19 July ~ Germany has had two Bloemfonteins in its recent football history. The first one was Lyon during the 1998 World Cup. Having lost 3-0 to Croatia, the team left France in almost as much disgrace as the French did on departing South Africa last month. The problems, which had built since the last German World Cup final win in 1990, were clear to see. An ageing team, mentally and physically slow, played horrible football throughout. But it got worse: the second Bloemfontein was Rotterdam during Euro 2000.
Then assistant coach Horst Hrubesch, a hard man called the “header monster” during his playing days, had tears in his eyes when Germany went out of the tournament in the last group game. The team based around the 39-year-old Lothar Matthäus as libero had no chance whatsoever in the 3-0 defeat by Portugal's second string, who played because the first team had already qualified.
Finally, the cumbersome German Football Association (DFB) woke up and took action. The youth-development and talent-spotting system was completely overhauled, taking ideas from the programme implemented by the French federation in the 1990s. The DFB spent a considerable amount of money in employing 29 new youth co-ordinators, as well as an extra 1,000 coaches to establish regional achievement centres throughout the country.
Current squad members Stefan Kiessling, Mario Gomez, Dennis Aogo and Toni Kroos were discovered in those DFB centres. As a second step, Bundesliga clubs were required to set up their academies, which went on to produce among others Thomas Müller, Jerome Boateng, Mesut Özil and Sami Khedira.
Recently, there were again tears in Hrubesch's eyes when he coached the German Under-19 and Under-21 teams (with the four players just mentioned plus Aogo and Marko Marin from the current World Cup squad) to their respective European Championships. The German Under-17s also currently hold the European title. It seems fair to say that the current German team, which impressed with a fast-paced style of attacking football in South Africa, was conceived in Lyon 1998 and born in Rotterdam two years later.
James Milner was the only member of the 2009 European Under-21 runners-up in the starting line-up at this year's World Cup. But if Germany can do it, then surely England, with the most economically successful football league in the world, should be able to implement similar youth-development and talent-spotting systems? Even if only because the huge debts built up by some clubs will force them to focus on bringing through their own players. In which case Bloemfontein will come to mean the end of an era rather than just another staging post in a continuing saga of underachievement. Heiko P Braun