Received wisdom in football is that 'if you're good enough, you're old enough' and nowhere is that more true than in the Bundesliga, the world's most fertile breeding ground for A-grade youngsters. Don't believe us? Then just ask the likes of Jude Bellingham and Jamal Musiala...
Nowhere else in the global game are as many top-class young players blooded with such regularity. While other countries may produce the odd outstanding performer every few years, in Germany barely a season goes by without the next fresh-faced teen taking the senior stage by storm.
In 2022/23, Bellingham and Musiala were two of the Bundesliga's top performers, both finishing in the official Team of the Season despite being aged just 19 and 20 respectively. The Borussia Dortmund midfielder was even named Player of the Season, showing maturity well beyond his years to wear the captain's armband on several occasions and thus become the youngest skipper in BVB history.
Musiala had a direct hand in 22 league goals – second only to 24-year-old Randal Kolo Muani of Eintracht Frankfurt – and had the honour of scoring the title-winning goal for Bayern Munich on the final day.
Watch: Musiala magic as Bayern snatched the title from Dortmund
Bellingham and Musiala are just two of the baby-faced wonders currently lighting up German football, with a host of players aged 22 or younger making a name for themselves: Youssoufa Moukoko, Mathys Tel, Jamie Bynoe-Gittens, Florian Wirtz, Gio Reyna, Josko Gvardiol, Karim Adeyemi, Dominik Szoboszlai, Jeremie Frimpong… the list goes on and on.
And this is by no means a new phenomenon. The Bundesliga has been polishing up rough diamonds for years, from homegrown talents such as Julian Brandt, Timo Werner and Kai Havertz to imported starlets like Christian Pulisic, Jadon Sancho and Erling Haaland.
So how do the Germans do it? Simply put, by trusting their youngsters to perform. It is not a scattergun approach of throwing handfuls in at a time and hoping one of them survives, but by gradually improving them to the right level. Once there, they play.
"You're in and around the first team and you see all these top players training and I was just trying to learn and watch what they did," Musiala told bundesliga.com earlier this season. "Just being around them was an amazing experience for me, and I tried to pick up as many things as I could."
Watch: All of Musiala's Bundesliga goals and assists in 2022/23
"I've been in a professional environment since I was 15, always with the first team," Bellingham explained shortly after his 2020 move from Birmingham City. "So, it sets you up perfectly. I felt very comfortable coming into the Bundesliga. My reasons for joining Dortmund? As I've said many times, I think the game time, what they offer young players in terms of opportunity on the pitch."
Those opportunities are backed up by the numbers. In 2018/19, players aged 20 or below racked up 33,741 minutes in the Bundesliga, with 24 of them appearing regularly (in 10 games or more). That was considerably more than in Serie A (21,761 minutes/14 players), La Liga (20,688 minutes/14 players) or the Premier League (19,081 minutes/12 players). No wonder the likes of Sancho, Musiala and Bellingham decided to leave England to try their luck in Germany.
Only in Ligue 1 were U20s given more game time (46,014/31 players), but it is worth noting that there were 380 games that season in France's 20-team top flight, 74 more than in the Bundesliga.
So that's the how, but what about the why? In large part it comes down to German football's revamp after the country's disappointing campaign at UEFA Euro 2000, where they finished bottom of Group A with just one point from three games.
Ever since then, professional clubs across the country must run and maintain youth academies, which have to meet strict criteria every year in order for the club to be granted its license to compete the following season. In short, given the time, energy and financial investment in setting up such an infrastructure, it only makes sense to take advantage of it, rather than just investing heavily on the transfer market.
"I kind of feel like Germany's my second home now," Bellingham once told BBC Sport. "People bring up money and all that rubbish, but I wouldn't play for a club that I genuinely didn't fall in love with, you know? I felt a strong connection with the people at Dortmund. They told me, 'If you come here, we'll develop you, you'll get game time, and you'll be an international in two years'. From the first day, I knew I'd made the right decision."
Indeed, Bellingham has continued to climb the ranks, needing just four months – and not two years – to make his England debut. He has since evolved into an indispensable figure for club and country, who is now arguably the best midfielder in the world.
Watch: Bellingham named Player of the Season for 2022/23
A similar argument could be made for Haaland as the planet's best striker, and it's no surprise the 22-year-old spent two and a half formative years honing his craft in the Bundesliga. A sensational return of 29 goals in 27 outings for Salzburg demonstrated his immense potential, which was developed into world-class ability in the German top flight. By the time he left Dortmund, the Norwegian had notched an eye-watering 86 goals in 89 club appearances.
Musiala only turned 20 in February, but already boasts 125 senior appearances for Bayern – not to mention four Bundesliga titles. After providing 12 goals and 10 assists this term, he will no doubt be one of the young players to watch as the record champions look to extend their winning run – with Dortmund's teen titans Moukoko and Bynoe-Gittens also primed to step things up a level as they try to land that elusive Meisterschale.
And who will be the latest unknown youngster to emerge in 2023/24? Only time will tell, but one thing's for sure in the Bundesliga: the next world-beater is always just around the corner.
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