The legacy of France 1998; How German football got it right

The German national team has gained admiration for the quality of its young players this year, but at the turn of the millennium, things weren't quite so rosy.  How did Germany get it right, and what can England learn from them? IBWM’s Jeff Livingstone reports.

After Germany beat England in their 4-1 win at South Africa 2010, the English media asked ‘why don’t we play like that?’  And with good reason; Germany simply outclassed England, with every player in white demonstrating his ability to retain possession and pass the ball.  What was all the more remarkable about this, and what really got up the noses of the tabloids, was that this was a young Germany side, with no apparent big name stars, against England’s golden generation; a side consisting of Rooney, Gerrard and Lampard.

This result was no fluke and the writing had been on the wall for a long time.  While England continued to rely heavily on a group of players that had shone so brightly in the 5-1 demolition of Germany at Munich in 2001, German football had gone through something of a revolution.

Was it that 5-1 defeat nine years ago that had been the catalyst?  While that result would have stung the German nation, the original seeds of change were sown in 1998.  After coaching his country to become World Cup winners at Italia 90, German legend Franz Beckenbauer stated that Germany would be ‘unbeatable for years to come’.  With a strong national side set to be bolstered by a generation of skilled East German players, Beckenbauers statement did not look unreasonable.

By the summer of 1996, a unified Germany had collected its first major title, beating the Czech Republic to become European Champions for a third time.  At the same time, German’s top flight, the Bundesliga, awash with television money, was drafting in foreign players by the score to supplement the squads of its biggest clubs.

Fast forward to the World Cup at France in 1998 and a German defeat to Croatia and an exit from the tournament.  Time for a change; a new generation of stars ready to pull on the white shirts…….only problem was there weren’t any.

The influx of TV cash in the 1990’s saw the number of foreign players in the Bundesliga rise from an average of 1-2 per side at the start of the decade, to 6 or 7 per team by the end of it.  The national team was suffering and the defeat to Croatia led the German FA to take action.

A delegation led by Beckenbauer proposed a radical overhaul of youth football across the country.  Having looked to France as role models, with the French already enjoying the fruits of its 12 élite academies, Beckenbauer and his team proposed the introduction of more than a hundred regional talent centres but more crucially, they wanted the Bundesliga’s top clubs on board.

The Deutsche FA requested that all clubs participating in Bundesliga’s 1 and 2 set up their own youth academies, stating that each yearly intake must consist of 12 players that were either born in Germany, or could be accepted to play for Germany.

While many of the clubs baulked at the idea, preferring to furnish the bank accounts of top overseas players, the German FA added the all important, and ultimately crucial, catch; failure to comply will see your acceptance into the Bundesliga revoked.  In a nutshell, put up or shut up.

While Bundesliga clubs grudgingly accepted the German association’s requirements, it became clear in 2002 that they had been granted a huge favour.

At the start of the noughties, German football was rocked by the collapse of corporate media giant, the Kirch group.  Bankrolling sport on TV, including the Bundesliga; Kirch media had mirrored the work done by Sky with the English Premier League, to a similar level of success.  However Kirch had overstretched itself considerably and its three main media companies became insolvent in a period from April to June 2002.  With the Bundesliga feeling the full financial effect of Kirch’s collapse, there was no money left for transfers and wages would have to be slashed to stop clubs following the same fate.

From 2002 onwards, German clubs were left with little choice but to field their own home grown players.  While many critics warned against throwing kids in too early, dozens of youngsters thrived.  Mistakes were made and goals were conceded, but with clubs having no-one else to turn to, many youngsters, like Kevin Kuranyi at VfB Stuttgart, learnt from their mistakes and blossomed.

The German national side was clearly in transition for much of the decade, but still managed to reach a World Cup final in 2002.  In 2006, Germany hosted the World Cup, and with the national squad still taking shape, former World Cup winner Jurgen Klinsmann was asked to help.  With Stuttgart’s Joachim Low drafted in to support the inexperienced Klinsmann, the Germans excelled on home soil and finished third in the tournament, well ahead of national expectation.

During the World Cup in 2006, the first glimpses of Germany’s future appeared. Luka Podolski, Per Mertesacker, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Phillip Lahm all excelled; Podolski named young player of the tournament.

Klinsmann was ultimately succeeded by Low whose side were beaten finalists in the 2008 European Championships, losing to Fernando Torres single strike for Spain in the final.

The last two years have been the period that German football has really hit top gear.  With the fallout of the Kirch collapse still very evident among many of the top clubs, and a world-wide recession still biting in Germany, there has been little choice for clubs but to continue to blood young talent.

With first team experience for their clubs in the ranks, the German under 17’s became European champions in 2008; the under 19’s and under 21’s repeating the feat in 2009.  By the time 2010 has rolled around, several players have stepped up to the full national side and you’ll have already seen the evidence of what investment has done for German football. Podolski, Mertesacker, Lahm and Schweinsteiger are still only in their mid 20’s, and this year we have already seen Werder Bremen’s Mesut Ozil, Bayern Munich’s Thomas Muller, Stuttgart’s Sami Khedira and Manchester City new boy Jerome Boateng excel.  But there are other potential stars in the current squad waiting to make their mark.  Bayer Leverkusen’s Toni Kroos, Hamburg’s Dennis Aogo, Stuttgart’s Serdar Tasci, Bayern Munich’s Holger Badstuber and Werder Bremen’s Marko Marin are all waiting for their chance.

The production line doesn’t stop there either with several other young players very close to making a step up to the full national side. In Germany, great things are expected of defender Mats Hummels from Dortmund and Borussia’s flying winger Marco Reus - Joachim Low deciding to hold both back until after South Africa - and there is a raft of further talent set to make its mark over the coming years.

In contrast to their German counterparts, the English FA really have no more time to think this one over; action needs to be taken to build those centres of excellence and reel those clubs in immediately.

England have recently won the under 17 European Championships and with most of the Premier League heavily in debt, English clubs may also have no choice but to play academy players…..but they need to be English.

Despite a semi-final defeat this time, Germany are set for along spell at the top of international football; if England does host the 2018 World Cup let’s hope that the FA have more to admire than the arch at Wembley stadium.



Do you agree?  Should England look to the German example, or is everything ok?  Please feel free to leave your thoughts and comments.

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