Gotze & Reus Are Just the Start: How German Football Produces Talent Without End

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Gotze & Reus Are Just the Start: How German Football Produces Talent Without End
Phil Cole/Getty Images
Germany's U21s celebrate winning the European Championship in 2009

Right now, the Bundesliga is on another plane with respect to the rest of the world in terms of youth development. Mesut Ozil, Mario Gotze, Thomas Muller and Marco Reus are established world superstars and are just the beginning of a long list including Manuel Neuer, Toni Kroos, Mats Hummels and many, many more.

The concept of a "Golden Generation," as German football is currently experiencing, has historically been serendipitous, with a crop of talented players in a wide diversity of positions randomly emerging in a short period of time.

But the current situation in Germany is different: Rather than hoping for the stars to align, the league has been proactive and invested heavily in academies. The words "talent without end" are commonly used among the big-wigs of German football to describe their ideal. Following many years of investment, the strategy is now paying huge dividends.

Phil Cole/Getty Images
Ozil was the first of what has become a steady flow of attacking midfield talents to emerge from the Schalke academy.

The Bundesliga's focus on youth development has its roots in reforms made in 2001. At the time, German football was still reeling from the national team's humiliation at Euro 2000 that saw the DFB (German Football Association) side take just one point from three group stage games. With few exceptions, the squad was old and ordinary. Even a 39-year-old Lothar Matthaus started in every game; coach Erich Ribbeck's woeful side scored just once and conceded five goals.

Change was needed, and in December of 2000, the DFB founded the DFL (German Football League). Headed by Werner Hackmann, the DFL was created to operate the two professional German leagues (1. and 2. Bundesliga), oversee marketing and distribute licenses permitting clubs to play in domestic competitions.

It is in this last duty, license distribution, that the DFL has shaped the Bundesliga. Requirements to play professional football in Germany are very strict: For example, the 50+1 Rule requires that all Bundesliga clubs (with the exceptions of those with a 20-year relationship with private business) be owned by a fan majority.

This rule preserved traditional league culture at the expense of allowing takeovers such as that of Roman Abramovich at Chelsea. It additionally is an imperative that clubs be in good financial standing.

The DFL also mandated that all professional German teams have youth academies. Requirements for these academies were meticulously devised and included everything from coaching qualifications to the number of floodlights around the training pitches.

Above all, league structure makes Germany an ideal environment for youngsters to thrive. Most every region of the country includes a first- or second-division club, and the fact that each has a high-standard academy means that few talents go unnoticed.

There are some exceptions, namely Leverkusen's Philipp Wollscheid, who grew up in the Saarland and only escaped from the fifth division at age 20. But generally, if a youngster has talent, he'll join a professional club's youth academy before his teenage years.

Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images
Among the 2012 German U19 first XI, 10 have played first-team football in the 1. or 2. Bundesliga this term.

The spread of talent in German clubs also means that young players will have opportunities to prove themselves in professional teams. 

Leon Goretzka, for example, has started nearly every game for Bochum in the 2. Bundesliga this season—he only turned 18 in February. Bochum may be a small club, but their youth program was strong enough to support Goretzka's talent: The Germany U19 international, who has been with his hometown club since age six, was given the gold Fritz Walter Medal last year, honoring him as his country's best U17 player. Now, instead of playing with a bigger club's reserve team in the third or fourth tier, he plays in the second division.

Even 1. Bundesliga clubs are known for blooding talents at a young age. Julian Draxler was a regular at Schalke at age 17 and played in six Champions League games. Two years later, Max Meyer has followed in his footsteps as the next great Schalke attacking midfield talent to debut at 17.

The importance of the 50+1 Rule in the Bundesliga's youth development cannot be ignored.

The German top flight was very poor in the mid-2000s as most of its stars headed overseas or retired. They were replaced not with foreign signings but burgeoning talents from within.

Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm and Lukas Podolski were an early crop, but it took several more years for other youngsters to develop: After all, preteens in Bundesliga academies around the time of the 2001 reform are only now starting to come of age.

Success is a powerful feedback mechanism, and the emergence of so many great talents has prompted clubs to spend more and more on their youth academies.

A 2011 report from the DFL showed how investment from 2002 to 2010 totaled approximately €520 million, increasing each year from €47.85 million to €85.70 million. Over that same period of time, the average age of Bundesliga players decreased from 27.09 to 25.77.

The "footbonaut," Dortmund's new training device.

Initially, a burden with no immediate return, investment in youth has become more of a springboard for success. Dortmund's training facilities were substandard in 2000 and the club was forced to build a new academy.

Now instead of simply meeting the minimum standard, BVB are experimenting with new ideas. Their youth teams often train with first-team coach Jurgen Klopp, and the club commissioned the creation of the "footbonaut," a training facility designed to give a player as many touches of the ball in one session as he normally would have in a week of normal training.

The vast majority of Bundesliga clubs have rebuilt or expanded their training facilities since 2001, and at the time of the 2011 report, there were nearly two-and-a-half professionally licensed coaches for each academy in the top two tiers of German football.

Bundesliga academies are now like assembly lines, churning out talents and replacing them on an almost-annual basis.

Ozil left Schalke in 2007; two years later, Lewis Holtby made his debut for S04. In 2011, Draxler emerged, and now, he has replaced the recently sold Holtby in the playmaker position.

Meyer seems to be next in line, followed by Donis Avdijaj: Both are top talents, arguably the best German attacking midfielders born in 1995 and 1996, respectively. If history is any indicator, there will be many, many more emerging in the Schalke academy in the coming years.

As the Bundesliga continues to develop and improve in status, it will become less and less an ideal place for young talents and management will have to adapt.

This evolution has already begun: At the same age, Draxler was no better than Meye but played far more often for Schalke in his debut season. There was a squad vacancy in 2011; now there is none, and Meyer must settle for a spot on the bench.

Elsewhere, top prospect Moritz Leitner has stagnated on the Dortmund bench, and Bayern youths Emre Can and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg have little hope of earning any playing time as Schweinsteiger, Javi Martinez and Luiz Gustavo compete with them for a maximum of two places in the starting XI.

In short, there are fewer and fewer weak points in the first teams of Bundesliga clubs, making it increasingly difficult for their young players to earn playing time.

Loaning talents to 2. Bundesliga sides or even lower first-division teams is an option but one that will have to be more eagerly embraced than it currently is. Bayern loaned 18-year-old Mitchell Weiser to Kaiserslautern in January, but coach Jupp Heynckes refused to let Emre go because he supposedly had plans for the young midfielder.

Emre has yet to play a single minute in 2013 and has only once been named to the Bayern matchday squad.

Even as it becomes more difficult to accommodate the wealth of emerging stars, Germany remains the model for all of world football in terms of youth development. There are many excellent individual academies elsewhere, but no domestic league system has such stringent requirements, nor a culture that values young talent as widely as that in Germany.

As clubs continues to learn from their success, they will innovate and further streamline their programs.

One upon a time, "talent without end" was a far-off ideal, a theoretical concept that was miles away. Now, it's much closer; the likes of Gotze, Reus and Kroos are just the beginning. Stay tuned—the best is yet to come.

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