In Bundesliga soccer clubs, hundreds of youth players are fighting for a spot on the pro team. Due to the high level of competition, youth development is becoming more and more professional.
Competition among youth players is higher than ever
When Matthias Scherz made the jump from local leagues to a professional club, he was 22 years old - a feat that would be unthinkable in today's game.
Now, the earlier a player can join the youth development program at a professional club, the better his chances are of getting a contract.
Scherz works as a development manager for young players in the junior ranks at FC Cologne. He's convinced any one of the kids could make it as a pro.
Scherz, left, now plans careers for Cologne players
"Everyone who works out here in the training center has the chance to become a professional football player," Scherz said. "But one out of 100 makes it, I think. They have to do quite a lot to accomplish that."
Youth development programs across Germany are becoming more and more professional, and a player's entire day - even away from the pitch - is planned out. Lessons in school are even made to fit in the training plan.
At 15 an 'adult'
Youth players train more than twice as much as Scherz did.
"They train like professionals as 15-year-olds," Scherz said. "No time for friends, or to go swimming in the summer, because there is always training again at 5 in the evening. There isn't the possibility to do two things at once."
Going out at night, having a girlfriend or a spontaneous camping trip with friends - all play second fiddle to soccer, which can be a big problem at that age. Scherz says that's also a reason why it's so difficult to become a professional player: Priorities have to be set, and they should be set toward improving in soccer and in school.
Not good enough
Michael Niedrig is quite familiar with the long journey to becoming a professional. Now 30 years old, Niedrig began on the under-13 youth team at FC Cologne before working his way up to the professional ranks.
Full of respect and curiosity, Niedrig practiced with the pros and was even used in some games.
Niedrig's entire career has been at Cologne, in one form or another
He remembers the first autograph he was asked to sign.
"That was pretty cool," Niedrig said. "Before the season started, they said 'Here, sign 1,000 of these cards.' That was pretty fun."
But a professional contract and some experience playing in the Bundesliga doesn't mean a player has made it. In Niedrig's case, he couldn't quite establish himself at the highest level of soccer in Germany.
"I wasn't good enough for the Bundesliga," he said. "That was disappointing, but I saw it rationally."
He adds that it was important to understand that you have to work hard to maintain success and progress.
"I'm sure this is where some youth stars fail as well."
Niedrig studied business in addition to playing soccer, and because he kept in contact with the club that briefly hired him as a pro, he now works in their administrative offices and with the under-23 team.
Just like Lukas Podolski
Mark Uth doesn't give much thought to what he'll do when his career is over. The 19-year-old striker just saw his first action as a member of the under-20 youth national team, and has also signed a professional contract with Cologne.
Podolski is one of Germany's most famous players
"That was pretty big, playing with the under-20 team," Uth said enthusiastically.
He says that Lukas Podolski - striker for the German national team and for Cologne's Bundesliga team - was a role model for him.
"Of course he is. He made it from the youth team all the way to the national squad, and every young player wants that for himself," said Uth.
Who's too short now?
Uth's path to becoming a professional has not been without its obstacles, though. He's been playing team soccer since he was three years old. At age 13 he came to Cologne, but when he was 16, he didn't make the team. He was only 1.6 meters (5'3") and too small to make the cut.
"But they didn't count on me becoming 1.85 meters tall," he said grinning.
Uth on his way to another goal
Cologne took Uth back, and now he's scoring goals left and right.
Development manager Scherz says there is no doubt Uth has what it takes to make it as a pro, and Niedrig is keeping his fingers crossed for the young man.
But he knows the danger that comes from being on the professional soccer path since childhood.
"If someone is considered a talented prospect at age 12, that's great - at 16, too," Niedrig said. "But at 18 you should be able to prove yourself as more than just a prospect. Eventually, you turn from being a talented prospect into someone who never realized his potential."
Author: Olivia Fritz/mz
Editor: Rob Turner