Munich - If there's one club that perhaps embodies the Bundesliga's faith-in-youth policy more than most, it has to be FC Schalke 04.
Countless stars of tomorrow have passed through the Royal Blues' renowned Knappenschmiede academy down the years, with the likes of 2014 FIFA World Cup winner , , , Timon Wellenreuther, Felix Platte and , who scored a stunning goal away to Real Madrid CF in the UEFA Champions League in March 2015, just the latest in a long line of prodigious talent to have taken the old mining communities of Gelsenkirchen, and the world, by storm.
"The development of talent has always been an integral part of the club," Schalke’s academy chief Bodo Menze told UEFA.com. "Youth teams are very important to us and be it in the 30s with Fritz Szepan and Ernst Kuzorra or the 50s with Berni Klodt, the 60s with Manfred Kreuz and Willi Koslowski or the 90s with Olaf Thon, there have always been gifted lads who have managed to come through."
Schalke's motherly traits came to the fore most recently in Brazil, where four Knappenschmiede graduates - FC Bayern München goalkeeper , Schalke defender , Arsenal FC midfielder Mesut Özil and Draxler - helped Germany end a 24-year wait for World Cup gold. Not quite so successful, but emblematic of die Knappen's talent mine all the same, fellow Schalke youth product Joel Matip also made the trip with Cameroon.
Royal Blue credo
"Our objective has always been to bring through one or two players from each age group into the Bundesliga," Menze explained. "We have teams from Under-9 to U-23 and we select every team according to performance. The most important factors are to be fast, be good decision makers with technical skills and tactical skills but also with strong character and an identity with the club. That has continued with Draxler, Höwedes [and] Matip."
With the Knappenschmiede ethos etched into their souls, the aforementioned trio are already Schalke stalwarts in their own right. Between them, Höwedes (26), Matip (22) and Draxler (20) made 76 top-flight appearances in 2013/14 as Jens Keller's side, enriched by the efforts of new kids on the block Meyer and Ayhan, hit their post-winter straps to secure automatic qualification to the group stages of the UEFA Champions League. It seems only natural that further progress should follow in the years ahead.
"We want to improve step by step," utility man Ayhan said in an interview with schalke04.de. "The first season half [in 2013/14] wasn't great, but the second was the best in the club's history. We played completely differently. We have to make sure we're consistent. If we can do that, then we'll be up there at the top of the table […] There's a lot of competition for places and I'll be giving it my all to make sure I play as many games as possible."
The Turkey U-21 international's development under Roberto Di Matteo has been hampered by injury, although the Schalke masses continue to be spoilt for choice in the fledgling talent department. Wellenreuther (19) has impressed in the absence of regular goalkeeper Ralf Fährmann, while Platte (18) made his Champions League debut against none other than Real Madrid in February 2015. Sane (19), meanwhile, went on to play a key part in the club's stirring display away to the ten-time European Champions the following month as the Royal Blues won 4-3 in the Spanish capital, only to fall agonisingly short of reaching the next round on aggregate.
Gelsenkirchen's collaries may have shut down long ago, but their memory lives on through the town's endless supply of football gold. Meyer, Sane and the gang attest to that.