (32), Jens Nowotny (30) and Frank Baumann (28), Germany faced Cameroon with Robert Huth (20), Per Mertesacker (20) and Philipp Lahm (21) at the back.

Sure, it was only a friendly - but Klinsmann and Low proved the kids could pull it off and other coaches followed their example. Less than nine months after Klinsmann and Low started their youth movement, Dortmund coach Bert van Marwijk made Nuri Sahin the youngest player to ever appear in a Bundesliga game, at 16 years and 335 days of age.

Yes, it may have been a coincidence - but looking at the league today, one doubts it. Because it isn't just the national team that is now fuelled by youth and enthusiasm, the same goes for club football. So much so that the German magazine 11 Freunde recently marvelled that players such as Thomas Muller, who is 21, "already come across as veterans".

That's undoubtedly true when you look at shooting stars like Dortmund's Mario Gotze, who is 18, or Schalke's Julian Draxler, the 17-year-old whose great left-footed strike against Nuremberg last week sent his team to the German Cup semi-finals.

One explanation for the flood of baby-faced starlets you often hear of is that the German FA completely restructured its youth development system in the wake of the disaster that was Euro 2000. Schalke coach Felix Magath, for instance, recently said: "Better players [than in the past] are coming through earlier [than they used to]. That is a good trend."

However, that's only half the trend. Because being a good young player doesn't mean much if you aren't given the chance to play. And it seems that coaches, perhaps inspired by Klinsmann and Low's brave decision to push youngsters into the limelight on the biggest stage of them all, are more prepared to take a risk these days.

And by this I don't mean giving kids like Gotze or Draxler playing time. I mean coaches who are under a lot of pressure, not opting for the easy (read: easily defensible) solution and instead placing their trust in youth.

Take, for instance, the most crucial of positions - between the sticks. Coaches used to prefer experienced goalkeepers as they were supposed to have a calming influence on the defence. But then Low played a 24-year-old Manuel Neuer, who did not have much experience on the international stage, at the World Cup last summer and suddenly clubs such as Kaiserslautern and Stuttgart, fighting relegation, and also Bayern, always forced to produce results, field 22-year-old goalkeepers. Not to mention that Hannover's custodian Ron-Robert Zieler is 21 and that Freiburg's goalkeeper Oliver Baumann is 20.

Perhaps even more impressive is Borussia Monchengladbach coach Michael Frontzeck, who has decided to play Roman Neustadter, 22, and Havard Nordtveit, 20, in front of the back four. Conventional wisdom says you need players who have some experience in relegation fights to stand a chance of survival, but Frontzeck seems to think conventions are overrated.

And he isn't the only one. Of course Dortmund are the first example that comes to mind when you want to further illustrate this trend, as the league's youngest side is also currently its most successful. But there's also Nuremberg.

Almost unnoticed by the public, they are having an excellent season, and doing so with players such as Robert Mak (19), Ilkay Gundogan (20), Philipp Wollscheid, Julian Schieber (both 21), Almog Cohen (22) or Jens Hegeler (23). On Saturday, Nuremberg's coach, Dieter Hecking, even started an 18-year-old called Markus Mendler.

The really strange thing is that - despite the emergence of Draxler - Magath is bucking the trend, with his signing of veterans such as Edu, Christoph Metzelder, Hans Sarpei, Raul and now Angelos Charisteas and Ali Karimi.

This is strange because Magath was responsible for the original 'Wild Youth' side at VfB Stuttgart, starring Andreas Hinkel, Kevin Kuranyi, Philipp Lahm, Timo Hildebrand and Alexander Hleb. He also had immense and unexpected success last season when he played teenagers few had ever heard of, young guns like Joel Matip, Levan Kenia, Christoph Moritz, Carlos Zambrano or Lukas Schmitz, all of them still under 22.

Then again, youth is not a virtue in itself. In 2004, when we were all complaining about the age of Voller's team, the European Championships were won by Greece, coached by Otto Rehhagel. Rehhagel's fondness for veterans is the stuff of legend.

After all, he is the man who said: "There are no old or young players - there are only good or bad players."

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