Talent promotion at peak

DFB talent promotion celebrates third European title

Sami Khedira with the U 21 EC trophyThey are few and far between, for every generation two or three come down the road. If we are very lucky, maybe a handful. Puskas. Maradona. Messi. Both of the Ronaldos. The talk is about those players whose deeds on the pitch give us goosebumps, whose movements with the ball defy what we consider possible. Those who did not acquire their skills but were born a football player. Not technique, but grace.

Obviously, Pelé belonged to that category. Born in Bauru, a small Brazilian village, he was 15 years old when he made the team of FC Santos. Soon, the entire country was thrilled about the wunderkind. Barely 17 years old, he gave his debut on the world’s stage at the 1958 World Cup, won by Brazil, as we all know.

Pelé never fit into any programme, no coach could squeeze his play into a narrow tactical scheme. Pelé was just Pelé – his talent not facilitated by any football federation’s carefully designed programme. He hit (football) earth like an asteroid coming out of nowhere.

But for every Pelé, there are thousands other very talented young players. International football simply depends on a systematic talent search and promotion. Young players need certain conditions to mature into a very thin elite competing in the top leagues and international teams.

Talent promotion as a core duty

Talent identification and promotion belongs to the shortlist of core duties for the German Football Association, is an essential part of the mission the German Football Association (DFB) has set itself. Neither its grassroots efforts, nor the many social activities would be possible (let alone financed) without the successes of the elite, most of all the German men’s and women’s senior teams. This elite also fulfills a social function as role models when it comes to transmitting values such as fair-play, effort and diligence, or team-work. Winning games in the sold-out arenas of the men’s and women’s "A" teams is a reward in itself, but it also allows the DFB to meet the social obligations it has readily assumed as well as to provide service to more than 6.7 million members at the amateur level.

How important is the search for and schooling of talent for the DFB? Signing Matthias Sammer as the association’s Sports Director gives a very clear indication of what the DFB leadership had in mind. Like no other, the former European champion, honoured as Europe’s best player in 1996, embodies the association's efforts for the footballing elite throughout Germany. Matthias Sammer joined the DFB in April 2006, successfully promoting and establishing his extensive concept for the support of talents. “Matthias Sammer gives our ideas a very strong identity”, says DFB President Dr Theo Zwanziger about Sammer, who has four German championships under his belt, three as a player, one as coach of Borussia Dortmund in the 2001/2002 season.

"The long road towards success"

Sammer’s concept entitled “The long road towards success” accounts for building up young players according to their age and talent level, with the first steps implemented in nursery school. Having fun and “jumping around” has priority for the approach adopted with 3-6 year-old children. “By no means will we try to get all these kids to play football, but every child should be physically active at this age.” Teaching the basic ball-handling skills, with a focus on competitive games, is the primary objective for the 7-11 year-olds. Teens aged 12-15 practise and improve their technical skills as a foundation for a more specialised training in the 16-19 age bracket. Building up stamina and physical strength is the main objective for the 20 and 21 year olds, preparing talented players for the tough challenges of professional football. The two subsequent phases focus on high-performance practice units and cycles. So much for the theoretical backbone of Matthias Sammer’s concept.

To put things into practise, the following support programmes have been launched:

20,000 plus: This qualification measure aims to educate 20,000 school teachers in conducting football training sessions in the gym and on the field. More than 20,000 schools throughout Germany received starter packages including balls and jersey sets. With a budget of € 25 millions, 1,000 so-called mini-pitches were built, mostly on school grounds – an unparalleled upgrade of public infrastructure

Talent promotion: Former DFB President Gerhard Mayer-Vorfelder initiated this wide-sweeping programme directed at talents between 11-17 years of age. The numbers are breathtaking: 387 training centres, more than 1,200 licenced coaches, and 29 full-time coordinators. More than 14,000 children and teenagers participate in the programme financed by the DFB to the tune of 10 million Euro

Elite football schools: The initiative started in 2006 and documents the DFB’s commitment. To receive the prestigious badge, schools need to fullfil 18 criteria

Club Academies: In order to obtain a licence in the professional leagues, every club is obliged to establish and operate its own Club Academy. Between 2007 and 2008 the German Football Association (DFB) and the German Football League (DFL) have upgraded youth programmes throughout German football. The academies are rated according to their overall quality, with three stars being the highest possible seal of quality. In addition, UEFA distributed to the clubs € 4 millions earmarked for that purpose. “The results are great. Most clubs do an outstanding job with their youth programmes”, says Holger Hieronymus, the DFL executive officer responsible for match operations, who mentions the careers of René Adler, Toni Kroos, Christian Pander, Roberto Hilbert and Serdar Tasci as proof of the great benefits derived from the scheme to date. The numbers are impressive, indeed, with the clubs spending € 61.6 millions on their youth programmes during the 2007/2008 season. “We feel delighted about this development”, says Helmut Sandrock, DFB director for youth football

Junior leagues: One other important step was the introduction of the A-junior league in 2003/04, followed by the B-junior league four years later. Both elite leagues now operate on a national level. “That makes sense to us, because our youth programmes have top priority in all our efforts. The DFB has been very much involved and committed to this effort”, said DFB President Dr Theo Zwanziger.

 Matthias Sammer with the U 17 EC trophyThis bundle of measures has been blended and tied together by Matthias Sammer into a highly efficient and greatly successful system - from the U 15 all the way up to the U 21. “Really, we make no difference, starting with the U 15 up to the national team we have established the same basic conditions. The best players need to enjoy premium conditions. Because this is about the elite of German football. All teams operate on a firmly defined and consistent playing philosophy, an identical tactical system has been established from the U 15 to the U 17 teams. Every team has its own fitness coach and a sports psychologist. A goalkeeper’s coach as well as a group of trainers are all part of the standard set-up. Medical and coaching staff record player data during performance tests, which then make it possible to boost the ability of every player on a much more individual basis. Video analysis and a high standard of exercising equipment complete the hardware side of things.

Sammer: "Coaches are the key"

“Coaches are the key”, says Matthias Sammer, who is adamant about the importance of the coach in the overall scheme. “We have drastically changed and extended our coaches’ education programme. Coaches now need to study ten months to get the highest degree, allowing them to coach in the Bundesliga.”

Following the victory against England in the final of this year's U21 European Championship, the German Football Association has raised the bar in 2009. DFB junior teams currently are defending champions at the U 17, U 19 and U 21 levels – a first in European juniors’ football. Coached by Horst Hrubesch, the German U 21 defeated the English team 4-0 in Malmö. The U 19 had ended a dry spell of 16 years for the German juniors by beating the Czech Republic 3-1 in the final of the European Championships in Italy. In May 2009, Germany’s U 17 won the European title in front of the home fans, beating the Netherlands 2-1, thanks to a magnificent free kick by Florian Trinks.