I recently came across an interesting poll of Goal.com readers. It came as no surprise that readers favoured the youth systems of Spain, Brazil, Italy and England ahead of Germany’s. After all, the Bundesliga receives less foreign appreciation than its European competitors and Brazil is, well, Brazil. The fact that Germany recently held the U-17, U-19 and U-21 European trophies meant very little; those tournaments get far less coverage than, say, the English youth talent expo, otherwise known as the Carling Cup. Moreover, few nations take those tournaments seriously, and many let prima donnas focus more on making personal highlight reels than winning games. For fans, a player like Sandro Wagner may be considered less of a talent than Theo Walcott, just because the former plays for 2. Bundesliga outfit MSV Duisburg, not an elite English side. However, it was the German, not the Arsenal man, who scored a brace in the final of this year’s U-21 European Championship.
Look, I’m not going to claim that Wagner has more talent than Walcott. In Germany, one can probably name about a dozen forwards with more potential than the ex-Bayern II poacher. That Wagner, a rather ordinary youngster, could come off the bench to score a brace in a tournament final is astonishing, and speaks volumes of the merits of Germany’s system of youth development.
Looking at the current crop of world youth, it’s hard to make any concrete predictions of those who will 'make it' and those who will never realise their potential. A year ago, fans would have rated Sebastian Giovinco much higher than Mesut Oezil, perhaps with good reason. Now that Diego has switched from Werder to Juventus, however, the tides have changed significantly. The move was a clear sign that, while Juve did not yet believe in their starlet, Bremen were comfortable replacing their team’s attacking cornerstone with a new, budding playmaker. For as long as he and Diego remain at Juventus, Giovinco’s development will be hindered. For Oezil, this year’s targets include the Europa League trophy and a starting role for Germany at the 2010 World Cup.
Once at the professional level, potential becomes irrelevant: only performance wins playing time. Even if Giovinco is the more naturally talented player, Oezil will finish 2009-2010 far ahead of his Italian counterpart, if only because of Germany’s superior method of cultivating talent. In Germany, youth development is not only about skills training and fitness. Additionally, serious participation in youth tournaments develops leadership, poise under pressure and effectively grooms talented Germans to be champions.
A year of solid play alongside Diego alerted Bremen to Oezil’s potential, but he was only entrusted with the playmaker’s role after leading the German U-21’s to glory in Sweden. In recent years, the Germans have taken youth tournaments very seriously, and are already reaping the rewards: of the team that started the U-21 final, only one has yet to solidify a starting role at his club, and three are serious contenders for starting roles at the 2010 World Cup. Even 2008’s U-19 heroes are slowly converting into first-team regulars at their respective clubs. Such high rates of early integration are not likely reflective of a swarm of future superstars, but more realistically indicate a high level of maturity among a group that may include a handful of future world-class individuals. This talented minority will join the senior side and, if all goes as planned, will exhibit World Cup-winning poise for 10-15 years, rather than waiting until June for a baptism by fire. These select few will, over the years, be joined by their well-prepared U-19 and U-21 successors, and there will exist a constant turnout of replacements. The obvious benefit is continuous quality to the senior side, rather than eras that end with the team being embarrassing for multiple years, as Germany did between the 2002 and 2006 World Cups.
You may be asking how one can be so sure that Germany will always produce quality youth players, citing the old adage that talent cannot be taught. While that phrase is indeed true, the beauty of the German system is that it makes use of all sorts of talent, not just natural technical ability. Looking at the current national squad, there are several players who were born with ordinary technique, but have worked hard to develop other aspects of their game and become solid choices in Jogi Loew’s squad. Classic examples include Simon Rolfes, Per Mertesacker, and Thomas Hitzlsperger.
You also may discount my claim that leadership and maturity have been major factors in the success of German youth teams, and instead assert that pure talent has brought trophies to their teams. Here’s where that case falls apart: does anyone think Sami Khedira will ever amass more than 25 caps for the senior side? The Stuttgart midfielder was a great U-21 captain, but Germany have an abundance of more talented attacking and holding midfielders, both older and younger than he. In most leagues, Khedira’s consideration for international status would have stopped rather abruptly when it was found that his natural technical skills were good, but not exceptional, and best qualified him for the now archaic position of box-to-box midfielder. In Germany, however, the industrious midfielder played in a finals-bound U-21 team and developed leadership skills and poise under pressure en route to the title. Thanks to his experiences with the U-21’s, Khedira has become one of the Bundesliga’s best central midfielders and has at least earned a seat on Loew’s bench.
For players like Khedira, there is a separate but equally important purpose: the mass improvement of the Bundesliga. If Khedira doesn’t quite have what it takes to play for die Mannschaft, he’ll at least be able to ply his trade at Stuttgart and lead his club to domestic and Europa League success. Although we know not yet who they are, there are currently dozens of very talented young Germans who fit into the same mould. Only a few will ever be called up to the senior national side, but all will provide the makings for a highly competitive league with even better football than today. The financial benefits are twofold: not only will smaller clubs be able to rake in money from transfer fees, but the Bundesliga will only be minimally affected if and when Michel Platini’s 6+5 rule is ever implemented.
In conclusion, it seems that readers have again underestimated the subtle effectiveness of German football culture. The DFB’s active participation in youth development facilitates the kind of experiences that clubs do not offer. By taking part in youth tournaments with the expectation of winning, starlets gain an understanding with their future Mannschaft team-mates, acquire confidence, leadership and classic German poise and, on average, tap more of their potential than their foreign rivals.
While we may not see a German Ballon d’Or winner any time soon, die Mannschaft will remain an inexplicably difficult team to beat, and the Bundesliga will continue to close the gap with the EPL and La Liga. Oh, and Germans will continue to win every penalty shoot-out.
Clark Whitney, Goal.com