By now, Bayern Munich's interest in Borussia Monchengladbach starlet Sinan Kurt is well known. Rheinische Post (in German) broke the news on Tuesday, and Bayern President Karl-Heinz Rummenigge alluded to his club's pursuit of Kurt in an interview with Sport Bild (German).
The 17-year-old is said to be reluctant to renew his contract (which expires in 2015) with Gladbach, and much like Koln in the case of Mitchell Weiser two summers ago, the Fohlen are believed to be in a position in which they will be forced to sell their most prized talent for a bargain price.
Gladbach's request in return is rather telling. The Rheinische Post report claimed they were interested in signing 20-year-old Bayern II talent Alessandro Schopf, who has yet to even make the first team's bench, on loan. And on Thursday, Express.de claimed Gladbach were also keen to sign 18-year-old talent Pierre Hojbjerg, also on loan.
If all three deals were to go forward, Gladbach—a European powerhouse in the late 1970s—would effectively serve as Bayern's farm team and would have no long-term rights to any of the three players, as the reigning Bundesliga champions would have. Bayern also have a stake in Emre Can, whom they sold to Leverkusen last summer but not without inserting a buy-back clause in his contract.
All the while, Bayern have squad depth that exceeds that of any other Bundesliga team by miles. And this summer they are set to add Robert Lewandowski and Sebastian Rode on free transfers, with it still unclear as to what role the latter (a permanent starter at Frankfurt) can expect to play.
Bayern are the Bundesliga's most notorious example of a talent-hoarding club, but they are by no means the only side that engages in the practice. In 2013-14 alone, Leverkusen had a full squad and still loaned Junior Fernandes, Christoph Kramer, Arkadiusz Milik, Dominik Kohr, Karim Bellarabi, Joel Pohjanpalo and Danny da Costa primarily to 1. and 2. Bundesliga clubs.
Leverkusen can be expected to continue to use the loan system in the years to come. Following a recent vote by clubs to allow for the dissolution of reserve teams, the Werkself (as well as Eintracht Frankfurt) have decided to eliminate their Regionalliga (fourth tier) side this summer. Their rationale is that they aim to focus on quickly promoting under-17 and under-19 players to the first team and loaning out those who are unlikely to have many first-team opportunities.
"We had to recognize that our top talents could not succeed in making the jump to the Bundesliga team when playing for a second team in the fourth division," Rudi Voller recently told Kicker. The sporting director defended his team's position:
"Players who are not yet at the level for our team can certainly be a gain for other teams in the league."
Voller indeed has a valid point: It is the decision of any smaller club to sign and to use loanees. And if those on loan become starters, it means the coach finds them better than the team's permanent players, meaning that the team therefore benefits from the loanees in terms of performance.
At the same time, it can't be assumed that what a club sees as action in its best interest is indeed beneficial in the short- or long-term, or that there are no unsavory consequences of an otherwise positive action. Although loans make quality players available to teams that might not be able to afford them otherwise, they make for an unsustainable model.
Any success is temporary, with loanees staying typically for just one season or occasionally two. It’s usually not long after a loaned player becomes worth using that he returns to his parent club.
Reliance on loans also removes the incentive of investing in academies if smaller clubs are treated to a cornucopia of on-loan talents from other clubs. This is a major concern, considering that many current Germany internationals, including Mesut Ozil, Toni Kroos, Leon Goretzka, Sven and Lars Bender, Marcel Schmelzer and Kevin Volland, spent a significant part of their formative years in the academies of lower-league teams.
For perspective on what the Bundesliga faces, consider the case of Philipp Wollscheid, an ostensibly top talent who grew up in one of the few areas of Germany without a top academy (the Saarland) and did not receive the top-level training in his critical, formative years that could have made him into a world star.
It's hard enough for small clubs to hold onto their stars, but the loan departure of several players each year makes for even more of a revolving door, a nightmare for coaches. It also relegates proud and traditional clubs to mere feeders in a system tailor-made to ensure the hegemony of a few elite clubs.
German football is known for its uniquely passionate fans—fourth-tier side Rot-Weiss Essen, for example, drew an average of 7,684 fans in home games last season, according to Transfermarkt.
If clubs like Essen, Bochum and Duisburg were to give in to the temptation of loaning several players every year, it would be harder for fans to support a team of temporary recruits waiting for the opportunity to play at another club where they are already under contract—Vitesse is a prime example, having on six loanees from Chelsea alone last season. And talents like Ozil and Goretzka may not have gone unnoticed or may not have received the attention they needed to develop to the stage they're at today.
The Bundesliga has traditionally protected its young talents, with its stringent financial and ownership requirements and standardized academy mandates making it impossible for wealthy, foreign owners to bring in stars from overseas that might crowd out domestic talent.
Clubs have kept tickets well below market value in order to keep the game a sport for the people. The vote to allow Bundesliga teams to exist without reserves has put the league's fundamental principles at risk. Although only two teams have thus far decided to dissolve their reserves (Hamburg are also heavily considering following suit), the door is open.
The loan system is just one method of talent-aggregation; other leagues have long had common systems in place that have helped ensure the best clubs have access to the best players.
In Spain, for example, every player is required to have a release clause. As such, a club is powerless to stop its player from transferring to even a rival side, provided the buying club meets a valuation negotiated between the selling club and the player's agent as part of the player's contract. In Spain, a situation like Leverkusen refusing to sell Arturo Vidal to Bayern, then sending him to Juventus for less than the Munich giants' offer would be impossible.
Atletico Madrid have used a combination of means to put together a team of players that aren't quite theirs, strictly speaking. Thibaut Courtois was loaned from Chelsea, Diego from Wolfsburg and Jose Sosa from Metalist, while the club only owns a portion of the rights to Diego Costa and others who have third-party owners.
It’s a model that made the club competitive at the highest level in 2013-14, but it's not one that is sustainable: With release clauses abundant, one can expect the European vultures to pick away Diego Simeone’s team bit-by-bit.
Another practice that has facilitated talent-hoarding is co-ownership, made famous in Italy. In Serie A it was a very effective model that allowed big clubs to sell their talent at profit and at the same time retain a 50 percent stake. This allowed big clubs to buy back the rising talent or earn extra transfer money that, in fairness, was earned by the club where the youngster was given the chance to play.
Whereas the Bundesliga appears to be moving in a direction that promotes bigger clubs using their smaller counterparts as feeders, earlier this week, the co-ownership model was banned in Serie A.
There is no doubt that the increased reliance on loans that Leverkusen and Frankfurt executives have discussed will open new doors for clubs aiming to build a quality team at a bargain price. And players from those clubs will have more opportunity to develop in the 1. and 2. Bundesliga than in the 3. Liga (where Dortmund and Stuttgart’s reserves play—Bayern could join them next season if they overcome a 1-0 deficit in the second leg of their playoff with Fortuna Koln on Sunday) and in the Regionalligen.
From a cultural standpoint, however, it would be disappointing if a handful of 1. Bundesliga teams held the rights to dozens of players farmed out to German football’s traditional but currently less fortunate sides—clubs that contribute to the unique appeal of the German game.
It would lead to rampant conflicts of interest when a player faces his parent club. And it could hinder the breadth of the academy system the league has worked so hard to cultivate. The die is cast now; how many clubs follow the lead that Bayern and Leverkusen especially have pioneered will shape the long-term future of the German game, for better or worse.