Knappenshmiede – Schalke’s Gold Mine of Unearthing German Talent

The mining collieries of Gelsenkirchen may now just be a monument, but the city hasn’t forgotten its mining roots. Schalke 04’s youth academy Knappenshmiede which literally means “Miner’s Forge”  has been unearthing precious footballing talents for years now. Situated in North Rhine-Westphalia, Schalker Knappenshmiede has been one of the major contributors for the golden generation of football in Germany. Established superstars like Manuel Neuer, Benedikt Höwedes, Mesut Ozil along with future prospects like Julian Draxler, Max Meyer, Kaan Ayhan to name a few, have been brought up through the youth ranks of Schalke. The club now boasts one of the best youth academies in Germany and in Europe as well.

 Origins:

Started out as a development program  in 1991, the academy was formed in 1998 with German Football Association’s vision to promote and develop football from grassroots level. The full fledged youth setup took a long road in achieving the present position. According to its Sporting Director Horst Heldt, the U23 team which now forms the backbone of the senior team, was on its own before the club decided revamp its youth structure four years ago. They had to dissolve the U16 division for a few years as part of this restructuring. But now it is back on track around 25 players under its belt from age groups ranging between 15 and 16. Overall the academy has an approximate of 200 players across ten age groups being developed under the watchful eyes of professionally licensed coaches. The whole youth setup is now divided into two divisions U9s to U15s and U16s to U23s.

Scouting and Training System:

The Knappenshmiede Academy works in close association with Berger Feld Comprehensive which is one of the elite footballing schools set up by the DFB. This prestigious school is just a short walk away from Schalke’s very own Veltins Arena. Children at a tender age of 9 years  are scouted from the many schools in and around North Westphalia. Several sporting bodies nearby Gelsenkirchen also play a key role in this setup. The training is given on a technical basis for the beginning ages of U9 and U11. As the players make it to the U12 to U15 teams, they are trained on deeper technical areas such as team coordination and overcoming weak areas of individual game play. When U15 players make it to the U17 team, they are introduced to football on a professional level. At this stage the training focus is shifted from technical  to tactical understanding of the game. Tactical awareness plays a major role in the journey from U17 to U19. The final stage of this transformation is the U23 team which serves as the B team for the club’s senior team. Here the player receives the final polishing to become a pro footballer and is aided in all ways to become a member of the main team. The club has a tradition of promoting atleast two players to the senior squad every season. In last season’s Champions League tie against Real Madrid the team fielded eight Knappen graduates in the starting XI(Ralf Fährmann, Tim Hoogland, Benedikt Höwedes, Sead Kolasinac, Kaan Ayhan, Joel Matip, Max Meyer, Julian Draxler) which clearly stamps the club’s vision for developing their own talent. This is the highest for any Bundesliga club with even the likes of Bayern Munich promoting just one youth team member into the senior team every year.

Training Facilities and The Coaching Staff :

The training facilities and coaching staff at the academy are one of the best in Germany and in Europe as well. There are only few other youth systems across the continent including Barcelona’s fabled La Masia with state-of-the art facilities. There are 26 full time coaches who are professionally qualified working with the youth teams. Eight top professionals, among which 5 are UEFA pro licensed coaches and 2 are DFB’s A-listed trainers supervise the main division of U17,U19 and U23 teams. Among these Norbert Elgert has been with the club’s youth setup since 1996. Any youngster with a potential never misses the Gelsenkirchen native’s eyes. A Schalke man through-and-through, Elgert was the main influence behind the rise of World Cup winning star Julian Draxler, and last season’s break out stars Max Meyer and Kaan Ayhan. Rightly so he was awarded the U19 coach of the year 2013 by the German Football Association. In an interview, when he was asked about the recognition his pupils are getting at the world stage, he promptly enquires “What am I thinking? Well, I am thinking about the next training session.” There are goalkeeping coaches, Athletics trainers and an Individual Trainer working along with the coaches to train the youngsters.

Coming to the facilities, 3 full sized pitches with natural grass along with 1 artificial turf are there to conduct the training sessions. Among these, 3 pitches are well equipped with floodlights for winter training. There are regular training sessions conducted every week with emphasis on tactical and collective basis for the U15 to U23 teams. The players also receive Psychological  help while returning from injuries. There are also 2 indoor pitches built solely for technical training purposes and also two seminar rooms for video analysis and assessment. The U23 team alone has two home grounds, the Jahnstadion and the Mondpalast Arena which are nearby the Veltins Arena. The U17 and U19 teams play their matches in the footballing school of Ückendorf.

Success So Far and Future Plans:

The club’s youth policy has been a great boon to the German football and also to other national teams as well. Joel Matip one of the Knappen graduate, represented Cameroon at the world cup in Brazil. Kaan Ayhan who is a German-born player with Turkish roots, is already a member of the country’s Under-21 team. Now playing for the senior squad at Schalke, the defender could be called up for the Turkey’s senior squad in the near future. With Die Knappen’s graduates making it onto the bigger stages, the academy’s reputation has also risen over the past three years, as the clubs have regularly arranged U19 friendlies with the clubs they have faced in the Champions League.

Schalke’s management have decided to expand their plans and invest more in the youth program. A reported amount of 13 million Euros is being spent to rebuild their old Parkstadion for the U19 and U23 matches. It is also said that rebuilt stadium is going to have 5 full sized pitches(3 natural grass & 2 artificial turfs) and stands with a capacity to accommodate 6000 people. The scouting for young talent is done chiefly around North Westphalia, but 13% of the youth academy consists of youngsters who hail from the other parts of Germany as well. With the newly laid plans, the number of youth players from the mining town’s youth system could only increase in the future.