Lessons from Germany

Borussia Dortmund v SpVgg Greuther Fuerth - Bundesliga

The resurgence of German soccer began, like the country’s economic comeback, after a long slide toward stagnation amid dire prophecies of impending irrelevance.

The sick man of Europe, as Germany was known a decade ago, could as easily have been called the sick man of soccer. After a disastrous European Championships in 2000 when the traditional powerhouse won no games and scored one goal, the problem-solving, build-a-better-widget German drive kicked in.

While the government was loosening German labor laws to grease the creaking gears of the country’s economy, a society known for its apprenticeships and vocational training set about methodically developing young talent in the world’s most popular sport.

In a little more than a decade, Germany has invested nearly $1 billion in its youth programs, with academies run by professional teams and training centers overseen by the national soccer association, the Deutscher Fussball Bund, or D.F.B. The programs testify to the long-term strategic thinking and to the considerable resources that have driven Germany’s rise to renewed prominence in — and at the expense of — a struggling continent.

The German league has seized the advantage while many clubs in crisis-stricken, austerity-squeezed countries like Spain and Italy have been unable to deal with deep debts and older stadiums in poor condition. The Spanish team Valencia started the season with an unfinished stadium and no sponsor for the team’s jersey, a standard moneymaker in European sports.

The German teams “are preparing for an era of European dominance,” Hembert said. “The time of the German league is coming.”

Where England’s soccer analysts bemoan a British league brimming with foreign mercenaries but crowding out local players, German teams have improved with a rising share of domestic players. At the same time, they have overcome stereotypes of ugly but effective play and today are more likely to be compared by opponents to finely tuned Porsches than grinding Panzer tanks.

In preparation for the 2006 World Cup, Germany invested $1.84 billion in new and renovated stadiums, helping German clubs to set a record with 13.8 million spectators last season. The sport has entered an empowering cycle in which better play helped earn a richer television deal, which in turn is being used to plow more money into player development.

Today the German league, the Bundesliga, pulses with an abundance of young homegrown stars, like Borussia Dortmund’s Marco Reus, 23; Bayer Leverkusen’s André Schürrle, 22; and Munich’s Thomas Müller, 23. Reus’s Dortmund, the reigning German champion, even topped the so-called Group of Death, with the Dutch power Ajax, Real Madrid of Spain and England’s big-spending Manchester City, in the Champions League.

“What we are experiencing at the moment is incredible,” the Dortmund executive director Hans-Joachim Watzke told 1,300 members at the club’s annual meeting last month. He was talking not about the performance on the field but about the 40 percent increase in revenue to 215.2 million euros (about $284 million) and the club’s record profit of 34.3 million (about $45 million).

The crowning achievement for German soccer would be a World Cup or at least a European Championships title. The Germans lost in the semifinals to Italy last summer in Poland. Soccer history is littered with cautionary tales of unrealized potential: Portugal’s so-called Golden Generation never won a major championship.

Germany v Italy - UEFA EURO 2012 Semi Final

West Germany won the World Cup in 1990, less than a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall and only a few months before the formal unification of East Germany and West Germany. In keeping with the unbridled optimism of the time, the country’s coach, the former star Franz Beckenbauer, crowed after the victory that a unified Germany would be “unbeatable” for years to come.

Instead, the ’90s were a sobering period for the country as optimism gave way to the difficult reality of fusing a bankrupt state to a prosperous one. While clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United became global brands, German teams languished.

The Germans applied systematic quality-control checks. The country’s emphasis on social justice is reflected in the solidarity fund, which provides financing to help less affluent clubs with top-rated academies to meet the costs of coaching and facilities.

Schalke was at the forefront of the new soccer academies, working with the Berger Feld school, which sits in the shadow of the stadium, to turn physical education classes into world-class training.

Looking at the achievement of the soccer academies and the rise of the German game, Schalke’s Menze displayed a German form of positive pessimism.

“We can’t make the mistake of easing up,” he said. “In success, one makes the biggest errors.”

What do you make of Germany’s investment in the future? You can read the complete report from the NY Times here.

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