10/16/15

The Bundesliga Blueprint by Lee Price: Book Review

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The Precis

When Germany became World Cup champions at Brazil in 2014, the average age of their squad was an impressive 25.7, with only three players (Miroslav Klose, Roman Weidenfeller and captain Philip Lahm) in their thirties. Germany’s match winner in the final against Argentina was 22-year-old Mario Gotze, one of the many prodigies who have come to symbolise the regeneration of German football over the last decade.

But as author Lee Price highlights, the roots of this triumph can be traced back to Euro 2000, a competition in which Germany suffered an ignominious group stage exit. German football had reached its nadir and this prompted a bold, but necessary overhaul. Their football authorities embarked on a journey to rebuild Die Mannschaft, in what has become known as Germany’s ‘10-year plan’.

The ‘revolution’ has ensured that although the Bundesliga is yet to be considered the ‘biggest’ football league in Europe, it is certainly the most stable. The national team has reaped the benefits.

Drawing upon the expertise of former Germany internationals, including Michael Ballack and Jens Nowotny, as well as a number of prominent coaches and administrators in the German game, Price maps out the key factors in this success; a commitment to the holistic development of youth and coaching, maintaining a fan-centric philosophy, an emphasis on financial prudence and an unwavering determination to avoid complacency in the face of success. It is a ‘Blueprint’ which Lee believes the English should follow.

How does it relate to Beyond the Field of Play?

Fans: Stakeholders vs Customers

After subsidising tickets for Bayern Munich fans travelling to watch their team play in the Champions league against Arsenal in 2014, Bayern’s former chairman Uli Hoenness proclaimed:

“We do not think fans are like cows you milk, football has got to be for everybody. That’s the biggest difference between us and England.”

Price’s analysis of the relationship between fans and clubs is of particular interest to Beyond the Field of Play, in which fandom is a recurring theme. The Bundesliga is the best attended in Europe. Clubs are committed to providing cheap tickets in the name of inclusivity. Putting this into perspective, the cost of one Arsenal season ticket is enough to buy you ten of Bayern’s equivalent. Safe-standing terracing has also been embraced in German stadiums, which fans view as a vital component of their national game’s identity.

Then there is the 50 + 1 rule, which stipulates that clubs must retain at least 50 percent of shares, plus one share, to ensure outside investors cannot become majority stakeholders. The prominence of Supporter Liaison Officers (SLOs), who represent fan’s interests, and act as their voice in board meetings, is also crucial. This is the antithesis of the situation in England, in which fans are often treated as a commodity. As Borussia Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke summarises:

“In England the fan is now basically a customer…But if you tell a German supporter that he is just a customer, he’s going to kill you.”

Youth & Coaching: A Holistic Approach

After the debacle of 2000, the German FA (the DFB) had a clear strategy; invest in youth. A task force was created and within two years it was compulsory for teams in the first and second division to have an academy. But this focus wasn’t just about honing footballing talent; it was also about embracing a “holistic approach.” As Price acknowledges:

“Whereas English prodigies often abandon their school lives entirely in pursuit of football dreams, the German model demanded equal focus on education in the classroom and on the training pitch.”

The CEO of the DFL (the German Football League), Christian Seifert, considers it a “social responsibility” to provide the best possible education to youngsters, while Pellegrino Matarazzo, the coach of FC Nurnberg’s Under-19 team, points out that winning is not the be-all and end-all and advocates a tailored coaching style that is geared to player’s needs. This culture has undoubtedly helped talented Germans stay grounded and maintain professionalism.

Given that many English youngsters often fall foul to the lofty expectations and pressure to achieve results, or become distracted by the riches and culture of excess that accompanies a career in football, as Price concludes, “the English game would do well to observe what’s worked for Germany – and try and apply some of it.”

Should you be reading Bundesliga Blueprint?

In one word; yes. The Bundesliga Blueprint is a well-researched and informative account of the transition undergone by German football over the last 15-years. For those with Anglo-Germanic interests, I would go as far as saying it is essential. Furthermore, it broaches a number of socio-cultural issues which are of interest to those who analyse beyond the field of play.

It is short and crisp and Price’s writing style is accessible and pithy. You could even say efficient and astute, much like the blueprint about which he is writing. While Price is clearly in awe of German football, he does seek to acknowledge its shortcomings, even if only for a chapter. But more importantly, he makes a compelling argument for why English football should seek to follow in Germany’s footsteps. After reading, you may find it hard to disagree.

The Bundesliga Blueprint — How Germany became the Home of Football by Lee Price

(Bennion Kearny, £9.99)

With thanks to Melanie Greer and Bennion Kearny for the opportunity to review this book.

11/19/13

‘They Work Football and We Play Football’: England’s Conundrum

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There is a certain omnipotence which surrounds this German national side, even when facing their second string. This is what England will be up against on Tuesday night, the fringe players, the rearguard of Joachim Löw’s side. But this counts for nothing when you consider the abundance of talent at Löw’s disposal. Roman Weidenfeller, Marcel Schmelzer, Marco Reus and Sven Bender are four of the expected changes, players who were part of a spellbinding and dazzling Dortmund side who lost in last years Champions League final. Then there is Julian Draxler,  another of Germany’s bright young stars in their golden generation. And it was Mr. Draxler who was speaking to the BBC ahead of Tuesday’s clash at Wembley.

What is the difference between the styles of Germany and England he was asked. After a brief description of Germany’s playing style his conclusion was succinct:

“…they work football and we play football”.

He may have hit the nail on the head. England’s style can be workman like, at times arduous on the eye and joyless. The best teams in the world always look like they are having fun. Draxler’s analogy reminds me of comments made by one of England’s young talents – Jack Wilshere.

It was around the time of the Adnan Januzaj saga, “Only English people should play for England”, should we naturalise players who have come here solely for footballing purposes? Who qualifies as ‘English’? Et cetera et cetera. Perhaps without realising the Arsenal young gun had conflated a number of contemporary issues in society. But it was one comment in particular which instantly grabbed my attention.

“We have great characters. You think of Spain and you think technical but you think of England and you think they are brave and they tackle hard”.  

My immediate thoughts were why on earth are you endorsing such archaic attitudes . Then I reassessed. In a week where England had two crucial World Cup qualifiers they were being attacked left, right and centre. Gregg Dyke had announced the new FA commission tasked with improving the fortunes of the England team. His comments regarding England’s chances at the world cup (or lack of) and the failure of young English players in domestic football were necessary yet untimely. Wilshere’s comments were a valiant defence of both the current national side and English traditions. It was a statement with jingoistic sentiments.

Being brave, having character and tackling hard are all useful traits for a footballer, however these traits alone aren’t going to win you European and World Cup medals. Lest we forget it is the Xavi’s and Iniesta’s of this world that have been picking up the International honours of late – two players certainly not renowned for their hard tackling and tough demeanor. And this is where England’s quandary lies. But what is the solution? I am neither talking about a whole sale importation of a foreign style nor a whole sale rejection of existing traditions but a fusion of anglo-continental styles.

Wayne Rooney is a case in point; he has combined English grit and ruggedness with ingenuity and class. A balance needs to be struck and this doesn’t just come down to harping on about improving technique (as important as it is). In an article by Didi Hamann for The Independent, he spoke of the desire in England to find the new Gascoigne, the new Rooney, the new hero that can reignite England’s dream of success. It is a culture that hinders the overall cohesion of the team.

Hamann recently mocked the English hysteria surrounding Andros Townsend and he makes a valid point. Indeed his sudden rise to prominence has seen him become England’s next hero ‘pulling the sword out the stone’.  If the hopes of a team are projected onto one or two individuals then the team will struggle to take collective responsibility and will inevitably suffer as a consequence. The individual is perpetually the hero or villain of the piece. Thus the future not only lies in  ‘technique’ but also in the sculpting of attitudes. But this is a job for the future and Wilshere was talking about the here and now.

The team won’t change over night and Brazil is edging ever closer. England will play a German team at Wembley who have combined talent, passion and intensity with a technically entertaining brand of football. It is a model to which the English aspire. England have characters on the pitch who tackle hard and work hard, they always have done. This is the root of Draxler’s comment. As we all know England have a number of talented individuals and collectively they still have the potential to perform. It is the first time in a while England will approach a world cup with scant expectation of success. I say embrace this. In the words of Julian Draxler England need to go to Brazil and “play football”.