Academies at the heart of German football renaissance

Successful rethink

Two Bundesliga clubs contesting the UEFA Champions League final for the first time; the Catalan coach widely viewed as the very best in the business opting for the Bavarian capital as the setting for his next challenge; a national team in with a genuine shout of becoming the first European side ever to win a FIFA World Cup in South America; and a steady stream of emerging talents eyed covetously by the game's biggest and wealthiest, admired as much for their technique and match intelligence as for more traditional attributes such as power, athleticism and durability. In short, German football is flourishing and, above all, being truly appreciated beyond the country's borders as seldom before.

The Bundesliga, Europe's best-supported league, has long since left Italy's Serie A in its wake in the UEFA five-year rankings and is rapidly gaining ground on the second-placed Premier League. In terms of all-round quality, factoring in overall competitiveness, infrastructure, atmosphere and good old-fashioned value for money, many an expert already rates it higher than both the English top flight and the current 'official' frontrunner, Spain's Primera Division.

It is quite a different state of affairs from even a few short years ago - so how, exactly, did it all come to pass? While casual followers of the game elsewhere may have been somewhat perplexed by the Bundesliga's return to the limelight following an extended period of Anglo-Spanish and, formerly, Italian pre-eminence, those who have been keeping a closer eye on developments in Germany over the past few years will be altogether less surprised.

Since 2001/02, every club in the top two professional divisions has been required to have its own football academy. The catalyst for the wide-ranging rethink on developing fresh talent was Germany's miserable showing at the finals of UEFA EURO 2000, where they crashed out ignominiously at the group stage. Quite aside from the bald return of a single point from their three games, it was glaringly evident that on the technical and tactical fronts the three-time World Cup-winners were treading water at best as other, smaller nations clearly progressed. The mandatory academy system was implemented the following year and just over a decade down the line, the rewards of that forward thinking are there for all to see.

Conveyor belt for fresh talent

Mario Götze, trained up by Borussia Dortmund and now part of the FC Bayern München all-star ensemble, is perhaps the first name that comes to mind, but there are many others scarcely less impressive - FC Schalke 04's Julian Draxler being a prime case in point. BVB in turn have themselves benefitted tremendously from the labours of youth academies elsewhere. Current playmaker Ilkay Gündogan, for one, spent four years coming through the system at VfL Bochum, while Sven Bender, like his twin brother Lars of Bayer Leverkusen, received the grounding that would take him all the way to the senior national team at TSV 1860 Munich. Defensive lynchpin Mats Hummels, meanwhile, made the reverse journey to Götze years ago after emerging from the FC Bayern youth programme.

The record champions, unsurprisingly, were assiduously combing their own local talent pool long before it became compulsory. Germany centurions Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger are now two of its most senior products, with Thomas Müller a rather more recent graduate and others, such as 19-year-old fellow forward Patrick Weihrauch, ready and waiting to follow in his footsteps. But where Bayern were once the exception rather than the rule, now there is an increasingly homogeneous and synergistic approach to the development of youth talent nationwide.

New model Bundesliga

Ralf Rangnick, one of the pioneers of modern academy work while overseeing the spectacular rise of 1899 Hoffenheim and currently the sporting director of both Red Bull Salzburg and third-flight RB Leipzig, believes the game in Germany "has changed incredibly over the past five years", pointing out that "it's normal now for a player to run 12 kilometres or more in a game, a good portion of it at top speed. In terms of athleticism, it's almost become a different sport".

The academies have produced a new generation of coaches as well, with the likes of Thomas Tuchel, Christian Streich and Markus Gisdol all having emerged from the various youth levels prior to making their mark on the Bundesliga. The long-term coherency of their training programmes is producing technically adept, tactically astute young players who couple a hunger to succeed with a precocious understanding of the central function of the collective. The aggressive, high-pressing, quick-switching style which is now the norm in the Bundesliga is predicated on a total and unconditional team effort. Germany's youth academies are doing the groundwork at the optimal stage of the players' development and it is paying off - for fans of the Bundesliga and the country's football on the wider stage in like measure.