Munich - It is the clearest and most emphatic sign of the progress that German football is making and the position it now assumes at the summit of the European game: two clubs from the Bundesliga, FC Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, will contest the UEFA Champions League final at London's Wembley Stadium on Saturday 25 May.
The world has watched in awe this season as each club has sensationally earned the right to participate in the biggest game on the club footballing calendar. FC Bayern have dispatched the best that England, Italy and Spain had to offer in Arsenal FC, Juventus FC and FC Barcelona, but Dortmund's run has been just as impressive. The Yellow Blacks made qualification from a seemingly impossible group look easy before overcoming Shakhtar Donetsk, Malaga FC and nine-time Champions Real Madrid. Quite simply, every other team has wilted at just how fast, exciting and technically proficient German football has become.
One central tenet of the above-mentioned attributes is youth, and Germany excels in this department more than anyone. Dortmund’s team has an average age of just 23, while Bayern’s isn’t much older at 26. Between them, the two clubs combined provided eight of the players that started Germany’s last competitive game, a 4-0 victory over Kazakhstan in Nuremberg, a figure that would have been higher but for injuries to Bayern’s Toni Kroos and Dortmund’s Mats Hummels.
Fans all over the world, not least in England, are now looking over with peering, jealous eyes at the work that is being done in the Bundesliga. This season, not one English club reached the quarter-finals of the competition and for former German midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger, who now plays in the Premier League, German football is now leading the way. “I’m often asked why Germany is producing so many good young players,” he told bundesliga.com in an exclusive interview. “That’s something that at the moment isn’t happening in England, and it’s a good sign that the English envy us.”
At the turn of the millennium, however, the picture was far bleaker. With an ageing and mediocre squad, Germany’s national team, as defending champions, exited UEFA EURO 2000 with a paltry point and one goal to show from their three group games. The humiliation was compounded by a humbling 3-0 defeat to a second-string Portugal team, as well as a first competitive loss to England for 34 years. It was the watershed moment that revealed the yearning need for German football to reinvent itself.
A new directive was required to restore football in Germany to its former glory. The path decided upon by those in charge at the German Football Federation (DFB) and newly-created German Football League (DFL) was to invest in youth. In practice, this involved replicating the French model of a national academy at Clairefontaine and extending it to all 36 clubs in the Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2, a plan that was implemented a year later in 2001.
Almost a decade down the line, at the 2010 FIFA World Cup, those changes bore fruit in astounding fashion. Germany came third in the tournament, recording brilliant victories over England and Argentina, and leading national team coach Joachim Löw to describe the measures from a decade previous as having created a "goldmine" of potential talent. However, the Nationalmannschaft was not the only ones to benefit - the rewards are also being reaped in abundance at club level, with German sides leading the way in Europe and entirely justifying the Bundesliga’s increased UEFA coefficient.
Not only did all three of the Bundesliga’s representatives win their respective Champions League groups, all four German teams (Bayer 04 Leverkusen, Hannover 96, VfB Stuttgart and Borussia Mönchengladbach) reached the knockout rounds of the Europa League as well. Each one of the German representatives have played their respective parts in increasing the standing of German football in European perception this season.
While the achievement of those teams in the Europa League is impressive, though, it has been the sensational collective performances of the country’s top two clubs that have shaken the footballing world to its foundations this season and drawn observers’ attentions to the Bundesliga’s strengths. Bayern obliterated the mighty Barcelona 7-0 over their two-legged semi-final, while Dortmund hammed Real Madrid 4-1 in their last four first leg, with Robert Lewandowski netting an historic four-goal haul.
And it shouldn’t be forgotten that Schalke also played their part admirably, winning a group containing seasoned Champions League competitors Arsenal and Olympiakos Piraeus, before succumbing to a heart-breaking defeat against Galatasaray in the last 16. Bayern and Dortmund may have grabbed the most headlines, but it’s also the case that German football’s renaissance is a collective phenomenon.
To return to the two finalists, it’s important to remember just how strong the German contingent is among these refreshingly romantic teams. The Yellow-Blacks were predicted to struggle against Real Madrid, Manchester City and Ajax. On the contrary, however, Jürgen Klopp’s team steam-rollered their way to top spot with four wins and two draws from their six games, with sensational performances against Madrid and Manchester City thrown in.
Two of the brightest lights have been Mario Götze , who will unfortunately miss the final, and Marco Reus, both of whom came through the ranks at the Borussia Dortmund academy. The duo are now undisputed stars in European and international football and are could well play a starring role for Germany at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
At four-time European champions FC Bayern Munich, the chief personnel supplier to the national team, the situation is unsurprisingly no different. Captain Philipp Lahm, vice-captain Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Müller and Holger Badstuber are all graduates of the famed FC Bayern youth set-up, while Manuel Neuer and Toni Kroos have also been coached at a German club academy (Schalke and Hansa Rostock respectively).
Müller, Schweinsteiger and Lahm are all playing in their third final after defeats in 2010 and 2012, and the former has spoken of his desire to shake the ‘loser’ tag that has stuck after those two losses. The three players have appeared in 191 games between them in the Champions League and the motivation to win it this season could not be higher, especially for Müller who scored in last season’s final.
The manner in which the two teams have ascended to the summit of the European game has gained praise from across the continent. "Germany is creeping up," outgoing Manchester United FC coach Sir Alex Ferguson told Eurosport recently, while his successor David Moyes expressed similar views to France Football magazine: "If I could choose to work abroad, I probably would move to Germany.
"In [promoting talent from club academies] Germany hasn’t just caught up with the rest of Europe, they’ve actually overtaken them," says Ralf Rangnick, who steered Schalke to the Champions League semi-finals in 2011. If youth promotion is the key to success, which is certainly the case in German football, it’s no wonder that German clubs are continually breaking ground.