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Germany's focus on youth pays rich dividends

June 25, 2012


The German squad lines up prior to their match in the euro 2012. -Photo by AFP

GDANSK: Germany's exciting run to a Euro 2012 semi-final against Italy may not be unusual for a team that has won three World Cups, just as many European crowns, and has reached this stage for the fourth major tournament in a row.

There is one major difference, however, that makes this team stand apart from their predecessors.

The vast majority of the players in Joachim Loew's 23-man squad are products of a youth system launched on the back of disappointing tournament results in 1998 and 2000.

Five players in the current starting lineup alone were part of the 2009 Under-21 European championship-winning team; Manuel Neuer, Jerome Boateng, Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira and Mats Hummels.

That team's triumph completed a rare set of titles, as Germany were also European champions in the Under-19 and Under-17 age groups, won a year earlier.

Several more in this squad, including Thomas Mueller, Marcel Schmelzer, Holger Badstuber, Toni Kroos, Benedikt Hoewedes, Lars Bender and Mario Goetze, have all clinched a spot thanks to the work Germany have done in promoting youth.

The first results for the senior team were visible at the 2010 World Cup when despite a string of injuries to top players like Michael Ballack before the tournament, Germany cruised to a surprise third place in South Africa after stunning victories over England and Argentina in the knockout stages.

“We are now more mature, more consistent and we have shown we can beat the big teams,” said midfielder Ozil on Monday.

“We are young and we are hungry.”

Team manager, Oliver Bierhoff, said some days ago, that a player could no longer have a top career in Germany if they had not been through the youth ranks.

“I do not think that this is possible any more,” Bierhoff said, when asked whether a career like that of 34-year-old forward Miroslav Klose, who never played for youth teams, was still an option.

“What you are missing as far as quality training at youth level nowadays is too big to make up,” he added.

From July 2002, youth academies became a requirement for German clubs wishing to obtain a licence for either of the top two divisions.

Since then more than half a billion euros have been poured into a system that has armed every first and second division club with a string of homegrown talent, and in turn boosted spectator numbers to an average of over 42,000 fans per Bundesliga game this season - a world best.

The youth academies must follow strict guidelines, including having a specified number of floodlit pitches, teams with a set number of players, qualified coaches and scouts.

They must also have a clearly defined philosophy and are rated annually.

Since 2002 the academies have fed clubs with hundreds of players, and in 2011 the number of youth products had exceeded 20 percent of all club players.

The programme has also been an overwhelming success for the national teams, with every Germany Under-21 player last season emanating from the academies.

It comes as no surprise that Loew has recognised a development in his senior team since the 2010 World Cup.

His main players have, after all, been playing together for more than a decade, for either club, country or both.

“There is a certain maturing process that has happened so far,” said Loew, after his team, the youngest in the tournament with an average of just over 24, set a new German record by winning all three Euro group matches.

“The team has gone through a good development process.”

They will now face their toughest test to date, when they seek to score their first ever tournament victory over opponents Italy in Warsaw on Thursday, and set yet another record straight.