Germany's youth teams have been having trouble qualifying for major international tournaments in recent years. So what is at the root of the problem and what is being done to try to correct the issue?
Abdul Raman Ali is visibly nervous. It is his first day at a training camp put on by the regional football association (FVR) in the western German city of Koblenz. The 13-year-old from Somalia is set to show off his stuff along with 40 other players of the same age in front of the regional association's coach, Kai Timm. Over the next two days, they are to play four games of two 20-minute halves.
Ali fled Somalia along with his mother and after they arrived in Germany, he showed up wanting to play football at SV Untermosel, a small club in Winningen, a town just outside of Koblenz. The club's coaches were delighted, as his talent was obvious. Now, he's here on what could be the next small step in achieving his ultimate goal: to play professional football.
All of the players in the camp come from small clubs. This is due to the way the FVR is structured.
"We're the only regional association that doesn't have a youth performance center," says Timm, who is also one of the German FA's (DFB) 29 training camp coordinators. There are 55 high-performance youth centers across Germany.
From local club to the pro game
Even though there's no high-performance youth center in the area, professional work is still being done. Bundesliga scouts continually come and observe the players in Koblenz. Timm throws a critical eye over this: "Of course it's obvious that clubs will sign players, but it would be good if they asked the DFB regional association's coach: 'What's the boy like?' We have known them for years and been with them throughout."
The 51-year-old sports scientist has a passion for the development of young people. Timm knows, though, that the step up to the pro game is something most don't get to experience. Fewer than 2% make it.
Timm makes sure to watch the players more than once. "Often they are too nervous or have a bad day during the visit. It's far too early to reject people."
That being said, Timm doesn't believe that Germany has a problem with youth development at the moment. "We have endless talent, but we have too few coaches who recognize that and support them. When the boys come to me, I want to release them from the tactical standards of the club. I tell them: 'Play football! That's what you like to do!' I ask the coaches to be more reserved during the trial games."
The second and third path
In addition, Timm has an interesting approach. "It has been proven that from Germany's U15s up to the U18s almost all of the players are born between January and June. The others are left behind. That doesn't mean they can't play, though. It just means that at that moment in time they are physically inferior. In order to include them, the players who are invited to the trial games are from both halves of the year."
At the current trial tournament, coach Timm has clear standards. "I want to encourage one-on-one situations more. That has been lost. That's why at these tournaments, teams are only allowed to play with two defenders. That should create more chances." Two-hundred-and-fifty kilometers (155 miles) north of Koblenz, the views are similar.
'Then things would be quickly questioned'
Schalke's youth academy in Gelsenkirchen is clearly a place where talents are developed. In recent years, Schalke have produced a host of talented players — and sold them on. Manuel Neuer, Sead Kolasinac, Thilo Kehrer and Leroy Sané are just some of the names that fall into that category.
Mathias Schober is in charge of Schalke's youth academy. The former goalkeeper and 1997 UEFA Cup winner with Schalke sees some problems with talent development. "We might not have a youth football problem, but we don't produce individualistic players or such types of players in the way we used to in the past. That might be down to the system," said Schober. "Sometimes you have the impression that less is done to develop individuals and more focus is put on looking good in the table."
Schalke want to change that now: Specific positional training has now been added to the schedule. Former Bundesliga golden boot winner Martin Max is now using his experience to help guide youth players.
Neuer was too small
Schober also knows that not everything is predictable. "Leroy Sané first exploded into life at the U19 level. Manuel Neuer was so small at the U15 level that there was consideration of letting him go."
Back in Koblenz, coach Kai Timm is spoilt for choice. For the next round he has to bring 50 players together. They build the foundation for the final 16 who make the regional selection. When Timm, who was in the same coaching class as Jürgen Klopp, was asked whether he always wanted to work in youth football: "I really like doing this. This is great work in a really well organized football association. But of course, if a pro team either here or abroad, or an international team got in touch then I'd have to consider it."
Until then, Timm will focus on helping his youth players. And they, just like Abdul Raman Ali, will wait on a letter to tell them whether they've made the next round of trial training sessions or not.