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1 Corona as the accelerator of all complications

We don’t want people to say goodbye to football.

Oliver Bierhoff

With these words, Oliver Bierhoff commented at the end of last year on the problems facing German youth football against the backdrop of the Corona pandemic. But the danger of losing entire generations on a large scale currently seems greater than ever.

Closed club facilities, a lack of training opportunities and interrupted play in the amateur and youth sectors seem to be presenting German football with an existential crisis. The e-sports sector in particular is gaining existential traction in pandemic times, which the German Football Association (hence DFB) sees as a further threat to future youth football in Germany. Underpinning the concern is the fact that the DFB has already lost a full 9% of its members between 2009 and 2019. The trend? Rising! But even professional football, so supposedly untouchable, has struggled widely with the consequences of the Corona pandemic so far.

Accordingly, no less than the careers of entire generations are at stake! While the professional leagues can continue to pursue their activities by means of a detailed hygiene concept, the lights seem to be going out bit by bit in youth soccer. Only since the federal-state conference on March 3 have young players been allowed to train again – but how long is questionable in view of the rising incidence figures. Before that, only the U19 teams of the professional clubs were allowed to continue training – although the latter also had to do without competitive matches. But anyone who blames Corona for the deep-rooted problems in German youth soccer is making things far too easy for themselves; after all, the game has been in a deep downward spiral for several years now.

2. Status Quo – More Shadow than Light

As mentioned in the introduction, the problems in German youth football did not first come to the surface with Corona. It is true that national football was able to advertise itself with the all-German Champions League final in 2013 and the World Cup victory in 2014; however, in the fast-moving football business, these successes were quite some time ago. For years, the successes of the U-teams have been lacking and the individual progress of the young players also seems manageable. The following aspects illustrate the crisis in German football: Fewer and fewer German players are making the leap into the top German Bundesliga. In the 2017/18 season, for example, there were a whole 30% (!) fewer than in 2006. The Bundesliga clubs are therefore relying less and less on German players and more on foreign U23 players – after all, 75% (!) of the players under 23 who are used come from abroad. Further worrying developments can also be seen with regard to market values. The following graph shows that the German and Spanish teams have seen their value drop over the last five years! While this was still €200.68 million for the Germans in 2016, it is now more than a manageable €114.70 million. At the same time, England and France developed in the other direction – and how!

Market values by

While the British team has increased its market value from just under €200 million to €325.50 million over the past five years, France’s junior squad currently has a market value of €499.50 million (2016: €168.20 million) – more than four times that of the German team! The fact that these figures are also a reflection of performance can be seen from the fact that German junior teams have missed a whole four tournaments entirely since 2017! It becomes clear: there is an acute need for action in German youth football!

The fact that it has come to this point at all seems to be primarily due to the structure of German youth soccer, which seems to focus on the wrong things. According to the report, the philosophy of the coaches is too results-oriented and the focus is too much on the tactical aspect – the promotion of individual players and their personal development is largely neglected. Based on these aspects, it seems less surprising that the DFB has already had to face some criticism in the past. In an interview with Sportbuzzer in 2018, Peter Hyballa, currently coach at Wisla Krakow, described player training as “streamlined“, in which “individualists and personalities, courageous players who are creative, or even lateral thinkers […] are not in demand“. Mehmet Scholl, former coach of FC Bayern Amateure, expressed a similar opinion with regard to coach training. Accordingly, playful free spirits with a love of dribbling are no longer wanted.

Project Future as a Last Resort?

The problems of German youth football are widely known to the DFB. Primarily against the backdrop of the dwindling competitiveness of German youth football in international comparison, the association, in cooperation with the German Football League (hence DFL), initiated a joint project of professional and amateur football in September 2019, which, according to the DFB’s press release, is intended to address the “central issues for the sustainable establishment and development of German football.” The goal here: to bring German (junior) football back to the top of the world in order to establish it there in the long term. Further aspiration: To move away from results-based sports and toward individual support for children and young people. To this end, the DFB wants to optimize outdated structures and processes and reform youth football at its core. One concrete idea here is the creation of junior national leagues and supra-regional play from U14 to U19.

Accordingly, the U19 teams of the 56 professional clubs would compete against each other in a league of junior performance centers – without any promotion or relegation. Although this model is intended to promote individual development, the planned reform has met with criticism from many quarters. For example, Oliver Ruhnert (managing director of sports at Union Berlin) and Thomas Eichin (head of the youth department at Bayer 04), among others, do not see the planned reforms as a solution to the current problems in the youth sector, which are so profound.

Despite all the polemics, the project for the future is not currently one of the biggest construction sites for those in charge. Rather, around a year after the start of the pandemic, officials are still struggling with its direct effects. Nevertheless, it should be mentioned that reform plans continue to be severely slowed down due to the restrictions. Especially where the new approaches are so urgently needed, soccer has not been allowed to be played for about a year. In large parts of Germany, training continues to take place only virtually. While players can continue to work on their athleticism in this way, training forms for personality development can hardly be simulated in this way.

3. Controversial topic – U23 teams

In addition to the problems mentioned above, another topic is currently causing a stir: The U23 teams; always one of the most controversial topics in German football. For decades, an U23 selection was one of the basic conditions for being granted a licence to play in regular matches. But since Bayer 04 applied for the abolition of their second team, the DFL overturned the rule for the 2014/15 season. As a result, the youth development centres, which have been obligatory for all clubs in the two Bundesliga leagues since the early 2000s, have become increasingly important.

Source: FanQ App

While the discussion about the second teams had died down somewhat in recent years, it is now flaring up more than ever. In a survey conducted by our cooperation partner FanQ, around 70% of fans agreed with the thesis that the elimination of the U23 teams was wrong in retrospect. This, like so many other things, can be explained by the Corona pandemic. While players of the professional clubs, who still have an U23, can gain match practice in League 3 and the regional leagues, all forms of training are forbidden for youth teams up to U18 – only the U19 teams of the professional clubs are allowed to continue training, as they are already considered professional athletes.

Triggered by the fact that the latter are deprived of a large number of matches by the restrictions, there is currently much debate about the role of the U23 teams. Although the U19s are not affected by the training ban for long stretches, Markus Hirte, head of talent development at the DFB, told CREATEFOOTBALL that the the “most important restriction […] is the lack of competitive practice”. According to this, the current training only helps the young players to a limited extent; this is particularly true for the “higher age groups”, who are dependent on competitive practice shortly before a possible step into the professional arena.

If one of the three pillars of talent development (circumferences / content (training) / playing time – match practice) is not guaranteed, a talent cannot develop optimally. The pandemic has considerably shaken the pillar of match practice. Clubs that do not have U23s or whose U23s cannot currently play in the Regionalliga or below must give them the opportunity to gain match practice by loaning out players.

Engin Yanova, Assistant Head Coach DFB U18

You can find more of Yanova’s exciting views on data analysis and the football of the future in our current podcast episode #46 Football in 2030 – Data-based match plan instead of the coach’s gut feeling? (German language)

Generally speaking, there is no right or wrong in this topic! Proponents of the second teams like to argue the importance of these teams with the aspect that only a small number of players make the direct leap from the U19s to the respective professional team. Furthermore, it is explained that the U23 teams are good platforms for gaining playing practice at a high level. Thus, in the 2020/21 season, in addition to the amateurs of the record champion in the third division, a whole 20 second teams are represented in the regional leagues where, despite the many social restrictions, some of the games are still being played (Regionalliga West & Regionalliga Südwest). On the other hand, there are the critics of the U23 model, who mainly denounce a lack of economic attractiveness. In addition, there is a financial inequality, since U23 teams have just as much access to the corresponding funds as first teams, although their costs for the administrative apparatus are considerably lower. But the U23s are also not very lucrative from a sporting point of view. At the time of the dissolution of the U23s at Bayer, Rudi Völler argued that the performance development of the exceptional players in the regional leagues was threatening to stagnate.

Instead, players could be loaned out to third-league clubs after the U19s in order to give them playing practice at professional level. The fact is: In Corona’s time, players from clubs with a second division enjoy a perhaps decisive advantage with regard to a possible step into the professional arena.

All in all, as a training club, our goal is to continue to ensure the preservation of our U23 team and it should also be a consideration in Project Future. The DFB should take this on board in order to offer young talents playing time after the U19s – the chance would be there now.

Mirko Reichel, Sports Director of the Academy of SpVgg Greuther Fürth

4. The clock is ticking

Based on the aforementioned aspects, it remains to be said that German football should not lose any time in the fight for the next generation of professionals. The clubs should develop strategies as quickly as possible to give their young players as much playing time as possible at a high level. In this context, cooperation with clubs in the second and third leagues, which increasingly rely on the young generation of players, would be conceivable. Furthermore, the DFB is obliged to create a framework in which the highest age groups (U18 and U19) and the U23 teams are treated equally. All of the above-mentioned age groups should therefore be recognised as professional athletes. However, in addition to those in charge, the players are also in the focus of attention to intensively deal with their own future. In this context, Markus Hirte reports that the current situation demands “even greater self-motivation and initiative”. He goes on to explain that this type of player would have a decisive advantage over their competitors once the pandemic is over. Mirko Reichel from SpVgg Greuther Fürth also speaks of the fact that “there will be guys who have used the corona-induced break as an opportunity”.

With a view to the possible solutions that affect clubs and the association, a timely solution appears to be the most important asset – especially with a view abroad. While the ball is resting at national level, play has been suspended in England, Spain and also in Italy, play has so far been maintained without interruption. And it is not only in the top nations that play continues; in Switzerland, too, youth players continue to enjoy the competition. As a club official of a Swiss first division team told CREATEFOOTBALL, the U18 championship (in Switzerland, the U21 follows immediately after the U18) can go on as planned except for an interruption of several weeks at the end of last year, which means that the young footballers benefit not only from training but primarily from the matches that continue to take place at competition level. Thus, German youth football is not only in danger of losing touch with the industry leaders, but also of forfeiting some of the lead it has gained over smaller European football nations. As Lars Ricken, current youth coordinator at BVB, told DIE ZEIT, the consequences for the older age groups will only be seen in two to three years. From the German point of view, we can only hope that the current situation will not have too much of an impact on the future balance of power in world football – although the prognosis is likely to be gloomy.

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