Munich - No fewer than seven German clubs are looking forward to continuing to test their mettle against some of Europe's best in early 2013 after the draws for the first knockout phase of the UEFA Champions League and Europa League produced their next obstacles on the road to European glory.
Having each qualified top of their respective Champions League group, Borussia Dortmund, FC Bayern Munich and Schalke 04 now face tough, but by no means insurmountable challenges as they bid for a place in the quarter-finals of Europe's elite competition. Bayer 04 Leverkusen, Borussia Mönchengladbach, VfB Stuttgart and Hannover 96, meanwhile, have drawn some tough cookies in the Europa League Round of 32. However, none of their opponents will be all too ecstatic about facing Bundesliga opposition these days.
This collective success serves as yet another reminder of how competitive the professional game in Germany has become, and why everybody is talking about the Bundesliga. To put the achievement into context, no other country saw all of their representatives reach the next phase on the European stage. "The stadiums are great and the games are good quality with a lot of goals," said Manchester United FC coach Sir Alex Ferguson, recognising the Bundesliga's rise. "Germany is creeping up," he told Eurosport.
His compatriot David Moyes, in charge of Premier League club Everton FC, is also a big fan of the Bundesliga, telling France Football magazine: "I have always hoped to coach abroad. If I could chose, I probably would move to Germany. Look at Dortmund. I watched them play against Manchester City. They were fantastic!" With a thriving domestic league, a national team touted as being on the verge of winning a first major title since 1996 and clubs "lighting up Europe" in the words of two-time Champions League winning coach Ottmar Hitzfeld, the future of German football is looking brighter than ever.
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 an second-string Portugal team, as well as a first competitive loss to England for 34 years. It was the watershed moment that revealed a 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 just a year later in 2001.
Almost a decade down the line, at the 2010 FIFA World Cup, those changes came to fruition, with national team coach Joachim Löw describing the measures as having created a "goldmine" of potential talent. However, 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, entirely justifying the Bundesliga’s increased UEFA coefficient.
While the achievement of those teams in the Europa League is impressive, it has been the sensational collective performances of the country’s Champions League ambassadors that have stolen the headlines in recent weeks. For the first time in history, every German side qualified for the Champions League knockout rounds as group winners.
Dortmund have perhaps been the most exciting of any side in the competition, drawing praise from across the continent. After finishing bottom of their group last season, the Yellow-Blacks were predicted to struggle against Real Madrid CF, Manchester City and AFC Ajax. On the contrary, however, Jürgen Klopp’s team steamrollered their way to top spot with four wins and two draws from their six games, and all managed with a squad whose average age is just 23.
If the whole team sparkled in a scintillating display in Manchester, two of the brightest displays came from Mario Götze 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 predicted to play a starring role for Germany at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
At four-time European champions FC Bayern Munich, traditionally 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).
Quite simply, German football is riding the crest of a wave. Müller expressed his satisfaction at the overall success of German teams in Europe, claiming on Wednesday that “it’s a positive sign [that] the German clubs are strong this season. Anything is possible”. That was a view echoed by Bayern and Germany skipper Lahm, perhaps the best example of the new breed of dynamic, home-grown German player, who focused on the "sensational performances that confirm the good work being done in the Bundesliga".
It's a similar story at Schalke. Under Huub Stevens, the Royal Blues have also delivered the type of adventurous, expressive football reminiscent of Ruhr rivals Dortmund, perhaps best typified in their 2-0 away win against Arsenal on Matchday 2. And just as in Dortmund, the base of their up-and-coming team is made up of young German players such as Julian Draxler, the youngest player ever to reach 50 Bundesliga appearances, and 24-year-old captain Benedikt Höwedes.
For the Europa League participants and indeed across the league, a similar leitmotif can be noted. Leverkusen’s team is built around locally-sourced talent like Gonzalo Castro, Lars Bender and Andre Schürrle; in Stuttgart, Sven Ulreich and Serdar Tasci; in Hannover, Lars Stindl and Konstantin Rausch; and in Mönchengladbach, Patrick Herrmann and Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
"In [promoting talent from club academies] Germany hasn’t just caught up with the rest of Europe, they’ve actually overtaken them," believes 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.
Bayern Munich's starting line-up in last season's Champions League final included eight players brought through the country's academy systems. While that showpiece match ultimately ended in heartbreak, the potential is there for the Bavarians and indeed Germany's other European participants, to go one better this time around.