Learning to Press
The tactical revolution that led to the transformation of the German game
The rise of German football began on television, shortly before Christmas 1998. Late in the evening, a young, curly-haired presenter welcomed a few million viewers to the latest edition of a popular German sports show. His name was Michael Steinbrecher. He had once been a fairly talented footballer and had been schooled for almost seven years in Borussia Dortmund’s youth system. Later he played in the third division until he came to the realisation that a career as a journalist was more promising than trying to break into the professional game.
On this cool but not chilly Saturday night, Steinbrecher stood in front of a tactics board when he introduced his main guest on the show, a 40-year-old man dressed in a dark suit and wearing the type of rimless glasses John Lennon made popular. After the polite applause from the studio audience had died down, Steinbrecher said, “For years, we’ve been talking about flat back fours and zonal marking. One has the feeling there is almost something like awe when this system is discussed. There are still very many people watching this show who say, ‘I don’t really understand what this is all about.’” Steinbrecher then gestured towards the tactics board and asked his guest, “Could you briefly explain it to us?”
The man with the Lennon glasses hesitated for a moment, glancing over to the side as if he was wondering where to start. Then he said that the flat back four was merely a means to an end for his own team, which was trying to play “extreme pressing”. He spoke with a Swabian accent, but it was not as thick as Jürgen Klinsmann’s, so you could easily follow him. Even when he warmed to his subject and rapidly moved the magnets on the tactics board around, animatedly speaking about new positions such as holding midfielder — “our vacuum cleaner”, he joked — and explaining how the entire team moved as a unit into the general direction of the ball.
It was a critical moment in German football history, but of course nobody knew it at the time. Only in retrospect does this December evening symbolise an atmosphere of change that was about to engulf the whole culture of the game and would eventually lead to a new German football. Back in late 1998, all that the man with the rimless glasses got for his effort was ridicule and criticism. On the very next day, Germany’s recently appointed national coach Erich Ribbeck was asked about the biggest disappointment during his first 100 days on the job. “I’m disappointed by this exaggerated debate about tactical systems,” the 61 year old replied with astonishing venom. “For instance when, as happened on Saturday, a colleague is selling platitudes on television in a manner as if the Bundesliga coaches were a bunch of dimwits.”
Many other members of the football establishment — and large parts of the press — were equally critical of the tactics-board demonstration. After all, “the colleague” had never been a well-known professional and had never played higher than the third division. And when he made his television appearance, he wasn’t even coaching a Bundesliga team, just a small, unfashionable club in the second division. Add to this the dark suit and the glasses and it comes as no surprise that the tabloids made fun of him by spreading the sarcastic nickname “The Professor”.
And there was another reason why nobody suspected that this late-night sports show had been a pivotal event: “The Professor” seemed to represent renewal where it wasn’t needed. After all, German football was in robust health and as successful as always. Granted, the national team had disappointed at the World Cup in France during the summer. But it was still the reigning champion of Europe, while German club sides — Borussia Dortmund and Schalke, respectively — had won the Champions League and the Uefa Cup the year before. And while the man who resembled a short-haired version of John Lennon was explaining the flat back four, Bayern Munich were on their way to reaching the 1999 Champions League final. Led by a sweeper called Lothar Matthäus who was closing in on his 38th birthday.
Most people thought everything was fine. There was no reason to listen to the man in the suit whom the national coach simply referred to as “a colleague”. Almost as if he didn’t know that his name was Ralf Rangnick.
“Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind,” says Frank Wormuth. He is in his early 50s, but looks much younger, perhaps because he often flashes you a boyish smile. In late 1998, when Rangnick was laughed at for explaining modern football on television, Wormuth was Joachim Löw’s assistant coach at Fenerbahce. Today, 15 years later, he coaches Germany’s Under-20 side and, more importantly, instructs coaches at the German Football Federation’s (DFB) sports academy in Cologne. It means that if you want to acquire the top-level coaching badge, the one you need to coach a professional team in Germany, you have to sit and listen to this man talk about football.
Which is an enjoyable experience, as Frank Wormuth is smart, eloquent and very likeable. Even when he says things such as that you have to be cruel to be kind. It’s one of the (many) answers he gives when asked to explain the dramatic rise of German football over recent years. “What happened was that — to a certain degree — the German clubs were forced to do things they didn’t really want to do,” he says. “In the late 90s, the DFB realised that there had to be major changes to how talent was found and schooled. They said, we’re going to invest a lot of money, but we can only achieve our goal if we work together with the clubs.”
This is, in a nutshell, the story that has been making the rounds outside of Germany during the last few years, ever since people have noticed that German football has undergone a major transformation: from overaged, lumbering and dour sides to teams that play fluent, technically accomplished attacking football. Or simply: from sides nobody fancied to an all-German Champions League final this year and a national team that is second favourite to win the World Cup next year.
But all the countries and football associations that are currently looking at Germany, trying to learn more about the model and perhaps copy it, should be warned. Because the story is not quite as simple as that. Even if you have the money, even if you are as rich as the Germans and can afford to pump roughly €70 million into the youth set-up every single year, as the DFB and the 36 professional clubs have done over the last 10 years, it doesn’t mean that a Mesut Özil and a Champions League-winning team will inevitably come out at the other end. In fact, a knowledgable man you will soon meet claims that the DFB’s role in the revolution of German football has been exaggerated. And even Wormuth, who works for the DFB, says that the massive “Extended Talent Promotion Programme” (which was launched in 2002 but had, as we shall see, a predecessor) was not the most important reason for the German football revolution. “The decisive factor,” Wormuth says, “was social change.”
Wow. That sounds as if a simple article in a football magazine about Germany’s rise to the top could turn into an academic master’s thesis. Wormuth chuckles. “Well, it’s indeed a subject you could talk about all day long, there are so many aspects to it,” he says. “But by and large, you can explain the boom pretty well if you have a close look at what happened to Borussia Dortmund over the last fifteen years or so.”
Only it’s not easy these days even to get to Borussia Dortmund. The club’s sprawling, state-of-the-art training area is situated some seven miles north-east of Borussia’s famous ground, in a somewhat remote part of the city. The nearest station is more than a mile away, so you’re better off taking the bus or travelling by car. And if you do that, you’ll meet the lions.
A pair of stone lions — one male, one female, both slightly larger than real lions — are perched in the middle of a roundabout a few hundred yards from the entrance to Dortmund’s training complex. They are a strange sight, because Borussia don’t have any lions in their crest and the club’s mascot is a harmless, innocent bumble bee. There is no sign that explains the presence of the lions, so you have to ask the middle-aged steward with the Borussia baseball cap who guards the entrance. “Oh, these are the British lions,” he says. “They are here to remind people that this whole area was once used by the British Forces. It was called Napier Barracks and the two lions stood by the Officers’ Mess.” If he’s in a talkative mood, the man will then tell you about the days before this training complex was built, the days when Dortmund’s first team was among the best in Europe and yet had to train on a small pitch close to the stadium that was frozen in the winter, water-logged in the spring, hard as stone in the summer and slippery in autumn. Then he will shake his head. “This has all changed beyond recognition,” he says. “It’s crazy, really. We were in the Champions League final, then we were broke, and now, in May, we were in the Champions League final again. It’s crazy.” The steward points towards the two stone lions. “Whenever I see them, I have to think of all that’s changed.”
The area he is guarding measures 185,000m². There are six regulation pitches and two smaller ones dotted around the complex. There is one low, simple but elegant building reserved entirely for the first team and another one for the club’s other sides, from the reserves to the various youth teams, because everybody trains here — from the Under-9s to the Champions League finalists. Behind this second structure is a smaller, cube-like building. It contains a futuristic training device known as the Footbonaut. It was built a year ago and cost roughly €1m. Imagine standing in a giant cage made up of 72 different panels. Now imagine being surrounded by eight ball machines. What happens next is that one of these machines shoots a ball at you that you have to control and then place against one of those many panels. The problem, of course, is that you don’t know which machine will shoot the ball and it’s only at the last moment that a coloured light tells you where to put the ball. The Footbonaut is supposed to hone ball skills and improve reaction time. It seems to be used mainly by the junior teams, because when I happen to run into Ilkay Gündogan, the German-born son of Turkish parents who orchestrates Borussia Dortmund’s play from deep midfield, and ask him about the Footbonaut, he says he’s never been inside.
To the Footbonaut’s left, there are diggers and cement-mixers. They are here because Borussia are currently constructing yet another building. It’s a boarding house for youth-team players who don’t live at home, usually because they come from far-away places. At the moment, 10 of them live in a small villa in central Dortmund and travel to the training complex every afternoon, when school is over. As soon as this building is completed, these young talents won’t have to be shuttled from one place to another anymore but can spend most of their time here.
It’s all very impressive. But the reason Frank Wormuth has sent us to this place is not that the whole complex is so professional and sleek and modern. It’s that Borussia Dortmund didn’t want it.
You may find it hard to believe that Borussia — the club which now effectively personifies high-speed football and the new German youth movement — once had very little interest in improving their training facilities and talent development. But back in the late nineties and the early part of the last decade, this was a different club. Back then, Borussia had an excellent, star-studded team and earned lots of money, but most of it was spent on astronomical players’ wages and huge transfer sums. That’s why Borussia weren’t exactly enthusiastic when the DFB and the German Football League (DFL) suddenly imposed obligations on the clubs that would not come cheap.
The first one was that all Bundesliga teams had to have a training complex with at least three grass pitches, two of which had to have floodlights. (It has a touch of the absurd, but at the time, Borussia Dortmund — the 1997 Champions League winners and soon-to-be Uefa Cup finalists — were training on a pitch that was smaller than the regulation size. In fact, it was so small that then-coach Matthias Sammer had to admit his team couldn’t properly practise corners.) Then, in 2002, the DFB and DFL went a step further and also demanded that every professional club in the country had to run a youth academy, or Centre of Excellence, to nurture talent. This new rule was very thorough. It 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, how the clubs had to interact with local schools and so on and on.
Yet more than three years later, in 2005, Borussia Dortmund were the only Bundesliga club which still had neither the training complex nor the youth academy. At first the club had been merely unwilling to spend money on these things and came up with numerous excuses for the delay — for instance unexploded aircraft bombs from the war that had been detected under the former Napier Barracks and now had to be defused and removed before building could begin. Later, the club was simply unable to spend money on these things. All the expensive transfers and wages had put Borussia deeply in debt. In March 2005, the club barely avoided bankruptcy. Then, six months later, Dortmund at long last began construction on the training complex. One reason was that the club’s new management was hoping it would one day pay dividends. The bigger reason, though, was that there was an ultimatum.
And right here is a German peculiarity that immensely boosted the boom but will be difficult to duplicate elsewhere. “The great advantage of the German system,” said Wormuth, “is that the DFB has a large network and wields a certain amount of power, for instance through the licensing process.” In Germany, every professional club has to apply for a licence ahead of a new season. This procedure has become famous outside of Germany during recent years, because it’s considered to be the reason why German clubs are financially healthy. While Dortmund’s near-bankruptcy in 2005 indicates that this aspect of the process is overrated, the custom does give the DFB and the DFL considerable power, because it’s not only about finances. Basically, the DFB can withhold or revoke a club’s licence — and thus bar it from playing professional football — if it doesn’t meet a list of requirements. Around the turn of the millennium, having a training complex and running a youth academy was made part of those licensing requirements and that is why the clubs had no choice and why even Dortmund were finally forced to play by the rules. “Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind,” as Wormuth says.
Then he adds, “In England, the FA has no influence over the clubs. And that is why they will always have problems with their youth development.” Another man who knows a thing or two about this complex subject couldn’t agree more. “They do everything wrong in England,” says Edwin Boekamp. “They have all that money — from their television deals, their big sponsors, their owners — and just buy players. Even in youth football! They do spend money on nurturing talent, but not on their own talent. They sign a lot of youngsters from European clubs instead of developing their own English talents. They will never make progress if they don’t break up the old structures, the way we have done.”
Edwin Boekamp is 54 years old. He was made Borussia Dortmund’s youth-football coordinator a few months ago, but he has already spent more than two decades at this club in various capacities, often in the youth set-up. He is still very proud of the fact that Borussia’s Under-19 team won a record five national championships in a row between 1994 and 1998, partly under his tutelage.
“Back when we won those titles with the juniors,” he says, “we trained at various city-owned grounds all across Dortmund, often on a cinder pitch. Sometimes the shower stalls were infested with mould. And in the winter, the city would close the pitches and we, the coaches, had to improvise. We’d do running exercises or even rent a pitch in an indoor arena!” He shakes his head and lets out a short laugh, as if he can’t believe it was just 15 years ago. “It was a totally different era,” Boekamp says. “Now everything has become really professional.”
As you sit there, listening to this jovial man dressed in a simple checked shirt and blue jeans, you can’t help but think back to the steward who guards the entrance to the training complex and his assertion that everything “has changed beyond recognition”. Didn’t he tell almost the same story — players having to train on a shoddy pitch under unprofessional conditions — about the first team? A strange picture of German football in the nineties begins to emerge here. Could it be that the country everyone always thought of as efficient, organised, thorough and methodical was actually more like a hopelessly amateurish footballing backwater until the DFB woke up and felt that drastic measures were needed to turn things around?
“I think too much is made of the DFB’s role in all this,” Boekamp slowly says. “Sure, it’s true that everything happened a bit faster because the DFB was pushing things and introduced this law. But I’m convinced most of it would have happened anyway, that the clubs would have sooner or later built centres of excellence and all the rest. For the very simple reason that they could no longer afford the transfer sums. It was just a question of time until the clubs had to become a lot more professional on every level, right down to the scouting.”
There is probably a lot of truth to Boekamp’s theory. In 2002, five years after the glory days of Dortmund’s Champions League success, two German clubs were in the finals of the Champions League and the Uefa Cup again (Bayer Leverkusen and Dortmund). But this time, both were defeated. Of course this may have been just a coincidence, but it was a highly symbolic one. After the turn of the millennium, German clubs found it increasingly hard to compete with teams from the other big footballing countries, especially England and Spain, in the transfer market. There are many reasons why the Bundesliga clubs couldn’t raise as much money as their counterparts from the Premier League or the Primera División. The almost proverbial German fan-friendliness played a role, because modest ticket prices and plenty of football on free, terrestrial television narrowed some of the classic revenue streams for the teams. Then there’s the now equally famous German club structure, which prohibits private ownership and all but discourages outside investors, which means there was never the sudden influx of foreign money that would soon turn the Premiership into the footballing equivalent of Las Vegas, a place where American billionaires, Russian entrepreneurs or Arab oil barons gamble away their spare money. Finally, truth be told, the Bundesliga lacked the glamour surrounding the leagues in Italy, Spain and England, which is why German clubs still make only €70m per year from selling foreign rights to lucrative overseas markets like Asia or the Americas, not even an eleventh of what English clubs earn from abroad.
So, yes, it’s likely that at one point the clubs themselves would have decided that a new approach was needed, that it ultimately made a lot more economic sense to produce your own talent than to buy it from others at ever increasing costs. Then again, most people resist change until the pressure becomes almost suffocating, so there’s no telling how long the Bundesliga teams would have waited until they changed their ways. After all, Boekamp’s own club refused to turn around and do things differently until it was on the brink of the abyss.
And so it was left to the DFB to decide that something had to change. The first “Talent Promotion Programme” was based on the models of youth development that were up and running in France and Holland. The DFB hired 400 additional youth-football coaches, then it gave each of its 21 regional associations DM2m (about €1m) to improve scouting and schooling at Under-13 level. Finally, the DFB spent an additional DM3.2m on 120 youth-football bases across the country where boys and girls between the ages of 13 and 17, specifically those not already playing for a professional club, could work with qualified, salaried coaches. In other words, it was not so much an elite programme but aimed at the grassroots level. Egidius Braun, then the president of the DFB, said, “We want to make sure that talents don’t have to drive hundreds of miles to receive proper schooling but will be nurtured around the corner.”
The most interesting things about this initial programme were not the numbers, though, but the timing and the creator. The programme was launched in August 1998, four months before Ralf Rangnick appeared on television to explain the flat back four and about six years before the general public realised that there was something seriously wrong in German football. In later publications, the DFB would sometimes state that this first programme was started “not least in response to the harsh public criticism following the national team’s early exit from the 1998 Fifa World Cup in France”. But it was not so much the national team’s disappointing performance or the public outcry that worried the DFB (after all, neither of that was without precedent), it was the demographics.
The average age of the squad Germany sent to the tournament in France was 30.3. Many of the 1990 World Cup winners were still there: Stefan Reuter, Jürgen Kohler, Thomas Häßler, Andreas Möller and the inevitable Lothar Matthäus. All you needed to know, really, was that another one of them, Rudi Völler, was dyeing his hair because it was greying. This alarming state of affairs was not the fault of the national manager — Berti Vogts had spent the first 11 years of his coaching career in youth football and he would have liked to call up some younger players to the national team. But they just weren’t there. Which is why this initial “Talent Promotion Programme” was drawn up and eagerly lobbied for by none other than Vogts himself. Shortly after it was started, however, Vogts resigned from the post of national coach and was replaced by Erich Ribbeck, who wouldn’t even last two years on the job. After an embarrassing showing at Euro 2000, Ribbeck was forced to step down.
In a way, the question why German football had sunk so low in the late nineties is as interesting as how it managed the turnaround a decade later. Lots of it has to do with the sort of complacency that is one of the trappings of a long history of success — “Everything seemed to be fine, the trophies came almost automatically,” said Wormuth — and also with the fact that, by definition, you tend to recognise social changes only once they have happened. For many decades, almost every athletically gifted German boy took up football, his country’s sole national game. But then, in the eighties, a wholly unexpected tennis craze gripped the country thanks to Boris Becker and Steffi Graf. Suddenly football had to vie for young people’s time and enthusiasm with other pastimes, a development that caught the DFB unaware and that would become much more dramatic in the 90s. “It took the DFB a while,” said Wormuth, “but it finally realised that it had to make an effort to get young boys and girls on board by offering them something that was modern, hip and fun.”
That was another problem. Those boys who did choose football in the eighties and nineties learned a game that was not modern and not hip. Almost without exception, kids played in teams built around two strong, muscular man-marking centre-backs and a sweeper at the back. And at the lowest, local level, where all boys started out, football practices were rarely fun. I know what I’m talking about. I coached youth teams in the late nineties and would regularly watch in amazement as my colleagues told nine-year-old boys to run endless laps or even sprint up and down the long flight of concrete stairs that led from the stands to our bumpy cinder pitch. If kids stuck with it despite such conditions, you were lucky. If they blossomed, it was a miracle.
When you ask Edwin Boekamp why hardly any of Borussia Dortmund’s Under-19s who won those five national championships in a row in the nineties managed to break into the first team, he doesn’t hesitate for a second before replying, “You have to say that they just didn’t have the quality to play Bundesliga football. Our scouting was better than the other clubs’ scouting, that’s why we won all those titles. But when you look back at it realistically, the players we produced weren’t good enough.” In contrast to the clubs, the DFB couldn’t react to this development by simply buying players from abroad, so it had to improve the schooling of German talents dramatically.
Two days after my conversation with Boekamp, Borussia Dortmund played their second home game of the new season, under Friday night floodlights against Werder Bremen. It’s a special game, because almost exactly 50 years earlier — on 24 August 1963 — this same match-up produced the first goal in the history of the Bundesliga. It tells you a lot about how stubbornly Germans can resist change that it took the country more than six decades of organised football finally to legalise professionalism and introduce a nationwide league.
And it’s a special game for another reason. In 2004 — which, as we shall see, could be called the Year Germany Woke Up — Werder Bremen were the best team in the country, winning the league and cup double. Dortmund, meanwhile, didn’t even qualify for Europe and rumours began to circulate that Borussia were almost €100m in the red, forcing the long-time president and CEO to step down under accusations of mismanagement on a monumental scale.
Now, only nine years later, Dortmund are not only back from the good-as-dead, but have won two league titles in the past three years, gave mighty Bayern Munich a good run for their money in an exciting, excellent Champions League final in London and have such a great attacking side that Werder — a proud and tradition-laden team themselves — put every man behind the ball and unashamedly parked the bus. It meant that Dortmund’s Nuri Şahin, the most creative man on the pitch and playing in front of the back four as a replacement for the injured Ilkay Gündogan, had to find gaps and passing lanes to set up one of the numerous offensive players. He did so admirably. Dortmund, who would finish the game with an improbable 32 shots on goal, hit the crossbar, forced a Bremen player into making a goal-line clearance, and then Werder’s goalkeeper saved in a one-on-one situation. At half-time, it was 0-0.
It’s odd how closely Dortmund’s story in the last two decades mirrors the changing fortunes of the national team and also the reputation of the league as a whole. While Bayern Munich are not really representative of German football, inhabiting their own solar system since at least the eighties, Borussia know all about ups and downs. They did very well in the early nineties, losing the Uefa Cup final a year after Germany had surprisingly lost the final of the European Championship to Denmark, then winning the Champions League a year after Germany won Euro 96, before falling into decline. There was one false dawn, an undeserved Bundesliga title in 2002 Borussia were almost gifted (in the same year the national team lucked into the World Cup final), and then the sudden realisation in 2004 that everything was headed for disaster.
As regards the national team, that was the year when Germany crashed out of yet another European Championship and yet another national coach stepped down, the third in six years. (His name was Rudi Völler. He was no longer dyeing his hair.) Abruptly, the country — fans and media — woke up to three undeniable facts. One, the national team was rubbish. Two, there were no young players coming through. Three, a World Cup on home soil was only two years away.
As regards Dortmund, that was the year the long-simmering money problems were finally leaked to the public. It triggered a chain of events that forced the club to rebuild and get rid of anyone who was old and overpaid. Over the ensuing years, Borussia would finally give young players a chance. And, crucially, a young coach. In 2008, shortly before a Germany team still in the process of being rebuilt reached the final of the European Championship in Austria and Switzerland, Dortmund signed a 41-year-old Swabian who’d never played top-flight football himself and had only ever coached one other team, Mainz. His name was Jürgen Klopp and he would soon become not only the face of Borussia Dortmund but one of the men who now represent the new German football — emotional, entertaining, modern.
With 53 minutes of the Bremen game gone, this Jürgen Klopp was pacing the sidelines and the huge crowd – more than 80,000 had come out again to support their team – was getting restless, because Bremen somehow refused to crumble under Dortmund’s constant pressure. Then Kevin Grosskreutz played a short pass into the path of Marco Reus. Both players were born in Dortmund, both played for Borussia’s youth teams, both left shortly before the training complex was built and the youth acadamey opened, both were brought back after Klopp took over the team.
In the split second before the ball reached him, Reus glanced over to see if the centre-forward Robert Lewandowski was where he should be, then he sent in a low first-time cross. Lewandowski easily put the ball away from five yards out to score what would turn out to be the only goal of the night. The noise was deafening as the crowd erupted. Klopp punched the air, then he clapped his hands, relieved rather than ecstatic. Lewandowski jogged over to Reus to thank the provider. Nuri Şahin was one of the first players to join them. At the end of the game, he would have been in possession of the ball 94 times — far more than anyone else on either team.
Şahin was born 25 miles south of Dortmund in 1988. He refers to himself as a member of the “third generation”. It means that his grandfathers came from Turkey to Germany as so-called guest workers at some point in the sixties. They thought they’d earn some money and then go back home. Once they had settled down, they either started a family in Germany or sent for a family that was still back in Turkey to come and join them. Their children formed the second generation. They typically didn’t learn German too well and also thought that, one day, everybody would go back and live in Turkey. But they, too, eventually stayed. Their children are the third generation of ... well, what? Turks? Not really. Germans? Not really, either. Maybe they are Turkish Germans, maybe they are German Turks. It doesn’t really matter.
Except in football. Because in football you have to make a choice. Şahin made the choice everybody from the first two generations made almost automatically — he decided to play for Turkey. But it’s no longer the typical choice, because many players who share Şahin’s background and are in the same age bracket have chosen to represent Germany. Arsenal’s Mesut Özil (born in 1988) is currently the most famous one, but there are also former Stuttgart defender Serdar Tasci (born in 1987), who once seemed to have a glowing future in the game and Şahin’s Dortmund teammate Ilkay Gündogan (born in 1990).
For many non-Germans, it came as a surprise that all these players — and many others with what is usually referred to as a “migration background”, from Gerald Asamoah and David Odonkor to Sami Khedira and Jérôme Boateng — were suddenly playing for Germany after the turn of the century. Perhaps this was the first, or just the most noticeable, sign that German football had undergone some form of change. However, a man who knows all about having to make a choice uses terms we have heard before from others. It was “just a question of time”, he says. It was down to “social change”, he says.
Yildiray Bastürk was born 15 miles east of Dortmund in 1978. In his heyday, he was one of the best creative midfielders in the Bundesliga and became the first Turkish footballer to play in a Champions League final. That was in 2002, when he was at Bayer Leverkusen. In the same year, Bastürk played at the World Cup. For Turkey, not for Germany. “If you think back 10 or 15 years,” he says, “it was almost unthinkable that players with a foreign background played for Germany. Now everything has changed, it’s become multi-cultural.”
Bastürk, who finished his career two years ago, would like to work in youth football and acquire the top-level coaching badge in Germany. (Which means he could soon be instructed by Frank Wormuth.) He has had an offer from the Turkish football federation, which — unusually, but tellingly — has had a branch office in Cologne since 1998. His job would have been to scout for players in Europe, mainly in Germany, who are eligible to play for Turkey. Bastürk doesn’t want to go into details (“It’s all up in the air since the national coach was fired,” he said), but if you read between the lines it becomes obvious that he thinks Turkey should follow the German model and improve talent development at home instead of putting pressure on young German-born Turks to choose a country they don’t really know.
“There are various reasons, why more and more German-Turkish players decide to represent Germany,” Bastürk said. “An important one is that they think they’ll get better schooling if they are German junior internationals. They are probably right. Of course the DFB also made more of an effort to enlist such players. But generally you have to say that it just had to happen sooner or later. Many members of the third generation feel more German than Turkish. All my nephews and nieces speak German much better than they speak Turkish. That more and more players with a migration background now choose to represent Germany is normal, really. It had to happen.” (Şahin says he wouldn’t be surprised if a member of the fourth generation becomes German chancellor one day.)
It’s all a far cry from 2002, when Brazil won the World Cup and Germany came second but the most pleasing football was probably played by third-placed Turkey, led by three men who could have played for Germany: Bastürk, Ilhan Mansiz (born in Bavaria) and Ümit Davala (born in Mannheim). It was the same year the DFB took the original “Talent Promotion Programme”, devised by Berti Vogts, and kicked it up a notch, launching the “Extended Talent Promotion Programme”.
After the disappointing 1998 World Cup, most Germans knew that the 2000 European Championship in the Netherlands and Belgium wouldn’t end in glorious triumph. However, few expected the disaster that unfolded. In the opening game, the average age of the German team was 29.9 and Lothar Matthäus, almost exactly 20 years after his first international, was still a starting player — and still the sweeper. Germany scored only one goal and finished last in their group.
The tournament made it painfully obvious that the “Talent Promotion Programme” started just two years earlier wouldn’t be enough. A lot more effort (and money) had to be invested — and while the DFB had the power to “be cruel to be kind”, it also needed more than just grudging consent from the clubs, it needed support. Just one month after the European Championship, in August 2000, a “DFB Task Force” was set up. It consisted of representatives from seven Bundesliga clubs (Borussia Dortmund were conspicuous by their absence) and was chaired by Bayern Munich’s Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, who called Euro 2000 “a major shock moment for us all”. Bayer Leverkusen’s CEO Wolfgang Holzhäuser was another member. On the day the illustrious work group first met, he said, “We all have to look at the national team as if it were the 19th — and best — team in the Bundesliga.” It was a highly symbolic turning point: at least some of the clubs, who traditionally don’t have the same interests as the DFB, realised that it would ultimately be beneficial to everyone if they agreed to help the national team. A few months later, the obligation to run a youth academy became part of the licensing procedure for Bundesliga clubs.
The DFB, meanwhile, spent the following two years planning another restructuring of the youth set-up that was far bigger in scope than the 1998 version. It was presented to the public in July 2002 and launched in September. The number of youth football bases was increased to 390, the number of salaried coaches rose to 1,170 and the DFB promised to spend €10m per year on this project for an unlimited period of time. (Add to this the money which the 36 professional clubs annually spend on youth football. In the last few years alone, it has risen from €55m to €77m. It means that German football as a whole has probably spent an average of more than €70 million on talent nurturing every year since 2002.)
When the former Fortuna Düsseldorf goalkeeper Jörg Daniel, the director of the project, presented the “Extended Talent Promotion Programme”, he explained that one stated aim was to make sure nobody would slip through the net anymore. “If the talent of a century happens to be born in a tiny village behind the mountains,” he said, “we will find him from now on.” His determination was probably strengthened by the story of Miroslav Klose, another player with a migration background who had won his first cap for Germany the previous year. Despite his obvious talent, Klose had never played youth football for a big club, let alone for a German junior national team. In fact, he played amateur football in the fifth division until he was 21, when a Kaiserslautern scout finally spotted him. If Klose had lost interest or self-belief along the way and taken up a regular job after finishing school, Germany would have missed out on the only player in history who has scored at least four goals at three World Cups.
But as massive as it was, the “Extended Talent Promotion Programme” still had to overcome a major problem. Even tons of money and thousands of new coaches and hundreds of new football bases were unlikely to produce players that were up to modern standards as long as the football culture that surrounded them was so unprogressive and deadlocked that a man who explained a flat-back four on television was being ridiculed. You can change the system — but how do you change the minds?
Make no mistake, many minds had to be changed. When Björn Andersson joined Bayern Munich’s youth set-up in the summer of 1995, one of his biggest tasks was to convince the Germans that, in his own words, “they are not dumber than other people.” He told the Munich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung, “Whenever we discuss football, people here tell me: ‘Germans cannot play 4-4-2, we cannot cope without a sweeper.’ But I don’t believe this. All players can play all systems.” He wasn’t joking — it was indeed the prevalent belief back then that German defenders weren’t smart enough for a non-sweeper formation. None other than Franz Beckenbauer had once said that a flat back four was too complicated for Germans. It explains why Andersson never managed to instil a non-sweeper system at Bayern, which was a good thing for another Swedish player, his namesake Patrik Andersson. The reason Bayern signed him from Mönchengladbach in 1999 was that they needed someone who would replace Matthäus in the sweeper position, because Bayern, the biggest club in the land, stuck with the outdated German system until two years into the new millennium.
However, the whole heated debate over whether German clubs should play with a sweeper or not was just a proxy conflict. It wasn’t really about systems, it was about the old guard versus the young generation, about overcoming the stubborn resistance to change that permeated the German game.
“I didn’t really learn the finer points of a flat back four until I assisted Joachim Löw at Fenerbahce in 1998,” said Wormuth. “But that doesn’t mean that there were no young, progressive, modern coaches in Germany in the nineties. Many coaches at the amateur level had really good ideas. And you could also sense the social change I was referring to earlier. In the old days, players just did as they were told. But during the late nineties, they would come up to you and ask why we were doing this or that, why we were playing this way and not another way. They wanted information. They were seeking knowledge.”
What was missing were role models. That is why Rangnick’s television appearance was so important. Yes, many laughed at him. But for many others it was like seeing the Beatles on television in 1963: you suddenly realised there was a whole new world out there. “Ralf Rangnick was very influential, especially during his time at Ulm,” Wormuth said. “And there were two others in the southern part of the country who were ahead of their time. One was Volker Finke at Freiburg. Then there was Wolfgang Frank, who coached Jürgen Klopp at Mainz. I think this explains why the modernisation of the German game began in the south.”
However, all three worked at small clubs — Mainz and Ulm were in the second division at the time — and away from the spotlight. The big, popular teams still preferred to sign older, well-known coaches, preferably ones who had been famous players. This is why the public didn’t realise that German football had already begun to change. “What was missing,” says Wormuth, “was a signal effect. An impulse.”
The man who provided this impulse, the spark, has largely been written out of the story of Germany’s renaissance, mainly because of an unfortunate stint at Bayern Munich. But it was Jürgen Klinsmann who turned everything on its head. In 2004, after Rudi Völler’s resignation, the DFB frantically searched for a new national coach, for someone who was willing to take on what looked like a suicide mission — playing a World Cup on home soil without a competitive team. After Ottmar Hitzfeld, Arsène Wenger, Morten Olsen, Felix Magath, Guus Hiddink, Thomas Schaaf, Otto Rehhagel and Jupp Heynckes had turned down the job, the situation was so desperate — not to say ridiculous — that the magazine Der Spiegel published a piece that said, “Have you always wanted to do something for your country? And save German football on the side? Then send us your application for the post of national coach. Time is tight.”
“Anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity,“ TS Eliot wrote, and it was only in the moment of greatest anxiety that the country accepted the fact there had to be a radically new approach to how the most important team in the country was run. The job went to a man who had never coached a team at any level before – the almost notoriously cosmopolitan and open-minded Klinsmann. The man he wanted as his assistant was Ralf Rangnick, but the Professor was unwilling to be someone’s deputy and so Joachim Löw was given the post. (Rangnick later joined the village team Hoffenheim and took them from the third division to the Bundesliga.) The rest, as they say, is history. In only his second game in charge, Klinsmann fielded a flat-back four with an average age of 22 — against Brazil, no less. (Germany drew 1-1.) Suddenly extremely young players were routinely called up and played a daring, offensive game. The 2006 World Cup became a marvellous success, both on and off the pitch, and convinced the whole country that change was not just necessary, not only possible, but ... well, fun.
“The way the national team played under Klinsmann and then under his successor Löw was important,” said Wormuth, “because it sent out a signal. More and more clubs gave younger coaches a chance and signed someone because of his ability, not his reputation.” In the two years under Klinsmann, until he surprisingly declined to sign a new contract after the 2006 World Cup, all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle — from role models who preached innovation to the effects of social change and the DFB’s ambitious programmes — finally came together and formed the basis from which German football would rise.
The role of the two Talent Promotion Programmes may indeed, as Dortmund’s youth coordinator Edwin Boekamp has said, have been exaggerated. It was only one piece of the puzzle. However, you can’t deny that the programmes were a spectacular success. The most striking example may have come in the second half of the 2010-11 season, when no fewer than four Bundesliga clubs (Mönchengladbach, Kaiserslautern, Freiburg and Hannover) were fighting relegation and yet decided to play largely untried youngsters in the most crucial of positions, namely in goal: Marc-André ter Stegen (19), Kevin Trapp (20), Oliver Baumann (20), Ron-Robert Zieler (22). In each case, the club was rewarded for taking this risk by reaching its goal.
“But it was no risk,” Boekamp protested. “These players had quality. It was easy to see that they had received excellent, modern football education. They had all been trained as footballers, not just as goalkeepers and so they were not only comfortable on the ball, they were also able to anticipate situations better, because they knew how outfield players thought and moved. It may have taken a bit of courage to play them, but it was no risk. You cannot argue with quality.”
Since the two Talent Promotion Programmes were based on the idea that you shouldn’t start at the top but instead improve the schooling of both players and coaches at the lowest, local level, they have produced not just a few outstanding talents but a veritable flood of promising players, in goal and outfield. (In what could turn out to be the great ironic twist of this whole story, though, you have to say that Germany is now producing countless gifted, elegant, almost Brazilian midfielders, but only few classic German defenders.)
This is not just a subjective impression, the statistics bear it out. In the past 10 years, the number of German footballers in the Bundesliga has risen from 46% to 54%. And over the same span, the average age of a Bundesliga player has gone down from 27.6 years to 25 years. It means German clubs have to buy fewer players from abroad because their homegrown talents coming through have as much, if not more, quality.
German football has made enormous strides since the dark ages of the turn of the millennium. The fact that two Bundesliga clubs were in the Champions League final for the first time is not even the most convincing evidence. (That may have been a fluke, considering Dortmund needed two stoppage-time goals, one of which was irregular, to avoid elimination in the quarter-finals.) But, again, the numbers don’t lie. Six years ago, Germany was only in fifth place in the Uefa club rankings, far behind France in fourth place and leading Portugal only by a very narrow margin. Since then, the Bundesliga has moved up to third place and is rapidly closing in on England.
As I talk to the steward with the Borussia baseball cap, more and more people walk past us. Today’s training session is open to the public. Once that was the norm, now it’s less common, which may be another sign of the club’s greater professionalism.
By the time the players sauntered onto the perfectly manicured pitch, the crowd was many hundreds strong and fathers carried small kids on their shoulders, because it was the only way they would catch a glimpse of their heroes. All that the players did was jog, but it elicited a round of applause from the crowd and the sound of cameras clicking away filled the air.
The spectacle makes you wonder if perhaps all this indeed had to happen sooner or later. Maybe the game simply had to reinvent itself and rise again in a country that is as large and as football-mad as Germany. If you allow me one stereotype, once the Germans realised they had to change, it was probably inevitable they would change with their proverbial thoroughness and discipline.
On my way back to the car, I slowly circled the roundabout to take a closer look at the stone lions. Then I notice that the steward was still standing at the gate, watching me. I’m not quite sure, but from this distance it almost looked as if he’d raised both hands to give me the thumbs up.