Over the years since the dawn of the NFL and then being rechristened the I-League, the AIFF have debated and touched upon everything, from television rights to better infrastructure etc. Sadly they have failed to delve on the most important issue in football today- our supply line for the future- Youth Development.
Youth Development and India are as wide away from each other as the Grand Canyon. Sadly though, if they don’t come closer to each other, Indians will have to endure many more painful years before we are able to cheer our team at the World Cup. Building a steady supply line for the future takes years to develop something that Germany have mastered over the last decade. The below case study is for all to see and implement:
The German Revolution
1997 was the year when Germany was on the pinnacle of the Footballing Mountain. Borussia Dortmund and Schalke 04 had won the Champions League and UEFA Cup respectively while in 1996 Germany was continental champions. However that year, not everything was as good as it seemed for German football. Flooded with huge amounts of cash that they received from lucrative TV rights, the Bundesliga clubs went on a spending spree buying foreigners at will and investing in talents from outside Germany, doubling the number of foreigners from 17 percent (1992) to 34 percent (1997) in five years.
The result was that the national team suffered and was severely depleted in front of goal especially. This led national manager (at that time) Berti Vogts and his successor Erik Ribbeck to pick foreign players, fast track them into German nationals and play them for the World Cup. This idea of picking foreign players to represent Germany had never happened before and it led people at the helm of affairs of German football to do a serious rethink on their youth development policies. It was evident that not enough of talent was coming through the ranks leaving Germany with a poor World Cup 98 and an even disgraceful Euro Cup 2004. The main cause no doubt was that the percentage of foreigners in the Bundesliga had risen to 50 percent in 2000 leaving them with a scarcity of talent.
In May 1999, FA vice president Beckenbauer, first-team manager Ribbeck, Bayer Leverkusen general manager Reiner Calmund and FA Director of Youth Development Dietrich Weise presented a new concept for producing young German players. All across Germany, 121 national talent centers were built to help 10- to 17-year-olds develop into future football stars. Each center employed two full-time coaches at a cost of $15.6 million over five years.
The second key point was that it was made mandatory for all 36 professional clubs in Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2 to build and operate youth academies. What also went in their favour in hindsight was the financial meltdown in the Bundesliga in early 2004. The Kirch TV conglomerate that had literally bankrolled the Bundesliga boom since the early ’90s collapsed in 2002, leaving the clubs in the lurch and facing a severe cash crunch.
Faced with huge, unsustainable wage bills, the Bundesliga clubs found that the easiest way to cope was to release all the well-paid but fairly mediocre foreigners from their squads and replace them with young, much cheaper recruits from their own youth teams. Felix Magath’s young VfB Stuttgart side of 2003-04 became trendsetters when it beat Manchester United in the Champions League with a squad full of homegrown kids like Timo Hildebrandt, Kevin Kuranyi and Andreas Hinkel. That set a precedent that heralded a new change in German football. Clubs realized that spending on expensive and fairly mediocre foreign players was not feasible due the financial meltdown and it would be wise to start investing in youth.
Clubs like VfB Stuttgart was not in a position to buy any players for 18 months in 2001-02 and that gave youngsters like Hinkel, Hildebrand and Kuranyi a chance to shine on the big stage. The result- two years later, they were in the Champions League with the same set of youngsters. Dortmund and Hertha, who both struggled financially and had to play their youngsters also tasted success and more and more clubs woke up to the fact that they could create real assets by spending money on the kids.
The Bundesliga found that nurturing youngsters was not only good for the the clubs finances but also for the club as a brand. Fans thronged to the stadiums to see homegrown players with whom they could identify. Bundesliga CEO Christian Seifart then explained how this new idea conceptualized by Beckenbauer and Co. revolutionized German soccer that gave it young superstars like Thomas Mueller, Phillip Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger. The new structure, implemented in 2002, has resulted in a young German side having an average age of 24.7 years at the 2010 World Cup.
Seifert said that the national team’s complete turnaround after the disasters of 1998 and 2000 was a direct result of the overhaul of Germany’s academy system, with all 36 clubs in the two Bundesliga divisions now obliged to operate centrally regulated academies before being given a licence to play in the league. Of the 23-man national squad that played in the 2010 World Cup, 19 came from Bundesliga academies, with the other four from Bundesliga-2 academies. The most significant change, said Seifert, was insisting that in these new academies at least 12 players in each intake have to be eligible to play for Germany.
“That was the key difference. FIFA’s 6+5 rule means only that players must have grown up in the club. For example, Cesc Fabregas was developed at Arsenal, but is Spanish. In Germany, our academies must have 12 in each group able to play for Germany”
– Seifert went on to add.
What also went in their favour was the German FA’s initiative of relaxing their citizenship laws resulting in a lot of emigrants and people with migratory background claiming German citizenship, something that gave them the talent like Mesut Ozil and Sammy Khedira (both of Turkish decent) and Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose (both Polish decent). When Germany won the right to host the 2006 World Cup in July 2000, clubs and the German FA increased their efforts to invest in youth development. Since that restructuring, the proportion of Germany-qualified players in the Bundesliga changed significantly.
“In 2003-4 we had 44% from foreign countries, Right now it is only 38%. So 62% are able to play for the national team.”
– Seifert pointed out. In England it is the other way around, with an approximate 60/40 split of foreigners and nationals.
Later on in the Klinsmann-Loew era, Germany would go on to taste remarkable success, taking the world by storm with their fast, ruthless and fearless football, reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup at home in 2006, the finals of Euro 2008 and the semi-finals of the 2010 World Cup. The nucleus of these remarkable 6 years were all products of the German Youth Development System. They were players who were ruthless, who reveled in the attack minded play of young coaches like Klinsmann and Loew.
The German team in South Africa was incidentally the youngest German team since 1934. The changes that were introduced 10 years ago definitely paid dividends: In the last two years, Germany won the European championship at U-17, U-19 and U-21 level. Last season alone, the 36 Bundesliga (1 and 2) clubs spent a combined $100 million on youth development, a higher proportion of income than any other major league. Germany’s footballing philosophy also changed. While youth coaches would traditionally stress on stamina and physical endurance, the new crop of highly qualified coaches were more interested in developing technical ability of the players.
“We start with the U-9s. They play four-a-side, on small pitches, to encourage individual skills. We then add players every year, only the U-13s are playing with full teams.”
– said Thomas Albeck, Stuttgart’s head of Youth Development said. Seifert also lauded the unity between clubs and the German FA, achieved in part through the stipulation that no single entity can own more than 49% of a Bundesliga club. He added –
“This way you don’t have a foreign owner who doesn’t really care for the national teams. The clubs have a very strong relationship with the FA; we are all engaged in discussions [about youth development].”
Seifert stated that the German system costs clubs “only euros 80m” of the Bundesliga’s euros 2billion turnover. The German structure only takes boys into the academy system from the age of 12, with around 5,000 players going through the system at any one time.English clubs currently spend more, around euros 95m per season, and put 10,000 boys aged between nine and 16 through a much-criticised structure. About 1% of boys who join an English academy aged nine become professional footballers.
What India Needs To Do..
The German success story has given the AIFF a recipe to success. Revamp of the entire system is required to produce players for the future. Currently the state of youth development in India is pathetic. Apart from Goa and to some extent Bengal, none of the other states in India have a well structure youth league/tournaments comprising of the U-14’s, U-16’s, U-18’s and U-20’s. Just like the Bundesliga, clubs in India should compulsorily have academies, possibly residential, where the schooling needs are taken care off and high quality football coaching is imparted.
The Goa Football Association has one of the best youth developments programmes in the country, thanks to the recent partnership with Australian Sports Outreach Programme (ASOP) and the Football Federation Australia (FFA). This programme includes creation of training centres all over the state where training would be imparted to kids in the age group of 8-14 years. Bengal too has around 60 odd training centres but apart from these two states none of the others have well structured youth development programmes.
What we need desperately right now is for clubs to build and run academies, possibly with the help of corporates or tie-ups like Dempo-Midtjylland that will help nurture the talent in our country and ensure a steady supply of talent to the senior team. If a country like Germany with an area of 357,022 sq km has more than 100 talent centres and 36 academies, how much more India, having an area of 3,287,263 sq km. It is obvious that the infrastructure has to grow by leaps and bounds in the country.
We need clubs to keep a flock of kids together throughout the year and not just assemble teams when the U-19 I-League is round the corner. Tournaments or possibly Leagues should be held between the academy teams of these clubs so that from a young age kids have match practice.
Another important aspect that needs to be addressed is coaches education and coaching the coaches. We need quality coaches at the grassroots so that players are taught the basics and the technicalities of shooting, trapping, ball control, off the ball movement, positioning and dribbling. The club licensing criteria has to be followed by the clubs in total if we have to see India improve as a footballing nation. We need a total revamp of football in this country. There is tremendous talent in the north east, but surprisingly just one club from that region plays at the highest level. A stronger state league and more academies will ensure much more talent to be tapped there.
As Indian football is at its crossroads, one gets the feeling that one wrong step will sound the death knell for the beautiful game in this country. The AIFF needs to take all stakeholders into confidence and design the path that is best suited to take Indian football forward. There’s a long way to go and probably miles to walk before we can get our team to the World Cup, but like they say-the longest journey starts with the first step. The AIFF and our football administrators need to have the desire to take Indian football to heights. If that happens, the job is already half done.–