An insight into playing football in Germany.
My first league fixture for VfB Stuttgart was the most competitive game of my career until that point. It was intense, aggressive and passionate. Afterwards, we (staff included) celebrated in the centre circle, throwing water over each other and chanting ‘1893’. I was shocked. We had won a U17 league fixture, not a cup final. As the season progressed, I learnt that this was the norm and winning each game was celebrated in the same manner. It took me some time to understand why…
…Unlike in England, there is no category system in place to separate academies into different leagues. In fact, in each age group, there is a set of leagues where relegation and promotion are possible. Therefore, there is a huge emphasis on the match day performance and scoreline. Winning games is a priority for academies in Germany, and players are exposed to it at a very young age. Furthermore, players are reluctantly pushed into older age groups, to help maximise each age groups position in their respective league. Overall, this heightens the competitiveness nature of academy football in Germany.
In my opinion, there are both benefits and disadvantages to this structure. It might help explain why Germany has that stealth and renowned ability to win tournament matches. Personally, the exposure to extremely competitive matches has helped prepare me for the reality of professional football. However, at times I thought the focus on my development was not prioritised enough.
German Youth Cup
International Summer Tournaments
Indoor 5 a side Tournaments
In Germany, I loved the diverse games programme throughout the season. The mixture of games meant I was exposed to different playing conditions, styles, physicality and maturity of opponents. Each game posed a new challenge, and different aspects of my game were tested. I learnt transferable skills and techniques that I would never have learnt from regular-season games.
Indoor tournaments were fast-paced and technically challenging. They allowed me to be more expressive on the ball whilst forcing me to defend often in 1v1 scenarios.
Games vs Men offered a physical challenge, which I had to combat through thoughtful positioning, awareness and clever ball retention skills.
In hindsight, I believe I learnt the most from playing local sides, in villages neighbouring Stuttgart. They provided a challenge and an environment that no other match did. Locals would come with their family and friends to support the underdog in what was their cup final. Each player was eager to prove a point, the coach included. In these scenarios, you learn to maintain your standards. Despite the awful pitch, the locals, and the over-enthusiastic opponent, you have to be diligent and ensure the scoreline reflects the difference in ability you know exists.
You could lightly compare these experiences to 3rd round FA cup ties, where Premier League teams often fall victim to complacency, the conditions and the fighting spirit of the opposition. As a result, you develop the mental toughness required on a professional level every day in training and in games.
The pathway to professional football makes Germany so attractive to young players. The Bundesliga has the youngest average age of players across Europe’s top 5 leagues and players featuring for Germany U21 often have much more top-flight appearances than their English counterparts.
Why is there such a compelling difference?
Firstly, U23s football in Germany provides an ideal stepping stone for young players to move into the 1st Team. The majority of U23 teams play in the German fourth tier (the equivalent of League 2/ Conference Premiership). At this level, players are pre-exposed to Men’s football where opponents are cunning, physical and more experienced than at academy level. It takes time to adjust, but nevertheless, young players are afforded that time as they are playing for their respective Bundesliga Club and not a Loan Club. Although important, there is a bigger picture than 3 points every weekend. Young talents are there to develop into a first-team player, and that’s the focus.
Secondly, the number of players a club produces has a huge influence on how they are perceived in the public. Fans want to see homegrown talents. Therefore many of the clubs in Germany take a lot of pride in the development of young players. It helps with the connection between fans, players and staff, creating a sense of togetherness and positivity that transcends throughout the club and city.
Lastly, German clubs believe developing young football players is necessary to be sustainable. It is an ethos common among many German clubs and one I wish many more English clubs adopted.
All these factors contribute to the determination and desire I saw in young German players. The pathway is there. The goal of becoming a professional footballer is a tangible possibility, rather than a distant dream, blocked by money and the short term success desired by may clubs.