Youth Development in Germany: The Structure that won World Cup 2014

Germany is known to millions across the globe as the reigning World Cup Champions. But what if I told you that just over a decade ago the country’s footballing body was in turmoil? How did an association known for its stubbornness, ineffectiveness, and complacency do an 180-degree switch to produce technically gifted, world-beating players? Alex Dieker takes a look at the factors that went into Germany’s memorable 2014 success. 


On March 24, 2017, Germany and England saw their nation’s Under-21 teams take the pitch against each other in an international friendly. Hosts Germany managed to sneak by with a 1-0 victory, but that wasn’t the big storyline of the night. Journalist Archie Rhind-Tutt pointed out in a spectacular series of tweets earlier in the week that there was a certain disparity between the Under-21 squads of the Three Lions and Die Mannschaft. “Between them”, Archie revealed, “England U21 squad has 206 Premier League appearances overall…Germany U21 squad has 1,137 (!) Bundesliga appearances overall”. These numbers were understandably interesting to many people, and it caused me to think a little more deeply about how Germany produces so many competitive footballers these days.

If you’ve read some of my ponderings before, you will know how devoted I am to Ajax Amsterdam, Total Football, and Johan Cruijff’s legacy. Well, football in Germany has never been so intricate as the silky, flowing style of the Dutch. German football has always been about physicality and mindset. Strength, speed, endurance, as well as determination and work rate; that’s what was valued highest in the Deutschland. With this style, Germany was very successful throughout large segments of the 20th century. In 1974, they won the World Cup on home soil against none other than Cruijff’s Holland. However, the country’s lack of modern technical awareness, instead being reliant on the aforementioned physical and mental attributes, proved to be the temporary downfall of a once great footballing nation.

Fast-forward to 2000. Germany crash out of the European Championships in the Group Stage with only 1 point, a draw against Romania, to their name. The nation was up-in-arms. How could a historically dominant team who won the World Cup just a decade before perform so poorly? The truth is that Germany’s ego got to itself. After the 1990 World Cup success, Franz Beckenbauer boasted that “German football will be unbeatable for years to come”. It’s that type of mentality that allowed countries like Brazil, France, Italy, and Spain to surpass the Germans on the international football hierarchy, not to mention the fact that these nations had developed players with a much higher technical ability than those playing in Germany. There needed to be a change.

A Change is Needed

Sure enough, the Deutscher Fußball-Bund (German Football Association) sat down with the Bundesliga and club executives to talk about what was going wrong and how the clubs played a role in it. At the time, there were a lot of foreign players playing in Germany’s professional clubs. This mathematically decreases the opportunities given to German players and stagnates the development of many home-grown youngsters. In 2002, the DFB began investing millions of Euros into a revamped youth structure. Now, there are 1,300 pro coaches at 366 DFB Development Centers around the country. The DFB hopes that this will teach more children the necessary skills to maybe one day play for a top German club. This focus on youth was taken up not only by the nation’s football association but also the clubs themselves.

This chart shows an increase in foreign Bundesliga players, but there is a visible stagnation, if not increase, of home-grown players in the new century. (researchgate.net)

Clubs’ Participation

Schalke 04 is probably one of the first clubs that comes to mind when someone mentions “youth academies”. The West-German club has been one step ahead of the competition when it comes to producing young talent for years. It began focusing on this idea earlier than the 2002 movement, and the fruits bore from this effort were seen in Germany’s 2014 triumph. Manuel Neuer, Benedikt Höwedes, Mesut Özil, and Julain Draxler were all members of the German squad that became professional footballers through Schalke’s academy. Schalke, along with teams like Bayern Munich, Borussia Mönchengladbach, FSV Mainz 05, Freiburg, and Köln, has consistently churned out top German talent while maintaining a high level of success.

An artist’s rendition of Schalke’s planned training facility renovation. The club has been a beacon of inspiration for others around it for youth development; Julian Draxler, Benedikt Howedes, and Max Meyer are just the most recent graduates of their famous system. (schalke04.de)

It’s not just the big clubs who are taking part in the revamp of the youth structure. There are over 31,000 clubs spread across Germany that make up over 2,200 divisions. The DFB is always providing lessons to the coaches of these thousands of amateur teams; there are only so many children who can join the youth academies of the professional and semi-professional clubs that make up less than 0.01% of the nation’s clubs. If these small clubs can provide an acceptable level of training and development to its younger players, they stand a real chance to one day move to a bigger team and, if they’re extremely good, the German National Team itself. This is what once happened to a German kid from a small Bavarian town called Pähl.

The ‘Raumdeuter’

When Thomas Müller joined the Bayern Munich academy at the age of 10, “his inelegant style saw him being played as a central defender” noted Raphael Honigstein in his brilliant book Das Reboot: How German Soccer Reinvented Itself and Conquered the World. Teong-Kim Lim, one of Bayern’s Under-13 coaches at the time, recalled that “[Müller] couldn’t help but push forward, so I put him into right midfield” (Honigstein). Today, Müller is a World Cup Golden Boot winner and, unlike every other professional player out there, nobody really knows what position he plays to this day. “I’m a Raumdeuter,” Müller quipped in an interview once. The ‘interpreter of space’ certainly knows exactly where to position himself on the pitch at any given moment more effectively than any other player I’ve ever seen. Although this may be down to Thomas being a supremely gifted footballer, the training imposed on him from a young age certainly played a part. Now, Germany has Thomas Müller to partially thank for a World Cup trophy.

Thomas Müller’s rise to fame can be seen as a metaphor for Germany’s rise to the top of the footballing world. When Müller made the switch to Bayern in 2000, he progressed up the youth ranks thanks to innovative coaching, quality youth facilities, and the scouting network that brought him there in the first place. After the Euros failure in 2000, Deutschland began reinventing the way it approached the idea of youth development. This eventually led to the ultimate success of winning the World Cup, but many of the stars that took part in that squad won’t be playing in a few years. Unlike years past, Germany must keep pushing to become better and not rest on its laurels. With much of the core squad still intact, many believe the Germans have a good chance at winning World Cup 2018. Even if they don’t, there is still the infrastructure and innovation to keep producing world-class footballers.


Featured Image provided by Kotaku.com.au

Honigstein, Raphael. Das Reboot: How German Football Reinvented Itself and Conquered the World. London: Yellow Jersey, 2015. Print.