In a culture that models itself on punctuality and efficiency, German football has been packed with teams that are organised, strong and physically fit. Following a complete shake-up, coaching methods and precedencies were revamped and, subsequently, ample amounts of technically cute and tactically rational stars have entered the fray. From the youngest of ages, training sessions are done on the sprint and discipline takes a high order within society, making for a profound footballing lifestyle. If something needs doing today, the Germans did it yesterday.
Echoing beats created by clenched fists against windows were accompanied by chants of “Força Porto Allez” alongside those not too complimentary of their dearest rivals Benfica that sent the transport roaring into central Dortmund. One could be forgiven for mistaking this for an official supporter’s coach of FC Porto – it was actually a bus ran by a local company with German civilians wishing the time away until their destination was met.
The melodic Portuguese bunch turned up in numbers and took to their seats (priced at only €16) over an hour before kick-off, yet their voices were immediately drowned out by the boisterous Die Schwarzgelben faithful upon entering the Signal Iduna Park Stadium. The world-renowned ‘Yellow Wall’ bounced with hysteria for over two hours behind the Südtribüne goal as their beloved Borussia eased past their Iberian visitors comfortably.
Rewind 20 years and it was the English that were making all of the noise, claiming to be “bringing football home” during the Euro 96 tournament. However, a German team inspired by Matthias Sammer spoiled the party, running out as European champions for a record third time. Captain Jürgen Klinsmann collected the trophy from the hands of Queen Elizabeth in a somewhat sombre Wembley Stadium – local residents made up a large percentage of the crowd and were wishing success towards underdogs Czech Republic – partly due to the heartbreak suffered days earlier in a fatal semi-final involving a Gareth Southgate penalty miss and Paul Gascoigne’s big toenail being cut a millimetre too short, mainly due to the age-long rivalry with the Nationalelf.
The season following Euro 96 saw Borussia Dortmund lift the Champions League trophy as the world prepared for German domination for years to come. Notwithstanding, a footballing lesson was handed to Die Mannschaft via the hands of an over-awing Croatia side in the last-eight of the 1998 World Cup in France, and a catastrophic Euro 2000 followed suit; seeing the holders finish bottom of their group, partnering England in elimination at the first hurdle and notching just a single goal throughout the course of the tournament. Kevin Keegan’s England side went home with their tails between their legs, pointing fingers at individual mistakes and bad luck with refereeing decisions and injuries. The then three-time world champions returned with only themselves to blame.
Embarrassed, ashamed and hurt, yet demanding a backlash, drastic action was taken and the failure of 2000 resulted in a major overhaul. The atrocious showing in the competition hosted by neighbours Netherlands and Belgium is now a landmark in the football folklore of this proud European powerhouse with over 80 million inhabitants. The factory walls of the Deutscher Fußball–Bund were stripped as demanding people screamed for changes, slates were cleaned and the game as Germany knew it was reborn
As a consequence of the failings at the turn of the millennium, German football was tipped on its head; the DFB travelled the world in search of the best methods and approaches to develop. Not a single stone was left unturned in the quest for perfection and how to muster up a recipe to function within the flavour of the robust German mannerisms and culture. Education to coaches is now more than accessible with courses at the lowest prices across the continent (a UEFA B course costs only £340 to enrol, which is extremely economical when compared to prices in the UK which vary between £750 and £2,450 for the same qualification).
With more full-time coaches employed and youth facilities given a major refurbishment, a philosophy has been built with pleading aspirations to move away from the antique “German mentality” of playing in straight lines and relying on physical brawn and force to win games of football. According to UEFA, Germany has 28,400 (England 1,759) coaches with the B licence, 5,500 (895) with the A licence and 1,070 (115) with the Pro licence, the highest qualification.
With the German FA and clubs spending a combined total of over €96m on youth football annually, more than 52 centres of excellence have been erected within the past 12 years alongside 366 regional coaching bases where 1,300 professional, full-time coaches educate the future prospects of the Bundesliga.
Berti Vogts was the head coach of the national team for eight years and during his reign he was extremely vocal about the lack of talent coming through the ranks, claiming that Germans were “resting on their laurels” as thousands of youngsters had been passed upon throughout the 1990s, simply due to ignorance. Another that almost slipped through Deutscher Fußball–Bund fingers was the highest goalscorer in the history of both the German national team and also World Cup, Miroslav Klose. Remarkably, the Polish-born striker was playing his football as an amateur in the fifth division right up until the age of 21 as scouts almost never travelled to the small town of Kusel, Rhineland-Palatinate where Klose resided having arrived from Opole as an eight-year-old with his father in 1986.
In 2002 the scouting net was rejuvenated when the ‘Extended Talent Promotion Programme’ was launched. Director Jörg Daniel discussed the product: “If the talent of the century happens to be born in a tiny village behind the mountains, from now on we will find him”.
Fast forward 12 years and millions of Germans gleefully leapt for joy as Mario Götze crashed home an angled volley in the 113th minute of the 2014 World Cup final, however, none jumped quite as high as a man named Christian Guttler. The Berlin-born technician has invented numerous gadgets and devices in hope of offering individuals the one percent advantage over opponents that they desire.
The ‘Footbonaut’ was thrust into creation and pitched to clubs around the country and staff at Borussia Dortmund fell head over heels for the machine that fires balls into the expectant trainee in the middle of the cage whilst lighting up one of 64 panels in which the player must pass the ball into having taken a touch to control. BVB are said to have spent close to the €3m mark on the spaceship-like machinery that gives players the ultimate test of reaction, innovation and of course technique.
The way in which the Dortmund academy graduate collected the ball on his chest before firing past a despairing Sergio Romero in the Argentine goal to award Die Mannschaft their fourth World Cup victory was a great testament to the fine piece of machinery as he adjusted his frame before rocking with the drop of the ball and picking out the far corner, a technique that the Bavarian practiced daily in the “football cage” when in Westphalia.
Academy sessions run like clockwork with coaches of various age groups stood back to back, looking out onto the field of play that lay before them. Precise, crisp passes and explosion from the first touch are the topics as enthusiastic trainers bark orders to their young players, begging for innovative creativity as each youngster turns a corner with their snappy, swift movements. Freedom is encouraged and Cruyff turns and back-heels are thrown around in abundance as markers are lost; at the end of every phase of play or exercise is a target or goal for the player in possession to aim at.
Everything is done at a high tempo whilst physical fitness both on and off the ball is vital to perform at the highest level of the game in this fine land. Philosophies and methods run throughout the board at these clubs as coaches are given plans and feedbacks weekly, sessions stop collectively as even drink breaks are done simultaneously across the age groups.
During the stoppage for refreshments, an academy coach explains: “We must be on top of the players because if we go easy on them then they will relax and that’s when mistakes are made. If a player becomes physically tired then errors will occur as their mind will also fatigue. They are just kids, you know?” He continues, “These boys are schooled by the club, they do over 30 hours of classes a week. I think this is where Germany has a huge win against other countries; we know that most of these boys won’t end up playing professionally at all, we have to nourish and prepare them for the real world outside of football”
Over 69 percent of the Bundesliga players are German and almost 14 percent are playing for the club they grew up at, inspiring numbers that come as music to the ears for these budding prospects at the Eintracht Frankfurt Centre of Excellence. On the outskirts of the city lays the Commerzbank-Arena stadium, holding 51,500 spectators and tonight they host Hamburger SV, the Die Adler boasting eight academy alumni in their team.
Having made my way across town on a train that is free of charge to all spectators with a match ticket, I approached the stadium; a long, narrow walkway partnered by forest, bootleg scarf sellers and beer tents. I was surrounded by thousands of fans from both teams. Weisswurst sausages sandwiched by thickly crusted bread and cans of Krombacher were used as conducting batons while choruses of “Im Herzen von Europa” were responded to by “Wir sind die Hamburger” by the rambunctious visitors.
There really was a sense of fellowship amongst the fans that drank, laughed and serenaded their heroes; having paid a mere €15 for the pleasure. Chances went begging for both teams as a scoreless draw was played out. Nonetheless, the atmosphere remained electric throughout the entirety of the tie and the pyros and parties went on into the early hours of Saturday morning when my train towards Bavarian country was rolling out of Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof.
There is a great pride in being German for these people. The way they walk, dress and act is a tribute to their nationality that is swamped in deep history and culture. Each county and town has its own way and locals spoke of how they could tell when an eastern individual was in the west, but as the years have passed since the drop of the Berlin wall in 1989, the instinctive segregation has faded: “They were like a fish out of water at first. People and life moved too fast for them and they couldn’t figure out the way of living in the West. As years have gone by, they have adapted and moulded to it. Though many folk still choose to stay in the East and never succumb to the dog-eat-dog, business-headed life.”
Of all 18 Bundesliga teams, Hertha Berlin are the only Eastern club (and they have always been a Western-based club), though many expect there to be many more over the next decade years as the playing fields are becoming more economically matched.
Football obsessed from north to south and east to west, Germany is the second most populated country in Europe after a humongous 144 million in Russia and all corners of the land are covered by scouts from the DFB’s Talent Development Programme. There are players that are already signed by professional clubs attending the programme and others that solely play for their local junior teams. The sessions are given by the DFB every week and it is the perfect opportunity for clubs to spot young talents. “If we help the clubs, we help us, because the players of our national teams come from our own youth systems,” says Sporting Director of the national game, Robin Dutt.
This is an expressively healthy philosophy where the country always comes first and very similar to the monthly sessions given by the FA in Spain. This isn’t the only idea that was taken from the Southern Europeans who boast the most successful academy to first team and national level stats in the continent.
As the Spaniards were left humbled by their early exit from the 2014 World Cup, “tiki-taka is dead” was cried from rooftops around the globe, yet the only team that played anything close to the short, slick passing style at that was made famous by Pep Guardiola’s world-shaking Barcelona team were the eventual champions, Germany.
Saturday afternoon, lowly visitors Darmstadt are frustrating champions Bayern Munich as the scores are locked at 1-1 beneath the snowy Alps. Franck Ribéry is having a hard time following his return from injury and a sodden Guardiola calls over right-back Rafinha during a break in play. Following a brief chat, the Brazilian dashed to the opposite side of the pitch and Ribéry with a note in hand, calling left-back Juan Bernat and Arturo Vidal over to explain the sequence of plans that the Catalan coach had mustered up.
Just 48 seconds later, the ball was played wide to the French winger who stood up against Darmstadt’s György Garics who had done so well at keeping the pacey wide man quiet. From nowhere appeared Bernat, sprinting past Ribéry; as the number 7 feigned the through-pass to the overlapping Spaniard, he chopped onto his right foot before playing back to Vidal who had come short to receive the ball on the angle.
Space opened up for the Chilean midfielder who clipped in a glorious, deep cross in which marksman Thomas Müller controlled with his back to goal before unleashing an outrageous overhead kick into the top corner of Darmstadt’s goal to send Die Roten fans into delirium. It was the moment of genius from Pep that the team craved and thus sparked the Rhine-Main visitors to chase a late equaliser, resulting in gaps opening up which were punished duly by the brilliant Robert Lewandowski to kill the game, 3-1 to the champions.
German football has gained many new faces via the invention of Guardiola, who is a reference for all to learn from. During his first 12 months in control at Munich, he injected Philipp Lahm with a new lease of life by converting him into a deep-lying midfielder as he detected natural leadership mannerisms as well as spectacular creation and reading of the game to stop and start moves for his companions in a more effective role. The then 30-year old was used in the defensive midfield position by Joachim Löw during the World Cup triumph, proving to be critical as a central figure.
Before the arrival of Guardiola, Müller was a strong, physical athlete with a great eye for goal. Having spent three seasons with the Spanish coach, the local boy is seen as the pin-up icon for aspiring hopefuls around the planet, especially in his homeland; from bustling his way through the Ster des Südens academy and into the first team at the budding age of 19 to being the all-round player that we see before us now. Highly intellectual tactically and more than capable of playing in numerous positions between the lines, Müller has adapted to Pep’s train of thought (that he admitted to have had difficulty adjusting to initially) and has remarkable ease when on the ball – cutting passes that require exquisite technical ability and tailoring his runs to perfection to meet crosses from wide areas.
A new mentality circles in the air of German football. Jérôme Boateng and Mats Hummels are the leaders of the technically-astute defenders; seen caressing the ball to carry it forwards and link-up with play and this falls hand in hand with both their physical strength and intense nature of efficiency to make for a marvellous, football winning relationship where tactical intelligence meets fit and strong players that are technically ingenious; unrivalled for counter-attacking football. The bursts are executed at ferocious paces, puncturing the defences of unprepared opponents. Demeanours and make-up consist of mental aptitude and with the addition of the patience and consciousness of international football bred into the world champions, footballing matters come first in this culture that refuses to accept second best;
As money plays a more dictating role in today’s game, the Germans have rebelled against much of the danger of the corrupt, ugly side of the sport showing its head. The national and youth teams take such a high majority of funds, attention and recognition while endorsement deals, advertisement and the commercial side of the game are far behind in last place. During the 2015/16 season, Bayern Munich were the highest earning German club from domestic television rights, yet fell behind the likes of Bournemouth and West Ham on the European scale of TV income. Where many Premier League clubs can compete with the biggest of rivals when it comes to bidding for players, the Germans know this is impossible; hence the academies and youth development taking such a high priority.
With free travel to games and ticket prices costing less than a pint of beer in a London pub, there is a rule (the 50+1 rule) within German football where 50 percent of shares, plus one, of every club are owned by the supporters. No club can be bought out by foreign investors with ‘four-year plans’ to make a quick buck, playing with the lives and emotions of the besotted, loyal supporters that will be there forever, no matter the damage done to their pockets. Adoring fans are permitted to drink on the terraces and stand if they wish to do so; stands are full of punters that live for the game and it makes for a captivating atmosphere in each and every stadium across the country.
In 2016, at £193, Darmstadt had the highest priced season tickets in Germany – still considerably lower than the cheapest seat in the Premier League (Stoke City at £294) – while Bayern Munich fans were seen refusing to enter Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium during the opening five minutes of play, claiming to be disgusted by the extortionate prices for football tickets that takes advantage of loyal fans.
The Bavarian giants have some of the cheapest season tickets anywhere in the world, with an adult one in the standing section at the Allianz Arena costing just over £100. A club representative was quoted as saying: “We could charge much more than £100. Let’s say we charged £300. We’d get £2m more in income but what’s £2m to us? In a transfer discussion you argue about that sum for five minutes. But the difference between £104 and £300 is huge for the fan. We do not think the fans are like cows, who you milk. Football has got to be for everybody. That’s the biggest difference between us and England.”
Antecedents and arrangements are in great places in this country that practice what they preach. The sport remains in the purest of states and very much the people’s game, Germany is an example and education to world football.
By Alex Clapham @alexclapham