Year Zero: How Germany restructured itself – and why it couldn't work elsewhere
In the wake of Germany's World Cup triumph, much was made of the fact this success had been a dozen years in the making - or, more precisely, the planning.
Many observers pointed out it was the result of a footballing revolution that began around the turn of the century and has led to an almost complete overhaul of the German game.
Could we, many non-Germans asked themselves, somehow copy the structure upon which this revolution was based? (The implicit understanding, of course, is that in Germany even revolutions are well-structured and carried out with discipline and order.)
You can understand why it's a tempting thought. Many numbers and figures were bandied about to explain how the lumbering, ageing, defensive Germans of the 1980s and 1990s had miraculously morphed into the skilled, young, attacking Germans of the past few years. Somehow it sounded as if all you had to do was pour money into one end and wait until Mesut Özil and Mario Götze drop out at the other.
The bad news is it isn't this simple. Not least because money was just one of the pillars on which the German revolution rested, and the others cannot be easily rebuilt elsewhere. Also, those investments were substantial.
Money isn't everything (but it helps)
Still, if you seek to copy the Germans, money has to be the smallest problem, so let's have a look at the numbers first.
Over the past 12 years, the Germans have not only built 52 centres of excellence to school the most promising talents, but also 366 regional coaching bases where 1,300 professional, full-time coaches teach youngsters the basics of the modern game.
Back in 2002, when this massive undertaking – known as the Extended Talent Promotion Programme – was launched, both the German FA (DFB) and the professional clubs spent an annual €48 million on this system. The figure gradually rose over the years; today it has almost doubled.
This enormous investment was basically a very expensive admission that the Germans had missed more or less every bus that left the station during the 1990s. Throughout that decade, then-national coach Berti Vogts warned the country again and again that no talents were coming through and that Germany was resting on its laurels and would soon be overtaken by other countries.
As early as 1998, Vogts presented a smaller, more modest version of the talent promotion programme. But it was only in the wake of a disastrous Euro 2000 tournament that the country finally woke up to the fact that there was a serious dearth of talent.
Not to mention the few kids who had talent often went unspotted. Miroslav Klose, who this summer broke the World Cup scoring record, was still playing amateur football in the fifth division at age 21, because only very few scouts ever travelled to the remote corner of the country where he was making nets bulge.
Which is why Jörg Daniel, a former Bundesliga goalkeeper and the director of the Extended Talent Promotion Programme, explained the aim of the project on the day it was presented to the public by saying: "If the talent of the century happens to be born in a tiny village behind the mountains, from now on we will find him."
Clubs versus country
The Germans also realised that finding a talent isn't enough. You won't win much if you teach him an outdated game – for instance the sweeper system based on man-marking, which was still widely used in the Bundesliga as late as the turn of the century.
And so a lot of money also went into schooling coaches, at both the grassroots level and the top of the talent heap. At the pinnacle were the centres of excellence, run by the professional clubs.
And right here is the first – and for some countries unsurmountable – problem if you want to copy the Germans. Because for all the lip service they may pay, clubs are the same wherever you go: they couldn't care less about the national team. They don't even care very much about nurturing homegrown talent.
What they care about is winning the next league game – and if it takes 11 players signed from foreign clubs to do this, then so be it.
Of course clubs pride themselves on their youth academies. They know that it's good PR if you bring up a few local lads through the ranks. They also know that it can save them a lot of transfer money to school their own talents. However, another thing they know is that nobody can guarantee you that star players will come off this assembly line and that even in the best case you need to have the one thing nobody has these days: patience.
It's a lot easier – not to mention less risky – for clubs to spend money on proven players who have been schooled elsewhere, no matter which national team they are eligible for. In this respect, German clubs are no different to teams from the Premier League.
So why did they suddenly change their ways and decide to invest in youth? There are three main reasons.
Why German clubs invested in youth: history, money and force
The first has to do with history. These days, the German league model resembles the English one. The DFB is responsible for the national team, the domestic cup competition and the referees, while the professional clubs have their own association, the German Football League (DFL), which operates the top two divisions autonomously. However, this setup is of fairly recent origin.
Until the turn of the century, the DFB organised the whole of the German game and every club was but a member of this association. The split was an amicable one, dictated by necessity rather than animosity, and to this day the FA and the League work very closely together.
As a consequence, there is a general understanding in Germany that what is good for the DFB is probably also good for the clubs in the long run, and this includes the fortunes of the national team.
In August 2000, directly after the embarrassing European Championship, a DFB Task Force started to look into how the national team could be helped.
The group consisted of representatives from seven Bundesliga clubs and was chaired by Bayern Munich's Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, who called Euro 2000 "a major shock moment for us all".
Another member, Bayer Leverkusen's CEO Wolfgang Holzhäuser, said: "We all have to look at the national team as if it were the 19th – and best – team in the Bundesliga." As we shall see, not all clubs truly shared these sentiments, but it would turn out to be an important element of the German football revolution that the division between the FA and the League has never been very sharp.
The second reason why the clubs eventually came around to the cause of the national team has to do with money – paradoxically, a lack of it. In late 2001, German football was plunged into a major financial crisis when the Bundesliga's major television partner ran out of money (the rough equivalent of BSkyB going bust, without BT being there to pick up the slack).
Suddenly all teams except Bayern were more or less forced to go with young talents, because they could no longer compete with clubs from England, Spain or Italy in the transfer market.
A good example is Borussia Dortmund. For a few years, BVB has been synonymous with the German youth movement, but things used to be very different.
Even though Dortmund had a successful youth setup (the club won the German Under-19 title for five years running between 1994 and 1998), hardly any youngster broke into the first team.
The club policy was very simply to buy big in order to be competitive in Europe. In fact, Dortmund were so disinterested in talent development that they came close to being thrown out of the Bundesliga.
This leads us to the third, and by far most important, reason why the German clubs eventually changed their ways: they were forced to do so.
Under the German league rules, clubs are granted a license for professional football only if they meet certain regulations, most of them having to do with finances. This is the famous annual licensing process, often cited as a major reason for the German clubs' economic stability.
In 2001 and 2002, as the Extended Talent Promotion Programme was devised and launched, the DFB and the DFL added a new rule to these regulations: it said that every professional club in the country had to build or maintain a centre of excellence and had to nurture talent.
The rule even specified how many players eligible for a German national youth team had to be in the squads, how many coaches and physios the club had to employ, in which way the clubs had to interact with local schools and so on and on. Failure to do this would result in a club's licence being withdrawn. Put simply, the clubs were told what to do, on pain of demotion to the amateur game.
Changing the culture, on and off the pitch
It stands to reason that it's difficult to tell someone like Roman Abramovich how to run the company he bought from Ken Bates or to explain to the Abu Dhabi United Group why they should produce players for the English national team. But in Germany, where clubs are not privately owned and have a long history of being community-oriented and operating for the common good, the situation is very different.
Borussia Dortmund, of all teams, resisted change until the very last minute, when they were seriously in danger of losing their licence for professional football. Only then did they finally build the centre of excellence that would produce the man who scored the winning goal in the 2014 World Cup final.
Then there are two more, sometimes overlooked aspects of the German football revolution that make it hard to copy: a social and a cultural sea-change.
The social change was obvious for anyone to see as early as 2009. That was when Germany won the Under-21 European Championship against England. The most interesting thing about that German squad was its extremely cosmopolitan background: Russian (Andreas Beck), Polish (Sebastian Boenisch), Ghanaian (Jérôme Boateng), Nigerian (Dennis Aogo, Chinedu Ede), American (Fabian Johnson), Spanish (Gonzalo Castro), Tunisian (Sami Khedira, Änis Ben-Hatira), Iranian (Ashkan Dejagah) and Turkish (Mesut Özil).
It was final confirmation that Germany had become an immigrant country, like any other modern Western nation. It happened late, for obvious reasons: Germany lost all its colonies during the first half of the 20th century and wasn't exactly the most attractive country in the years following World War II. But it had to happen. The first first few generations of Turkish immigrants, for instance, would have never dreamed of playing for Germany, but this has changed.
Now it's a perfectly acceptable choice for Germans of Turkish extraction to play for the country in which they were born, rather than for the country in which their grandparents had been born. Luckily for German football, this happened while the domestic game was restructured. A net that was cast considerably wider than before now hit a pond that held a considerably larger number of fish, so to speak.
Finally, there was a change in the football culture. It was mainly brought about by a number of young, innovative coaches who had not necessarily been star players themselves.
Jürgen Klopp is probably the most famous these days, but there were and are many others, from Ralf Rangnick and Thomas Tuchel, to, of course, Joachim Löw.
Nothing illustrates this better than the German FA's decision to trust a novice coach with running the national team. Yes, that man was Jürgen Klinsmann in 2004. He has been partly written out of the story of the German revolution but he was its face during the most crucial period.
Imagine England, two years away from a World Cup on home soil, handing the management of the national team to someone who has never coached any side before at any level – David Beckham, say. The most important piece of the German footballing jigsaw puzzle was simple courage. It was courage under pressure, true, but it was courage nonetheless.