When Germany lifted the World Cup in Brazil on Sunday night, it marked an incredible turnaround in fortunes 13 years on from one of their darkest days.
On an unforgettable night in Munich, England produced one of their finest displays to claim an astonishing 5-1 win, with a hat-trick from Michael Owen and goals from Steven Gerrard and Emile Heskey inspiring the Three Lions.
Time for change
Shellshocked, the losers took a close look at themselves and decided that it would be time for change. How right that decision has proved to be.
True, the 2014 champions have gone close time and time again, losing in the 2002 final to Brazil, 2006 semi-final to eventual winners Italy and 2010 semi-final to eventual winners Spain.
How the Germans reached the ’02 final remains a mystery to many, whilst a wave of home support propelled Jurgen Klinsmann’s side to the later stages once again in ’06. When 2010 came around, they were starting to see the benefit from a refined youth programme, and thrashed England and Argentina on the way to the last four.
Youth team benefits
Playing an attractive brand of football with youth players sprinkled throughout the side, Joachim Low had inherited a side on the up. Comfortable on the ball from back to front, the players have also benefited from playing together at junior tournaments before stepping up to the first team.
Manuel Neuer, Mats Hummels, Benedikt Howedes, Jerome Boateng, Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil - all players who featured in South America (five started the final), all players to have dismantled England 4-0 in a European Championship U21 tournament final back in 2009. Coincidence?
For the record, England’s only representative in the final that made it to Brazil this summer was James Milner. Other starters included Theo Walcott, Nedum Onuoha, Scott Loach and Mark Noble.
So, just how have they done it, and what lessons can England learn from their great rivals? Well, whilst defeat to England in 2001 must have been a major wake-up call, it was actually the nation’s performance at Euro 2000 which initially sparked a reaction at the top of the game.
Crucially, the DFB (equivalent to FA in England), Bundesliga and clubs themselves decided that improving German players at a young age would benefit all parties. It was subsequently agreed that any team in the top two divisions of the league must have their own academy.
English football implemented an academy system of their own a few years before, with Howard Wilkinson the mastermind behind the plan, which was implemented in 1998. 16 years on, England are yet to see the fruits of his labour, whilst Germany, who refined the process, are. Why?
Well, one theory is that a lack of competition is an issue. At academies in England, clubs play each other with no emphasis on winning and losing. That only comes into play at the FA Youth Cup and other occasional tournaments - usually held abroad. In Germany, there is relegation and promotion at the highest level of youth football from U12s up. Winning becomes important, even if not the most crucial part of a junior's development.
Premier League vs England
A bigger stumbling block would be to get the FA, Premier League and top clubs to reach an agreement over a programme that is currently putting Germany ahead of the rest.
The cold, hard facts are that the Premier League is a global brand much more valuable than the England team. It makes no difference whether English players are present, because the division is so big globally that the national team’s success or failure has no impact on its value. Why would this ever change?
Bundesliga bounces back
The Bundesliga was derided as one of the worst leagues in Europe a decade ago, but now its one of the best, with both teams in the 2013 Champions League final. Despite falling short in 2014, they have two of the continent’s best teams in Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, as well as one of the most watched leagues in the world. Most importantly, the majority of players who represent the teams are ‘homegrown'.
This recent success can be traced back to 2003, when the DFB implemented their talent programme to improve youth development across the country. The nation was split into 366 different areas, with over 1,000 part-time coaches - all holding a UEFA ‘B’ licence minimum - teaching the game.
UEFA statistics in 2013 show that Germany have over six-times more coaches than England with a UEFA ‘A’ licence, and over nine-times more with a UEFA pro licence - the highest qualification available.
England does boast one of the biggest coaching networks in the world, with the FA awarding 40,000 qualifications a year to people working at a range of different age levels. But if these coaches, who dedicate hours of their time, often for nothing, can’t coach to a high enough standard, then the players produced will never be good enough. Is that the problem?
Premier League clubs have shown an interest in addressing this issue, with the Elite Player Performance Plan aimed at getting the very best out of young players at the clubs.
However, take a closer look at the U18 teams of the nation’s top clubs, and you’ll see plenty of foreign talent in each side. These clubs have plenty of money available, and are willing to try and buy in the best players from around the world in order to challenge for trophies at senior level. One can only wonder if the EPPP is about improving their teams, rather than England's.
Who can blame them for that if it is indeed the case? The top clubs look after their own product, and it's a pretty good one. The Premier League is regarded as one of the best divisions in the world, with the biggest TV deal in world football on the table. And, from a fans perspective, would you want your club to win a title or country to win the World Cup?
German football has shown that both might well be possible.
Whilst the EPPP is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, the problems lie much deeper in English football. At grassroots level, the calibre of player being developed does not appear to be good enough. Clubs like Southampton are doing a fantastic job at the sharp end of the game, but are players good enough when they arrive at the professional ranks in the first place?
In Germany, children aged between eight and 14 are provided with technical and tactical coaching, provided by the 1000 part-time coaches who also act as scouts and talent-spotters. Bundesliga clubs will then attend the coaching sessions, and snap-up players if they aren’t already affiliated to a club. It would be like the FA developing the players, and then the Premier League clubs coming in and taking them to the next, elite level.
That's pretty much the exact opposite of how it works here. Clubs scout their own players at junior football matches, local competitions and occasional open days for school children. They then either go straight into a professional club, or they do not. There is no stepping-stone; no progression path.
Coming off the back of a World Cup failure, when Roy Hodgson's side crashed out after just two games, it's easy to point the finger and find fault. The grass is always greener on the winning side.
Change really needed?
But perhaps we should be happy with our current standing. England have reached the knockout phase in two of the last three major tournaments, and lost on penalties three times over the past ten years. Had we won those shootouts, people might question whether there is a problem at all.
The current crop of young players coming through are also showing great promise, with Raheem Sterling, Luke Shaw and Ross Barkley joining other names like Joe Hart, Jack Wilshere and Daniel Sturridge. These players have plenty of years - and major tournaments - ahead of them.
Experience at major tournaments may count for more than an U21 championships in two, four and six years time, and there is now a crop of players who experienced it all at least once in their careers. If ever England are 'ready' for a tournament, it should be Euro 2016.
The big decision
Real co-operation between the major players in English football is the only way that a significant change - like the one seen in German football - is going to happen. And, if there is anything that might make people see long-term value in doing something revolutionary, it’s success.
That is something Germany most certainly now have, and England most certainly do not.
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