What we might learn in Germany.

Uli Hesse has published today a really interesting article on the changes in German Football since their “failure” in the European Championships in 2000 – “Football: How Germany’s awful Euro 2000 forced a mass restructure – and why it wouldn’t work for England” (https://uk.sports.yahoo.com/news/germanys-awful-euro-2000-forced-091758906.html?utm_content=buffer58776&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer).

As the title says, this “wouldn’t work in England“, but it’s also clear that it would be difficult to make it work in Scotland. However, perhaps we might tease out what needs to be done to make it work in Scotland. What will become clear, I hope, as we work through Hesse’s thoughts, is that as a first step, there needs to be a greater involvement of the community as well as fan ownership of their clubs.

The first “innovation” in Germany, Hesse discusses was the Extended Talent Promotion Programme, based on “52 centres of excellence to school the most promising talents, but also 366 regional coaching bases where 1,300 professional, full-time coaches teach youngsters the basics of the modern game“.

There are two particularly interesting points in relation to Scotland there. First of all, we don’t need anything like that number of centres – Germany has sixteen times our population – an obvious point. BUT Scotland has 42 clubs in the SPFL. Germany – with 16 times the population – has thirty-six teams in their two national leagues, Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2. Should all our clubs have a Centre of Excellence? Should we expect them to? Could they afford it? Is there a need to train so many apprentice players when there won’t be jobs for anything like all of them after their apprenticeship? I think the answer to that is no, and that however much offence it might cause, we need to focus our attention and resources on a smaller number of clubs. If we made it proportionate – and perhaps it should not be – but just to make the point – there would be one sixteenth of fifty-two “centres of excellence”, which comes to three or four (if you round upwardly). However, in Germany these subject the clubs running centres of excellence to defined responsibilities, with known and effective sanctions in the event of back-sliding – “put simply, the clubs were told what to do, on pain of demotion to the amateur game“. I’ll come back to this.

On the same proportionate basis, there would be twenty-three regional coaching bases, with professional coaches. Given the agreements that the SFA has with most local authorities, we will have a few more than that, but not many more. What do they do in Germany? The article tells us there are “full-time coaches [who] teach youngsters the basics of the modern game“. The point I take from that is that these professional, full time coaches are not there to teach the next Scottish superstar – if only we could find him – but to teach kids who want to play, how to play. We can get obsessed with developing talent, and forget that the identification of talent is easier and more effective if there is a larger pool of players. If the pool is smaller and/ or shrinking then the future talented youngster may never play, or give up due to lack of interest.

In fairness my experience of the SFA’s development programmes is that they are aware of this, and that a good deal of effort goes into encouraging just playing the game, irrespective of talent. However, could there be a role for local clubs – even local junior clubs, where no SPFL club operates, or both together? – to become involved and make such centres more attractive to youngsters, to help football compete more effectively with other sports and activities? In other words, if the infrastructure is in place, perhaps we need to innovate to sell the product. Perhaps the involvement – albeit informal – of local clubs and players from these clubs, might make the programmes in place more appealing to youngsters?

Two points come from this

  1. There is a need to maximise the overall pool of players. Perhaps we need to transform football from a game we watch to a game we play.
  2. However, there is a parallel need for the development of the most talented, the next generation of professional players to be focused on a smaller number of centres. On a proportionate basis, Scotland might only have 3 or 4 centres for such development compared to Germany. Even if we had twice as many, that would still be less than we have now. Do we need to train so many young players? The German experience suggests that we would do better by focusing on a smaller number, though perhaps with bridges into the system for the late developer? After all, as the article says, Miroslav Klose was still playing level 5 amateur football at 21.

One aspect where German clubs are like their Scottish counterparts is in their regard for the national team. Hesse argues, “Because for all the lip service they may pay, clubs are the same wherever you go: they couldn’t care less about the national team. They don’t even care very much about nurturing homegrown talent. What they care about is winning the next league game – and if it takes 11 players signed from foreign clubs to do this, then so be it. Of course clubs pride themselves on their youth academies. They know that it’s good PR if you bring up a few local lads through the ranks. They also know that it can save them a lot of transfer money to school their own talents. However, another thing they know is that nobody can guarantee you that star players will come off this assembly line and that even in the best case you need to have the one thing nobody has these days: patience.” That sounds familiar, does it not? So how did the Germans square that circle?

Hesse argues there were three factors – history, money and force.

The first factor, he argues is the closeness of the Football Association (DFB) and their football league (DFL), and in particular “a general understanding in Germany that what is good for the DFB is probably also good for the clubs in the long run, and this includes the fortunes of the national team.”

Does this exist in Scotland? I would have to say, at least in terms of potency, it seems to me that it does not. I am not saying there is no cooperation, but it is limited. Moreover, too often too many clubs base their decisions on what is best for them as an individual club, and not even what is best for the League, never mind the game in Scotland or the national team. In doing so they ignore the fact that football is not an individual product of clubs acting autonomously, but a collective product of them acting together. It is of course inevitable that clubs are primarily concerned about their own future and development, but this is not something to be taken forward independently, but collectively. If the game in general is in trouble, then individual clubs will be in trouble. That part of Scottish football culture has to change, but culture change is often a long term project, though it can be accelerated by a crisis. Perhaps there are unmistakable signs of crisis? Not only the failure to reach the final stages of an international competition for nearly 20 years, but the dearth of players in the national team who are playing in the Premiership?

For instance, nearly half the players who played for France in their Euro 2016 semi-final against Germany, played in the Premiership last season. Only six of the forty-three players (14%) named in the Scotland squad on the BBC website (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/teams/scotland) are likely to be playing in the Premiership this coming season. More than half the twenty-three-man Welsh squad on the BBC website (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/teams/wales), will be playing in the Premiership next season (or in Bale’s case, the “second prize” of playing for Real Madrid).

The second reason for the transformation in Germany was the lack of money – their pay-to-view broadcaster went out of business. As Hesse says this was “the rough equivalent of BSkyB going bust, without BT being there to pick up the slack.” As a result, German clubs – with the exception of Bayern Munich – could no longer compete their English, Italian and Spanish competitors. They had to rely on young talent. Hesse cites Borussia Dortmund as a particular case in point, as they had paid such little attention to youth development beforehand that they “came close to being thrown out of the Bundesliga”. Dortmund had not only to pay closer attention to development of their own players, but actually to play them.

This is a particularly worrying aspect for Scottish football, since, we have experienced our pay-to-view broadcaster going bust – Setanta. But also, for the last four years one of the two biggest clubs in Scotland has been a sort of internal exile in the leagues below our Premier League, which, we are told has devalued the TV contract. How many young Scottish players have emerged during these difficult years? Or is it not true to say that clubs have tended, as Hesse puts it to “spend money on proven players who have been schooled elsewhere, no matter which national team they are eligible for“? Perhaps not such good players, but at their level, “proven” and perceived as the means to winning? Less risky than bringing through youngsters (which attitude in passing makes having so many apprentices even more a folly).

Lastly – there is “force”, by which Hesse means the rules of the DFL. Hesse points out that “Under the German league rules, clubs are granted a licence for professional football only if they meet certain regulations, most of them having to do with finances. This is the famous annual licencing process, often cited as a major reason for the German clubs’ economic stability”. But added to that was a commitment “to build or maintain a centre of excellence and .. to nurture talent”. This went as far as specifying “how many players eligible for a German national youth team had to be in the squads, how many coaches and physios the club had to employ, in which way the clubs had to interact with local schools and so on and on“. If clubs did not fulfil these requirements on an annual basis (i.e. not one off, but every year) then they would lose their licence and, as we quoted before, suffer “demotion to the amateur game”.

Of course the question here is whether the DFL would really do this? If Bayern Munich were in breach of the rules, would they really be thrust down to the Regional League in Bavaria? It could be strongly argued that some “accommodation” would be put in place. But, let’s turn that round. Would Bayern Munich want to take that chance? Demotion to the Regional League would at the very least be extremely serious, and perhaps even fatal.

But perhaps the most important point is that German clubs regard fulfilling the terms of their licence as a duty, and so such disciplinary action is not needed. It is no more than a backstop, for the clubs regard the terms of their licence as setting out how they should behave. And that is the lesson for Scottish football.

It is hard to imagine the SPFL – or the SFA – disciplining a club in this way. Indeed, it is hard to imagine the clubs agreeing to a licencing regime which they would find overly onerous or contradictory to their essentially individualistic aims.

Part of the difficulty, Hesse argues, comparing Germany to England, is “that it’s difficult to tell someone like Roman Abramovich how to run the company he bought from Ken Bates, or to explain to the Abu Dhabi United Group why they should produce players for the English national team“. For which read Dermot Desmond for Roman Abramovich, or Dave King for the Abu Dhabi United Group.

The lesson we need to draw from this is that many of the problems of Scottish football might be structural, but fundamentally it is a matter of culture. Hesse argues that the difference between England (and I would argue Scotland too) and Germany is that in Germany “clubs are not privately owned and have a long history of being community-oriented and operating for the common good, the situation is very different” Indeed, it is.

In Scotland community ownership is usually the initially favoured option when a club goes into crisis. But more often than not, the fans, having put their hands in their pockets to keep their club going during the difficult times, lose out when another business group comes along. There are of course noble exceptions such as Motherwell, where Les Hutchison is supporting the Well Society to buy the club, as well as Hearts where Anne Budge is in partnership with the Foundation of Hearts. However, even in both these cases, fan ownership is only mooted when a club is in crisis. For a club in private ownership, that has been stable in recent years, fan ownership is not really an issue. Moreover, how can we judge fan ownership as an alternative model when it has been employed only in clubs that have been in crisis?

In conclusion, if fan ownership were the normal model of club ownership, then would Scottish football be better able to introduce at least some of the innovations implemented by the Germans with such success (at least till they lost to France in Euro 2016 – though how pleased would we be to get to the semi-final even if we lost?)?

  1. Would there be a better understanding between the clubs, the SPFL and the SFA? One of the main divisions just now, I would suggest is the essentially individualist orientation of too many clubs. Would this change with fan ownership? There could be no guarantees, but at least change would create the possibility?
  2. Would the lack of money cause clubs to play talented Scottish young players, rather than proven, if limited, professional players from abroad? Again, we could not say. But perhaps a change in ownership might bring with it a change in culture? Fan ownership might engender the community involvement that German clubs seek to foster, and where developing and bringing through talented local youngsters is simply part of that community involvement? At the same time, we need to consider how many young players are given apprenticeships when there is a strictly limited number of jobs for them to move into.
  3. Would fan owned clubs be willing to back the introduction of a strong licencing system, which would create the sort of financial stability that the German clubs typically enjoy, as well as requiring appropriate obligations in regard to the development of young players? Hesse makes clear that much of the reason for German clubs not only introducing, but mostly relatively enthusiastically accepting these innovations, was that their clubs are fan owned, with a high degree of community involvement. If this was paralleled in Scotland then the German experience is that such innovations would at least become more possible – strong licencing, commitments to developing young players, genuine partnership of the clubs, SPFL and SFA for the benefit of the game as a whole.
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