Today, the Bundesliga is famous for its brilliant youth set-up. Not only do these youth academies produce world-class talent, but they also practice social responsibility — through education and youth outreach.
You’ve probably heard the story before. After a calamitous showing at the 2000 European Championship, the German Football Association (DFB) called for a radical rethink in national youth development. There followed the compulsory introduction of youth academies at all Bundesliga (and 2.Bundesliga) clubs, over half a billion Euros invested into these academies, and a fount of talent that now populates the Bundesliga as well as the national team.
What you may not have heard is the rest of the story: how the Bundesliga, with its academy model, strives to practice social responsibility.
Academies and A levels
It’s a sad fact but true: talent alone is not enough. “Very few young talents actually make the final leap into professional football,” said Christian Seifert, CEO of the DFL. “We therefore consider it out social responsibility to provide youngsters, even outside of football, with the best possible education.”
Bundesliga academies emphasize a dual-track approach of football and school. Young players not only train together at their academies, they also study together and receive tutoring from teachers hired by the club. The “Do Not Neglect School” rule is set in stone; homework commands as much respect as football.
“School comes first,” said Mr. Kiefer, a teacher at SC Freiburg’s academy. “Before anybody risks having to repeat a year, their training regime will be reduced.”
Besides, it has been seen that success in school can lead to better performances on the pitch. Rather than focusing exclusively on football, the Bundesliga system believes in exposing academy members to a variety of subjects to help him grow as a person, and as a player. This produces better-adjusted young men, and also gives coaches a better understanding of who their players are and what they need to develop further.
Above all, perhaps, they need “room to breathe” — according to former player and sports psychologist Dr. Uwe Harttgen. One can see why this is a pressing concern. The dual-track academy system demands a great deal of sacrifice from young players, and in this environment, leisure time and stress management become of paramount importance. So in addition to making sure they keep up with schoolwork, clubs also commit to ensuring youths do not overtax themselves.
“We don’t want to promise too much to anyone,” said Jürgen Gelsdorf, Director of the Leverkusen Academy, “but we do want to give everyone the opportunity to prepare himself properly for a good life.”
It is a fine balance, but so far clubs are pulling it off, and the DFL’s commitment to education rings true in this current generation of Bundesliga academy graduates.
“It’s really important to me to finish my A-levels next summer,” said Schalke youngster Leon Goretzka. “It was never an option for me to leave school early.”
Meanwhile, fellow teammate Julian Draxler has juggled club duty, international duty, homework and curfew while wowing Schalke faithful in recent seasons. And on the other side of the Ruhr Valley, Marcel Schmelzer actually has a diploma in business economics. Said Schmelzer: “Sport was one of my favorite subjects, but so too was maths.”
Advocating for physical education in schools
Before he became DFL Chief Operating Officer, former right-winger Andreas Rettig had chaired the DFL’s commission on national academies from 2010 to 2012. On the 10th anniversary of the compulsory introduction of youth academies in the Bundesliga, Rettig authored a piece on improving the relationship between football and schools. He called for the individualization of education as well as professional training for young players in order to prepare them for whatever future may come.
“It must be possible in Germany that a young footballer can pursue a Bundesliga career whilst at the same time doing his A levels,” he wrote.
But Rettig was thinking not only about the footballing side of the equation — he was advocating for German schools as well. Rettig believes in finding a meaningful way of integrating sports into school, to combat the trend of increasing school hours and diminishing physical activity.
Rettig advocated for taking advantage of the large number of well-trained coaches in Germany to promote sports in school. Better-qualified teachers of physical education facilitate better learning experiences for students. As of 2011, Germany had 1,200 pro-licensed football coaches, and 7,500 coaches with A or B licenses — all trained to work at the highest levels of the sport. This, Rettig believes, is a valuable resource that the DFL and DFB could offer to schools.
Rettig aspirations for the DFL and future of German football are clear. When he assumed his new DFL position last winter, he reiterated this commitment to improving physical education in Germany’s schools:
“I wish [the DFL] would get more recognition because of the sport, and not only as a marking organization.”
Integration through football
The desire to promote sport in schools is a commitment to nurturing future talent among Germany’s youth. At a broader level, it is also a commitment to community — with sport as a vehicle for social change.
Germany is home to over 16 million persons of immigrant background. On Matchday 3 of the 2012/13 season, the DFL and all 18 Bundesliga clubs backed the “Go Your Way” integration campaign to raise awareness and to encourage a peaceful multi-ethnic society. For that weekend, the “Go Your Way” motto replaced normal advertising on jerseys. The campaign’s message was that all German residents deserve equal opportunities and a life free from prejudice and violence.
The Bundesliga does not only put on slogans for show, however. The power of sports to effect change is known, and Bundesliga clubs have put this power to practice. Immigrant youths in Germany have a much lower rate of graduation and continuing on to further education than the national average. But for children of immigrant background who train at Bundesliga academies — and therefore receive help and encouragement with schoolwork, as part of the commitment to balancing training and education — the retention and graduation rate significantly increases.
At the turn of the decade, the European Business School analyzed Bundesliga academies for pedagogical methods. The study found upwards of 80 countries are represented in these academies, and graduates show a high level of integration compared to national averages. These findings suggest that playing football helps to break down ethnic boundaries.
Former DFB President Gerhard Mayer-Vorfelder agrees: “On the pitch it doesn’t matter where you come from North Africa, Turkey or Germany. And as German is spoken on the pitch, integration comes easier to these youngsters, who learn the language more quickly.”
Bundesliga’s commitment to social engagement
The Bundesliga’s commitment and impact does not end there. The league has also partnered with the “Football meets Culture” initiative, founded in 2007 by a non-profit. The aim is to transform enthusiasm for football into sustainable education in collaboration with schools in underprivileged areas and their local Bundesliga club(s).
Professional football clubs in Germany also invest in 300+ social engagement programs, which address local issues and reach over 750,000 people, with the majority of these projects benefiting children and youths. The monetary investment comes to over €20 million per annum. The Dortmund Fan Project, for example, was founded in 1988 to promote tolerance amidst a fan culture of xenophobia and racism.
Beyond the institutional level, Bundesliga clubs’ supporters groups ally with anti-fascist networks and work to promote acceptance and eradicate racism, homophobia, etc. From the grassroots to the academies to the upper management, German football acknowledges the responsibility and power of sport to effect social change.
The DFL recently stated their goals for the coming years, which include:
“…the promotion of girls’, women’s and school football, the implementation of campaigns with societal relevance and the establishment and maintenance of fan projects outside of Germany’s top two professional divisions.”
Sometimes, the goals scored on matchday are not the only ones worth cheering on.