How Germany used youth and coach development to get back to the top
In the aftermath of the U.S.' World Cup exit, theories have been offered as to how to fix things. Almost 20 years ago, Germany faced a similar issue. Raphael Honigstein, author of "Das Reboot. How German football reinvented itself and conquered the world," explains what they did next.
Given the country has Europe's biggest economy, a population of 80 million and seven million registered players, Germany winning the World Cup in 2014 -- their fourth in 60 years -- wasn't really the stuff of football miracles.
Indeed, looking back at the Nationalmannschaft's travails at the turn of the century -- stodgy football, chaotic governance and embarrassing results -- from today's vantage, it's much harder to understand this question: How did things get so bad in the first place?
The answer has universal relevance, even if Germany's specific measures to reform the game were too expensive and specific to be readily transferable. The country, in a nutshell, had taken its eye off the ball and off the fundamentals of the international game, specifically the ability to produce as many highly-skilled professionals as possible and coach them in expert, best-practice fashion to achieve their collective potential.
Germany had become lazy, reliant on past success and the sheer weight of numbers -- see above -- in the belief their position at the top of the tree was an unshakeable fact of life. But football changed as a result of the game's globalisation and rapid of transfer of knowledge in the mid-1990s. Technically, tactically and physically, smaller nations had made up the gap and even overtaken them.
The final wake-up call came at Euro 2000 and Euro 2004, when the nation's best players could not beat the likes of Latvia and lost against reserves from Portugal and Czech Republic. German football was forced to look itself in the mirror, ignore the pop-psychology complaints -- "no leaders," "no winning mentality," "not enough hunger," "too much money" -- and admit to systemic failings. There was no master plan to rectify the situation, but the steps taken were methodical and based on the concept of continuous improvement.
At the top, Jurgen Klinsmann, Joachim Low and Oliver Bierhoff modernised all aspects of the German national team to kick-start a more proactive, aggressive brand of football fit for the demands of the new era. Meanwhile, the-then dearth of genuine world-class talent was compensated for by more in-depth match preparation, a higher work rate and greater focus on collective aspects, such as concerted pressing.
More important, though, were the changes at macro-level. As early as 1998, forward-thinking men at the German Football Association had begun to overhaul youth development, having come to realise that a lack of specialised, competent coaching was proving detrimental to the nation's talents.
As a stop-gap measure, the FA set up a 121 regional centres in remote areas where otherwise overlooked youngsters could at least enjoy one weekly session under a highly-qualified coach and, perhaps, be spotted by a big club. Two years later, every Bundesliga club agreed to build youth academies.
At present there are 366 regional centres and 54 certified club academies, where kids are educated in close cooperation with local schools, which run at a cost of approximately €130 million per year.
Meanwhile, national team manager Low and general team manager Bierhoff, the main beneficiaries of the endless supply of highly trained players, can count on technological support and huge outlays for logistics in the pursuit of incremental gains, just like the best club sides do.
Few federations have the means to replicate this expensive model. But Germany's rejuvenation can nevertheless serve as a useful pointer to never lose sight of what's really important: Don't get side-tracked by nebulous debates about character deficiencies. Be honest about your players' skill levels and the tactical shortcomings of their game. Work hard to affect positive change at both levels, the grass roots and the elite.
And, crucially, ensure the highest-possible number of talents enjoy the best-possible football education. Not just the players -- the coaches, too. Everything else follows from that.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and author of "Bring the Noise: The Jurgen Klopp Story." Follow: @honigstein