Single-Digit Soccer: The definitive word on Germany

How do they do things in Europe? As we saw with birth-year age groups, perhaps not what we think.

Single-Digit Soccer makes multiple references to a terrific piece from The Guardian (disclaimer: I’m now writing a bit for the excellent UK newspaper) on the way Germany revamped its youth system after falling short at Euro 2000.  Today, The Guardian has an excerpt from a forthcoming book on German soccer called Das Reboot.

The only information I saw in this excerpt that contradicts the previous Guardian piece — the reboot actually started before 2000. Everything else hits and expands upon familiar themes, though the excerpt takes a while to get to the youth programs of interest to Single-Digit Soccer fans.

A few highlights:

– In 1996, the German DFB only worked with the national teams, while regional federations did the bulk of the education. Berti Vogts sought to put a DFB coach “inside each regional federation to conduct additional sessions for gifted kids who weren’t part of the club system.” At the time, it was turned down.

– After World Cup 1998, a modified plan went into effect: 121 regional centers to do weekly two-hour sessions for 4,000 kids in the 13-17 age bracket. Another program would reach 10,000 boys (and yes, we should specify *boys*, though I’ll be curious to see what the book says about the impact on women’s soccer) under 12.

– The goal: Everyone should live within 25 kilometers of a regional center.

Think about that for a second. Twenty-five kilometers. A little more than 15 miles.

Imagine that on the East Coast. You’d have multiple centers in Fairfax County, Va. The Triad area in North Carolina would have at least three — Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point. The Triangle would probably have a couple in between the Durham/Chapel Hill and Raleigh metros.

– There was some push and pull between elite and what I guess you’d call recreational.

The DFB made it compulsory for the 18 top teams to build performance centres by 2001–02. Money was the main obstacle: “How much will it cost? Is that really necessary?, were the reactions,” says Schott. But there was also some resistance at the ideological level against fostering the elite. “Werder Bremen doesn’t want to follow the principle of selection,” the former Werder general manager Willi Lemke, a Social Democrat politician, said in 1998. “We have a social responsibility. We are obliged to provide leisure activities for children, promote the motivation to perform, teach them solidarity and team spirit.”

At the same time, the federation was making sure to reach beyond the chosen few in pro academies. Go back to the previous Guardian piece and its comments on a program for ages 8-14 in 366 areas with 1,000 B-licensed part-time coaches:

Some youngsters attending the development programme are already affiliated with professional clubs but others may be only turning out for their local junior side, which means the weekly DFB sessions are also a chance for Bundesliga teams to spot players.

The clubs also have some flexibility to reach out across a wider expanse without herding the “best” youngsters into their academies at an early age:

Across a sizeable area where they face little competition from other Bundesliga clubs, Freiburg work closely with five amateur feeder teams who receive a part-time coach to train children aged 8 to 11 twice a week. The most promising players are invited to attend the academy during school holidays and for occasional tournaments at weekends. “We believe it is not good for a nine-year-old to play [regularly] for a professional football club because it changes the reasons why he plays football,” says Sebastian Neuf, a member of the football school’s management.

National competition starts at U17. It’s regional at U15. That’s typical — check the European Club Academies report.

(Edited to add: What about young women? Through U15, a lot of them are playing on the boys teams!)

Single-Digit Soccer: Capitalism and Klinsmann


We’re a multicultural nation. English, Irish, German, Scottish, Mexican, Chinese, Korean … we can hardly list all of our influences.

We’re also a rabidly capitalist nation. Sure, most of Europe is capitalist as well. But we take it to another level. Everything competes in the marketplace — sometimes fairly, sometimes not.

And we don’t kindly to taking orders from one entity. If we did, the Boston Tea Party would just be a polite weekly gathering, perhaps to watch Foxboro United take on Arsenal in an English Premier League game.

So in youth soccer, we have myriad entities calling the shots. Want something that U.S. Youth Soccer isn’t providing? Try U.S. Club Soccer. Or just form your own league. These organizations and others can also offer their own approaches to coaching education, curricula, club standards, etc. They all co-exist under the big tent of the terrific convention held by the NSCAA, which has its own thoughts on some of these matters.

In one popular NSCAA Convention session, “Building Champions: German Player Development,” German coaching guru Bernd Stoeber compared this chaos to the German way. Number of entities in charge of such things in Germany: One.

And the German system has a lot of advantages, as the classic Guardian examination shows. It’s certainly an improvement over the English system, which seems to boil down to “‘ello, your lad ‘asn’t played well for a fortnight, so he seems daft to me, and we’re releasing ‘im. Don’t worry — he’s only 17, and he ‘as a fourth-grade education, he does.” (Seriously — one of the factoids from the great Guardian examination of Germany’s system shows that their kids are going to school as much as any American child would, while English teens are going a mere nine hours a week.)

Could U.S. Soccer borrow a page from Germany’s book and take charge of everything here? Should they? Probably not, on both counts.

Not that the USSF has to be passive. Surely some of the extremes can be reined in. Maybe youth clubs should be required to have a director of coaching who has been through some basic licensing work, so I’ll be less likely to see a U8 team doing heading drills. Maybe they can ban State Cups and other hypercompetitive tournaments for U10 and below, when we really need to focus on development. A handful of mandates wouldn’t be a bad idea.

But the chaos of American youth soccer is simply a fact of life. We’re diverse — ethnically, economically, geographically, etc. The realities and opportunities of Southern California will always differ from those of Vermont.

In my Single-Digit Soccer session, I had coaches from Nebraska, Michigan, Alaska, Georgia and surely several other states. Some were in urban areas. Some had to travel substantial distances to get decent games. I feel a little more sympathy for the Omaha club needing to drive a few hours than I do the suburban Maryland club that bypasses the entire D.C. metropolitan area to play a league game elsewhere. Every club’s field situation is different — some are on school fields, some on county fields, some privately held.

So when it comes to reforming youth soccer in this country, you have to adapt the old prayer’s line about having the serenity to accept what you cannot change.

I’m not sure Jurgen Klinsmann has ever gained that serenity. He says the right things about accepting players for how they are, not forcing them to be something they’re not, and he has accepted the notion that players are going to take different paths at age 18 — college, MLS, Europe, NASL, etc.

But he’s also one of the people pushing kids to play a 10-month Development Academy season with one club. One environment. The Academy is running down toward U12 now, a notion that perplexed several speakers I saw. Non-Academy clubs are running similar schedules. Why is that the best path forward in such a diverse country?

Klinsmann’s native land, Germany, actually mixes things up, at least for younger kids. Back to the Guardian piece: A lot of kids stay with local junior clubs and get supplemental training from the federation’s traveling coaches.

That seems like a program even more appropriate to a vast country like this one. So does the idea of being exposed to different styles of play, different coaches, etc. Some serious games, some recreational, some just flat-out fun.

U.S. youth soccer today might be too chaotic. A light touch of regulation — perhaps mandating basic education for coaches — would help. But does anyone think an overbearing set of commandments from Chicago will work in this country?

Germany 6: Last legs

Yesterday, I had a pleasant but sweaty walk almost all the way up the 1.6-kilometer Hauptstrasse, a pedestrian strip in Heidelberg’s old city. I detoured through parts of the university and up, up, up into the castle. Photos are below, and I’m waiting on the video to pop up at espnW.

Then I took the train to Sinsheim for the game and decided to go all the way to the alleged “Museum/Arena” stop. It’s nowhere near the “Arena.” That walk was equally sweaty and less pleasant, up a strip of car yards and fast-food places. I skipped Burger King and plopped down in the McCafe about halfway through.

But my grumpiness faded quickly at the stadium. The media center crew is one of the nicest at the Cup, and I was able to spread out a bit because Mexico and New Zealand didn’t attract a huge press contingent. Then I saw one of the more remarkable games of the tournament. A volunteer who wanted to practice his English and talk about the USA gave me a ride back to the train station during a gap between media shuttles, and I caught an earlier train back to Heidelberg.

So now I’m almost finished. In 24 hours, I’ll be on a plane. It’s bittersweet, definitely. I can’t wait to see my family. I’m less thrilled about going back and picking up projects that don’t involve pleasant rides on comfortable trains in which the conductors make sure you don’t go more that 90 minutes without chocolate. I haven’t driven a car in two weeks, and I don’t miss it in the least.

Actual television might be nice, though. I finally got an explanation of German TV from my friend Tracy, who met up with me in Heidelberg — Germans apparently just don’t care enough about TV to produce much of their own stuff beyond news, sports, talk shows and the occasional cooking show. So that’s why all the comedies and dramas are dubbed-over American fare. It’s not that they’re so enamored of Charlie Sheen and company — they just can’t be bothered to produce anything to fill that space. I admire that. At the same time, I’d like to see some English-language sports programming. And I’m tired of missing UFC cards.

I’m also missing all the dogs I know (mostly mine, of course). I see dogs all over here, occasionally in unexpected places like train stations, hotels and restaurants. Yesterday, I saw two dogs with a family starting the trek up the hill to the castle — one bounding around with energy, one focused straight ahead. I said, “one old, one young?” “Mother and daughter” was the response.

So at this point, I’m very happy with everything. Happy to be here, happy to be going home. I’m only angry at one thing.

The Atlantic Ocean.

If not for the Atlantic Ocean, we could hop on a train in Washington and pop up in Frankfurt. Maybe Americans would learn a thing or two about all the well-run aspects of European culture. Maybe Europeans would learn not to make people pay to use the toilet in the train station.

To put a more positive spin on things — I wish the USA and Germany were closer. It’s remarkable that we can go back and forth so easily just a couple of generations after two devastating wars. But as the USA becomes more diverse, I hope we’ll keep looking to Germany and exchanging ideas, tourism money and cultures.

Except the food.

Final photos, barring something unforeseen in Wolfsburg, follow here:

From Mostly Heidelberg, posted by Beau Dure on 7/06/2011 (23 items)

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Germany 4: Stuck inside of Frankfurt with the Augsburg blues again

One of the reassuring aspects of going on a whirlwind tour is that any stereotypes you could form are quickly whittled away. Find yourself in an impossible situation with impossible people, and all you have to do is keep going to try the next situation.

I believe I left off in the middle of a train delay on the way from Bochum to Augsburg. As you can see from my two videos — one at an Irish pub and another in a public square that is stony yet warm — Augsburg was worth the wait.

Imagine that students at the University of Georgia or the University of North Carolina, instead of walking from the older part of campus to their favorite haunts on Broad Street or Franklin Street, all hopped on trams for five minutes and then walked around friendly pedestrian thoroughfares, writing Bach-style fugues in the windows of coffeehouses. (Yes, I asked the young music student what she was writing, and her English was barely good enough to explain.)

That’s Augsburg. Fun, friendly people all around. All in a city with remarkable historic buildings still standing or faithfully restored after the wars.

It’s also a city that has had a good run in soccer. The major local club, FC Augsburg, played its way up the ladder and will be in the Bundesliga for the first time this season. The stadium is a neat one with some idiosyncrasies — I had to bend nearly in half to duck under one of the rafters of the stadium roof just to get to my seat.

I also had my first serious encounter with media officials who simply didn’t see it as their role to be helpful.

The press conferences here are UN-style. You pick up a translation device, switch it to your language of choice and go from there. In Berlin, I was asked to sign my name to pick up my deice. In Bochum, they just handed them out.

In Augsburg, I was asked for my “press card.” Not my credential, not my ticket for the press conference. A card that’s apparently quite common among print journalists in Europe.

Well, I don’t have a “press card.” And as far as the woman handing out translation devices was concerned, I wasn’t getting one. As if I had somehow conned my way to getting a credential and a ticket to a press conference, all in hopes of absconding with a set of headphones.

A BBC World Service freelancer was in the same boat, and we more or less formed a blockade to get someone in some position of authority to come over and solve the problem. (German journalists neither complained about us nor offered to help. That’s fairly typical.) Someone in a suit came over, listened to us and said, proud of his English, “Yes, you give your press card.” I pointed out, yet again, that we freelancers had no such thing.

They agreed to let us use our credentials as collateral. Turns out, this was just a warmup.

I was sad to leave Augsburg. The InterCity hotel desk clerk I saw two straight days later recognized me as I left the “McCafe” where I had been working next door and said a nice hello to “Mr. Durrre.” I felt like I was making friends. Getting around on the trams was easy, even if one wasn’t going where it was advertised.

Another long-ish train ride awaited, so I hopped on the now-familiar ICE, which takes us at speeds up to 300km/h in stunning comfort, with people who come by every 90 minutes or so to make sure you don’t go too long without chocolate.

Candy is everywhere here. And the funny thing is that dental care doesn’t seem to be a priority. Shops in the train stations carry every sort of travel need imaginable — except toothpaste. One large shop in Frankfurt offered bras, which I suppose could be a traveler’s unforeseen need. Not so sure why it offered ice cream scoops.

I had used the handouts at Berlin’s Abion Spreebogen hotel, then visited an “apothecary” (pharmacy) to find really slim selection and a pharmacist who seemed befuddled not by English but by the very concept of cleaning teeth. I settled on Sensodyne, which is a Glaxo product of some sort. I’ve concluded that it’s actually Glaxo’s waste product, scraped off laboratory floors. It was absolutely disgusting, and I was relieved beyond belief to find honest-to-goodness Crest at another “apothecary” in the giant Frankfurt station.

I didn’t have much of a chance to investigate Frankfurt. All I can tell you is that it’s huge. It’s a big, big city. The InterCity next to the station is terrific. The station is roughly the size of Washington’s Union Station but far sleeker.

The train to the stadium drops you a good 10-minute walk from that stadium, but it’s pleasant. The road is lined with trees and occasional buildings offering grilled food and beer.

The first hint of trouble in Frankfurt was that the media center was a large tent about 200 yards from the stadium. A big fan zone was set up between the two. Before the fans arrived, this was fun — I played a fast, competitive game of foosball with a company rep of some sort and accepted a very rare loss (10-7 final) with good humor. The fan zone wasn’t as fun going the other direction, particularly when the crowd around a stage pretty well blocked the path to the stadium.

At most stops, I’ve been given a ticket either for the formal press conference or the informal “mixed zone,” where you try to stop players as they walk by. For Germany-Nigeria in Frankfurt, I was given a mixed zone ticket. Given my limited lingual skills, that’s not much help.

In Berlin, I had been encouraged to trade with someone to get into the press conference. I know from other journalists that this is pretty typical.

So I stood in the hallway in front of the press conference and mixed zone doors, asking people if they wanted to trade.

A bearded, bureaucratic type stepped up to tell me such trades were not allowed. I said they were allowed and even encouraged. In hindsight, I have no idea why I thought that would be the end of it.

The situation escalated over a couple of minutes. The guy would leave me alone a bit, and I actually got into a discussion about a possible trade. But then he finally said firmly that I needed to stop.

I was adamant, and I poked my head around the corner to say this was simply ridiculous, and I wanted to speak to someone else. I didn’t have the steward in mind, but he seemed happy for the opportunity to crack some skulls, at least metaphorically.

“Go!” he yelled. “Auf wiedersehen!” (I’ve heard “Auf wiederschen” instead of the less formal “Tchuss” maybe twice on this trip.)

“You have no authority to tell me to leave!” I protested.

He patted his orange steward vest and repeated himself. “Auf wiedersehen!”

I turned back around the corner. For a split second, I simply wasn’t going to give this guy the satisfaction, and I so nearly announced again that I was looking for a trade. But self-preservation kicked in — having a credential yanked from my neck would put a crimp on the rest of the trip, even if I managed to appeal and get it back — and I stormed back to the media center.

The desk people at the media center told me they had indeed been told we couldn’t trade. I said, “They’re telling you one thing and telling Berlin another!” They seemed crushed, and I abruptly switched gears to reassure them none of this was their fault.

And they were so nice to me. They made sure I could watch the press conference on a TV in the media center, not that I could understand the Germans.

So I left in a much better mood and walked toward the station with my English journalism friend Carrie, who got a kick out of hearing the whole story.

I left without finishing my story because I guessed, correctly, that we could end up stranded at the media center. The game ended at 10:45, the press conferences ended at 11:15 or so, and train service started to wind down after midnight. So I got on the crowded platform and found that it wasn’t so crowded at all if you got away from the doors. Somehow, the crowd never realized what a good idea it would be to spread out. So I had plenty of elbow room on the short ride back to the Hauptbahnhof (main station).

Again, I took up residence in a McCafe, which was nearly full. I worked until 1 a.m., when my connection started to conk out. No more trains were scheduled to depart, and they had locked a few doors — including the door from the McCafe back into the station. So I walked outside the other door and out of the station, then back in so I could walk out the north exit by the hotel. THAT was locked. Back to the main entrance, back around the station, back to the InterCity and a wonderful but brief sleep.

The Hauptbahnhof also had a Starbucks, so I parked myself there and caught up on my travel plans online before heading to Leverkusen, my first stop without a major train station. Koln seems to regard Leverkusen as little more than a suburb, which the romantic in me wants to attribute to soccer jealousy — Bayer Leverkusen is a perennial contender, while FC Koln can’t seem to stay in the Bundesliga.

Leverkusen itself has pretty neighborhoods. I know this because I got lost. I wound up walking with a Russian man from Vladivostok who was there to cheer for Japan, and we occasionally stopped people to ask for directions. One elderly woman did not know how to get to the BayArena. Or the football stadium, when we tried to use the generic name. This conversation took place while we could see part of the stadium roof.

Once we found it, I had a terrific time. The hotel is actually connected to the stadium. The media center crew couldn’t be nicer. They told me I could swap my press conference or mixed zone ticket all I wanted, and they laughed at my impression of the “Auf wiedersehen!” guy.

The only truly disappointing part was dinner. I ate in the hotel instead of McDonald’s — yes, those were the two viable options. I got the hotel’s burger, figuring they couldn’t mess that up. Oh, but they did. It combined the firm texture of a hockey puck with the taste of a hockey puck.

The next morning, the helpful hotel staff told me how I should *really* walk back to the small Leverkusen train station. It was a lovely walk through a park that had a river (really a creek) running in a straight line down the middle. The path takes you by Bayer Leverkusen’s extensive training facilities. And there are dogs.

I’ve changed my travel plans because one game I was supposed to cover will now feature two teams that have been eliminated. That rules out a trip to Dresden, which I regret — the unanimous view is that it’s unimaginably beautiful. Instead, I’ll spend my last five days here hopping between Wolfsburg and Heidelberg.

Big photo gallery follows:

From Augsburg-Frankfurt-Leverkusen, posted by Beau Dure on 7/02/2011 (25 items)

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Germany 3: Bochum’s bad rap

First up — gotta plug my latest espnW content: My report from Japan-New Zealand, featuring the almost-overconfident Ferns and my second video from Berlin, opening with a joke about one of Julie Foudy’s prior endorsement deals.

Bochum. I used to pronounce it “BO-kum.” Excuse me — “BEAU-kum.”

But as I get used to listening to German, I’ve started to adopt some affectations. So it’s slowly morphing into “BO-khum.” Or “BO-(phlegmy sound)m.”

Some might say that’s appropriate. Bochum doesn’t have the best reputation as a tourist destination. In my Lonely Planet guide to Germany, it’s fully covered in two pages. On a Kindle. That’s like Earth’s entry in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Mostly harmless.”

Basically, it has a cool mining demonstration and a cluster of bars with a wild party scene. That’s about it.

As I looked out from my 13th-floor window at the sunset at 10:30 p.m. — somehow, I didn’t realize we were in the Arctic — I saw a few nice neighborhoods and a pretty steeple. Off in the distance, a few miles apart on the horizon, are a wind turbine and a nuclear reactor. And the gummy treats left on my bed are shaped like nuclear reactors. Other than that, I didn’t had a chance to see much else other than the stadium and the train station.

I do wish I had eaten dinner at McDonald’s rather than the hotel restaurant. The meal was fine, but they seemed a little agitated that someone insisted on eating at 8:45 even though they’re open until 10.

But say this for Bochum — I bumped into several people eager to chat. I have a tendency to wear my credential everywhere — at the Olympics, you pretty much have to, and I feel lost without it. Especially because it’s also my rail pass. A couple of people at the stadium tram stop saw it and struck up conversations about the games and the cities on my itinerary.

So on the whole, I’ll stand up for Bochum. Obviously, parts of it are pretty, and parts aren’t. The city center is kind of like Ballston (Arlington, Va.) except that you can go more than two directions on the trains.

The novelty of seeing U.S. movies and TV shows dominating the German airwaves has worn off. I watched something with Ray Liotta being systematically beaten up in a “Prisoner”-type scenario that probably made even less sense in English. I am a little sad that I missed Phineas und Ferb. “Hey! Wo ist Perry!”

Photos follow:

From Bochum, posted by Beau Dure on 6/28/2011 (6 items)

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Virtual Viewing Party: Sunday’s games

We’re going to keep this room open all day for people to stop by and chat in case Twitter’s down. During the day, you’ll see some Twitter highlights pop through.

Our hosts are:

Algeria-Slovenia, 7:30 a.m. ET, ESPN
Serbia-Ghana, 10 a.m. ET, ESPN
Germany-Australia, 2:30 p.m. ET, ABC
(all on ESPN Deportes / / Univision)

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