A host of talent - including Timo Werner, Antonio Rüdiger and Sami Khedira - have come through the ranks at VfB Stuttgart to star internationally. - © DFL
A host of talent - including Timo Werner, Antonio Rüdiger and Sami Khedira - have come through the ranks at VfB Stuttgart to star internationally. - © DFL

VfB Stuttgart: The Baden-Württemberg club oiling Germany's football engine


In helping Chelsea win the 2020/21 UEFA Champions League final, Timo Werner and Antonio Rüdiger continued the long-standing tradition of VfB Stuttgart academy players triumphing at the top of the game, following on from the likes of Sami Khedira, Serge Gnabry and Joshua Kimmich, among many others.

What is true in a city known for its production of luxurious Porsche, Mercedes-Benz and Daimler cars is also true for its football club, which has an equally smooth-running system of production, regularly unearthing gems that shine with a ball at their feet and developing them into world-class footballers.

Founded in 1893, VfB celebrated its 125th anniversary, and no fewer than 100,000 members and fans gathered for a special celebration just before the start of the 2018/19 Bundesliga season. They certainly have plenty to cheer about: after all, Stuttgart has been churning out the stars of tomorrow for much of its storied history.

The club motto 'furchtlos und treu' - 'fearless and loyal' - may be 200 years old, taken from the royal House of Württemberg, but it still rings true today, tailor made for a club that has the courage to stick to its conviction that if you're good enough, you're old enough.

Watch: Stuttgart's conveyor belt of talent

That faith is not the fruit of economic necessity nor a recent enlightening, but a deep-rooted commitment that started with Gustav Schumm, president for just a year in 1918, but whose 12 months had a profound effect on the face of not only Stuttgart football, but of the sport in Germany.

Schumm split youth football into age categories along the lines of the A, B and C classes that still exist today, first in Stuttgart and then nationally while at the DFB. In 1980, the club took the pioneering step of building a dormitory for youth academy players, a move mimicked by a wave of other clubs since.

It was named after former Stuttgart president Fritz Walter. No, not the same Fritz Walter whose name adorns the prestigious medals handed out to the best U17, U18 and U19 players in Germany annually, but the coincidence is a happy one.

Stuttgart's philosophy is clear: education of young players is multi-faceted. The club lays bare "Our Identity" on the youth academy page of its website, justifiably puffing out their chests that they "produce national and international players", but adding just as proudly that "our players are well educated and brought up in a sporting and academic sense."

It is a three-pronged approach, developing players in "Training", "Learning" and "Life," and rooted in the fact that of the 150 players currently on their books, only a small group will make it into a Bundesliga first team squad, never mind that of VfB.

Watch: The pride of Stuttgart

"I think a lot of what makes me what I am today," replied Kevin Kuranyi, another Stuttgart academy graduate of note, when asked what he has retained of his youth academy days. "VfB was a perfect school for me, not just football-wise. It has always been important to know how to behave outside of football."

While forming well-rounded individuals is admirable, it is a side-effect of an ethos whose main focus remains giving fledglings flight as top-grade footballers. It's something they have also been very good at.

While Stuttgart boast the most title wins of any club in the A and B youth categories of German football, there are a great many current professionals, including Kimmich, Werner, Gnabry, Bernd Leno and Thilo Kehrer to have graduated from the Stuttgart school, while the now retired Khedira and Mario Gomez are also among the club's most distinguished alumni.

Meanwhile, the likes of Jürgen Klinsmann and Philipp Lahm and Rüdiger - who made the switch at 18 - may not have risen through the VfB youth academy, but unsurprisingly found Stuttgart to be the ideal springboard to the next step in their careers. Nicolas Gonzalez and Santiago Ascacibar both became full Argentina internationals at the club, while Benjamin Pavard won the 2018 World Cup with France when he was still on Stuttgart's books. The list simply goes on and on.

Watch: Jürgen Klinsmann: VfB Stuttgart's favourite son

The most stunning validation of the club's ideology, however, came with the Bundesliga title triumph of 2006/07. Under the tutelage of Armin Veh, the term 'Jungen Wilden' - 'wild youth,' previously only used in art or political circles - became forever associated with football in Stuttgart.

Veh's side featured the home-grown Timo Hildebrand, Andreas Beck, Serdar Tasci and Gomez prominently, with Christian Gentner on the fringes of the first team. It was fitting that Khedira scored the goal on the gripping final day of the campaign to secure the club's third and most recent Bundesliga crown.

Though it was a success 'made in Stuttgart', it has inevitably also since served as a yardstick, one that has sometimes been used to beat following generations who haven’t managed to scale the same heights.

It is one they seem to be getting right again, and the club's impressive return to the Bundesliga in 2020/21 - which culminated in an impressive ninth place under Pellegrino Matarazzo - will mean talents such as Werner and Kimmich will perhaps no longer seek to depart quite so quickly, potentially helping to build another title-challenging team.

Watch: Meet Pellegrino Matarazzo

Construction of a more literal sort took place recently with a view to making that a reality. While the new youth academy dormitory opened in 2007, the training facilities around it were revamped in 2018. Even in that regard, the money invested was done so in line with the club's "identity", of being "conscious of our tradition and [to] pass it on to our players."

"What can be more motivating for a youth player than having a permanent view of the stadium and the professional players?" said Stuttgart's COO at the time, Stefan Heim, as he explained why the training pitches in the shadow of the Mercedes-Benz Arena were updated rather than opting for an off-site youth academy.

Stuttgart hope it can provide the foundations for a third generation of 'Jungen Wilden' as they are no longer alone on the Autobahn of fast-tracking youngsters to success. They last won the A Category German championship in 2005, and there is little doubt other teams have caught up.

Bayern recently opened their state-of-the-art FC Bayern Campus, Borussia Dortmund have won three of the last four Bundesliga Youth titles, while the experiences of former Schalke man Kuranyi led him to state, "It's no longer something unusual to rely on young players who have come through your own ranks."