If there’s one thing Malaysian football can learn from the likes of Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Wolfsburg, it’s their youth development programme, writes Lee Seng Foo…
At the turn of the millennium, Germany had one of the most abysmal displays in football. They finished bottom of their group at Euro 2000 with just a point gained and a goal scored, which was completely unexpected from the winners of the 1996 edition. To rub salt in the wound, their Under-21 side failed to qualify for their own age-restricted version of Euro 2000, while their Under-20s finished bottom of Group A at the FIFA World Youth Championship just a year earlier. German football was seemingly going downhill at that time.
Then, less a month after their devastating exit from Euro 2000, Germany were confirmed as the hosts of the 2006 FIFA World Cup. The Germans rejoiced, but the celebrations were immediately cut short when they realised that the current national team might not be good enough to compete with the football heavyweights. The average age of their Euro 2000 squad was 28.5 years old – one of the oldest at the tournament – with 20-year-old Sebastian Deisler and 23-year-old Michael Ballack being the two youngest players. Eight players were on the wrong side of 30, while 10 would be in that age group at Euro 2004, let alone the 2006 showcase. With the aging national team and their underage teams failing to perform at the same time, fears were looming of yet another disastrous campaign. If Germany were to lift the trophy they last won in 1990 (as West Germany) in front of their own fans, desperate measures must be taken.
Hence, the German FA decided to overhaul the youth development program in the country. They introduced a nationwide talent development programme, aiming to identify promising youngsters at the grassroots level and provide them with tactical knowledge and technical training at an early age, while sparing no expense at it. Besides that, they also made it mandatory for all 18 top-flight clubs to run a youth academy, all the way down to the Under-11 level – the rule was extended to the 2. Bundesliga later. The practice is still in place until today, and any clubs that do not comply with it will not be issued their licence to compete in the Bundesliga. Also, every year all academies will be assessed and ranked out of three stars – the more stars an academy has, the more funds it will get from the German FA.
FourFourTwo Malaysia was recently invited to Germany to catch the 2015/16 German Super Cup match between Wolfsburg and Bayern Munich, and had a first-hand opportunity to visit the former’s youth academy prior to the game.
According to Mark Wilhahn, Head of Administrations at the Wolfsburg Youth Academy, the academy is completely separated from the senior team and club management, focusing solely on their intended purpose. “Prior to the German FA’s implementation, our focus on youth football was smaller and our youth academy was not as professional as it is today,” says Wilhahn. “It took us a few years to get to where we are today. I consider our youth academy is one of the best in the country because it has been awarded three stars. We have also won the Under-19 football championship [in 2012-13], so I believe we’re heading to the right direction.”
He also sheds some light on how things are done at the academy. “Besides doing fitness and skills training, we also conduct video analysis with the players and discuss about their strengths and weaknesses with them because we want to make everyone better. Our main aim is to bring them up and become professional footballers.”
With the professional guidance and well-maintained facilities like an indoor swimming pool and a weight room, the 2015 DFB-Pokal holders have created a good environment for the youngsters to learn and improve themselves. One of the players benefiting from it was Maximilian Arnold, who became Wolfsburg’s youngest player to feature for the first team in 2011 and went on to become their youngest goal-scorer two years later.
The 21-year-old, who has a billboard of him being proudly displayed just outside the academy, is now a guaranteed first-team starter. He has also been mooted to be a future Germany star, joining the long line of recent success stories of the German FA’s youth development initiative.
Before Arnold, the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm, Per Mertesacker and Lukas Podolski were among the first few to emerge from it. They played at the Euro 2004, where the Germans suffered the same fate as four years earlier, getting knocked out in the group stages. However, more talented players – Mesut Ozil, Thomas Muller, Toni Kroos, Jerome Boateng, and Mario Gomez – soon came through and the national team began to fare better in the subsequent tournaments. From 2006 to 2014, Die Mannschaft did not fail to at least reach the semi-final stage of all the major tournaments they participated in. They lifted the FIFA World Cup in 2014, completing their metamorphosis.
Meanwhile, Malaysia faced a similar predicament as the Germans in 2007, as they were critically panned after their bad performance at the AFC Asian Cup. One of the four co-hosts of the tournament, the Harimau Malaya were knocked out after losing all their group matches, conceding 12 goals and scoring only one goal. Just like the German FA, the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) realised that “youth” would be the key to their future success. However, instead of taking the same route as Germany, the FAM put their focus on the Harimau Muda project.