Reaping the rewards of a winning mentality
A decade ago, the German Under-21 team were beaten by Turkey, then also lost in Belfast due to an own goal and thus failed to reach the finals of the 2000 European Championships.
Two years later, Germany again didn't make the finals because they were defeated by Greece in Athens and then lost a crucial home match against England when substitute Francis Jeffers fired home a low shot three minutes into injury time. (This was on the day before the senior side lost 5-1 to England in Munich.)
Make no mistake, there were some decent players in those German Under-21 teams. The side that was beaten by Northern Ireland in 1999 featured Robert Enke in goal and Fabian Ernst in midfield, while Sebastian Deisler made his debut. The next generation, which lost the thriller to England, boasted Timo Hildebrand in goal and a defence anchored by Arne Friedrich and Christoph Metzelder.
Yet back then, some ten years ago, most everyone connected with German football had come to realise we were in grave trouble as regarded young talent. Germany sent an overage team to the 1998 World Cup and two years later, at Euro 2000, things were even worse: the average age of the side that opened the tournament against Romania was a shocking 30 years.
Germany's assistant coach during Euro 2000 was Horst Hrubesch, Kevin Keegan's former striking partner at Hamburg. As a player, Hrubesch wasn't much into finesse - his German nickname could best be translated as the Heading Hulk - and no one had ever accused him of being too forward-thinking during his undistinguished coaching career.
Thus Hrubesch appeared to be living on borrowed time as Germany crashed out of Euro 2000 in particularly inglorious fashion. Behind his back, some German FA (DFB) officials referred to him as Wild Man, meaning an unsophisticated woodland creature. When head coach Erich Ribbeck was forced to step down, it was taken for granted his sidekick Hrubesch would disappear as well.
But he didn't. After the Euro 2000 debacle, the DFB was at long last forced into action and installed a youth football subsidy programme.
Over the next nine years, some 100m Euros would be spent on nurturing talent, but the first step, back in 2000, was bringing in more and better-trained coaches. Hrubesch was one of them.
Nine years on and Germany has just become the first country in history to simultaneously hold the three major European titles in youth football, as the Under-19s won the European Championships last July, the Under-17s followed suit in May and on Monday the Under-21s beat England 4-0 to lift the continental title for the first time ever.
Two of those winning teams, the Under-19s and the Under-21s, were coached by Hrubesch.
This run of three triumphs in eleven months seems to be the more uncanny since Germany had won exactly zilch in youth football since 1992 (when the Under-16s beat Spain in the final for the European Championships).
But progress wasn't as sudden as it seems. In 2004, for instance, the German Under-21s who contested the European Championship finals on home soil included a whole bunch of players who exceeded expectations at the World Cup two years later: Thomas Hitzlsperger, Robert Huth, David Odonkor and, especially, Lukas Podolski and Bastian Schweinsteiger. I say "especially", because the two did so well that public pressure forced then-national coach Rudi Völler to finally give youth a chance and include them in his own Euro 2004 squad.
The focus on nurturing talent increased when Jürgen Klinsmann followed Völler and became the first national coach in many moons to actually take a gamble and blood youngsters by the truckload. (As late as in the October of 2005, Lothar Matthäus harshly criticised what he called Klinsmann's "youth mania" and predicted disaster at the World Cup due to too many inexperienced players.)
The final push probably came in April of 2006, when Matthias Sammer was made the DFB's director of football. He spent large parts of the next years demanding a stronger winning mentality of the junior sides. It seemed to run counter to the prevailing notion that youth football should be about development, not winning, but Sammer felt differently.
"We have explicitly stated that winning titles is our aim in youth football," he said, "because certain character traits are part of the learning curve as well. We cannot just concentrate on conditioning, technical skills and tactics - we have to intensify our focus on a player's personality. Players can build a winning mentality only through experience. Once you've had the experience of winning in youth football, you want to have it again."
Well, he certainly got what he asked for. Whether this approach has made all the difference or whether it was the subsidy programme or a combination thereof or perhaps something else entirely is difficult to say. That "something else" could for example be a seismic shift of a quite different nature, namely the make-up of our youth sides.
The Under-21 squad in 2002 included only four players who could have started for another country (the Turk Mahmut Yilmaz, the Polish-born Sebastian Schindzielorz, the Bosnian Anel Dzaka and Ferydoon Zandi, son of an Iranian father). In 2004, the number was already up to eight (Giuseppe Gemiti, Mimoun Azaouagh, Jermaine Jones, Selim Teber, Kolja Afriyie, Emmanuel Krontiris, Lukas Podolski, David Odonkor).
The current, newly-crowned German Under-21 champions of Europe are polyglot indeed: there were eight players in the final alone who chose the country they wanted to represent (despite their quite German names, Andreas Beck was born in Russia, Sebastian Boenisch was born in Poland and Fabian Johnson's father is American), two more were on the bench, one sat in the stands.
Of course you can't tell how many players from those successful Under-17s, Under-19s and Under-21s will really break through and one day significantly help the senior side or their club teams. (I mean, let's see how many names from the starting XI of the Under-16 team which became European Champions in 1992 ring a bell: Wieland, Hahn, Fensch, Wildmann, Bochtler, Lehmann, Hinz, Rattkowski, Ricken, Michalke and Bettenstaedt.)
But Sammer's remark about building a winning mentality is certainly plausible, and you may extend it beyond the field of play. More than 8.2m Germans watched the Under-21s defeat England in the final and the string of titles has created a buzz that comes hot on the heels of a season that was not only exciting domestically but also saw a Bundesliga side, after a long wait, in a European final again.
Put differently, football's feel good factor is currently excellent in Germany. Can't wait for the new season.