It's been four years since Germany last won a Championship at youth level.
For all of the quality that German academies have produced in recent years, the number of titles the DFB youth teams have won is surprisingly low. In 2008, the Under-19 team won the European Championship; a year later, the U-17 and U-21 sides repeated the feat at their respective levels. Before that, Germany's title drought extends back to 1992, when their U-17 side beat Spain 2-1 in Cyprus in the Euro final.
Titles aside, German youth teams have more often than not failed to even qualify for tournaments. Since the DFB held all three youth-level European Championships in the summer of 2009, five German U-19 teams have been knocked out before the group stage, and the U-21 team was eliminated by Iceland in 2011 qualifiers. Only the U-17 team has performed well, finishing third at the 2011 World Cup and runners-up to the Netherlands at the Euros in 2011 and 2012. But even so, the U-17s failed to qualify for the Euros in 2010 and 2013.
Johann Cruijff would be quick to point out that the focus at youth level is to develop players and that results are of little significance. And Germany has produced tons of stars since their youth teams made history: Thomas Mueller, Toni Kroos, Marco Reus, Ilkay Gundogan and Julian Draxler are just some of the many world-class German talents to have emerged in recent years without playing a role in any of the 2008 and 2009 title-winning teams.
Still, there is a certain amount of confidence gained by winning tournaments, even those at youth level. And the DFB has taken heavy criticism from the German media for its nonchalant and almost dismissive approach to youth tournaments.
Until recently, players would only compete in their age groups, with few exceptions. The starting lineup for the U-21 side that was beaten 4-1 by Iceland in 2011 exclusively featured players born in 1988 and 1989, even though that meant using Lars Bender as a playmaker. The team sorely missed creativity that could have been provided by Lewis Holtby, who having started almost half of Schalke's games the previous season, was absolutely ready. But having been born in September of 1990, he was left on the bench.
The fact that Germany's U-17 teams have rather consistently performed at a high level suggests that the DFB's problem is not in talent development, but in management. It long was a practice that the U-17s from one year would skip playing at U-19 level the following season, regardless of development. The class of 1994 was one of Germany's best-ever talent pools in 2011, and had the likes of Samed Yesil, Marvin Ducksch and Mitchell Weiser joined the U-19s in 2012, perhaps the DFB team would not have been embarrassed in qualifiers.
Necessity is the mother of all creativity, and it is an urgent need for capable players that resulted in many talents being fast-tracked to a higher level in 2013. The German U-21 team qualified for this summer's Euros, although the best eligible talents—Gundogan, Kroos, Draxler, Mario Goetze, Andre Schuerrle and more—had been promoted to the senior team long before and were not considered for fear of increasingly prevalent overuse injuries.
Short of options, trainer Rainer Adrion turned to 1994-born Emre Can and Matthias Ginter in his squad for the Euros. Ginter played the whole tournament, but Can was benched for all but 20 minutes of the tournament as Germany were eliminated in the group stage after finishing behind Spain and the Netherlands. Adrion's move was a step in the right direction, but it came far too late. The rest of the team had played together for two years before the tournament, but Can and Ginter had just days to integrate.
Adrion has since been sacked, and replacement Horst Hrubesch has brought in a best-of-the-best from the 1992 to 1995 age groups as he looks to secure qualification for Euro 2015. So far, so good: Germany have won their first two group stage matches away from home by a combined score of 7-0.
The story of the U-19s this year has been rather similar. Strikers Yesil, Marvin Ducksch and Patrick Weihrauch had all sustained injuries that kept them out of Christian Ziege's squad, so the trainer turned to a player two years ahead of his time, Timo Werner, to lead the line.
Although having Can and Ginter plucked from the squad at the last minute was a a barrier the DFB team could not overcome, Werner managed a goal and an assist. And given that he was not called up for any youth team for this week's internationals, he may soon be promoted to the under-21s or beyond.
Like the U-21s, the U-19s have taken a different path in qualifiers. Although the class of 1995 is meant to be the cohort next summer's Euros are designed for, new trainer Marcus Sorg included the underage Levin Oztunali and Julian Brandt in his starting lineup to face the Netherlands in a friendly last week. Oztunali, who made his Bundesliga debut in August, scored as Germany won 6-1.
Overall, the DFB's policy towards selecting players for youth tournaments is changing. Some, like Goetze and Draxler, were always too good for youth teams to depend on and were destined to be promoted to the senior German national team during their teens. They can take little developmental benefit from a tournament below their level, and a shortened summer means more likelihood of overuse injuries for which they are already at higher risk.
Until 2013, those just below that level—too good for their age group but not quite ready for the seniors—had been denied opportunities at the expense of teams that could have benefited from their services. That now has changed as ageism has been replaced by meritocracy.
Germany's best talents will likely never play at the U-21 or perhaps even U-19 Euros. But whether or not they win, the DFB youth teams should perform much better in the coming years than they have since 2009. The bar is low, but it won't be for long.