The resurgence of German soccer began, like the country's economic comeback, after a long slide toward stagnation amid dire prophecies of impending irrelevance.
The sick man of Europe, as Germany was known a decade ago, could as easily have been called the sick man of soccer. After a disastrous European Championships in 2000 when the traditional powerhouse won no games and scored one goal, the problem-solving, build-a-better-widget German drive kicked in.
While the government was loosening German labor laws to grease the creaking gears of the country's economy, a society known for its apprenticeships and vocational training set about methodically developing young talent in the world's most popular sport.
In a little more than a decade, Germany has invested nearly $1 billion in its youth programs, with academies run by professional teams and training centers overseen by the national soccer association, the Deutscher Fussball Bund, or D.F.B. The programs testify to the long-term strategic thinking and to the considerable resources that have driven Germany's rise to renewed prominence in — and at the expense of — a struggling continent.
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"Once the Germans have decided to transform, to reform, they do it," Emmanuel Hembert, an expert in the business of soccer at the consultancy A. T. Kearney, said. "It has been the case for the labor rules; it's the case for football where they changed their model; and it's had a very positive impact."
The products of the new factory system were exhibited in striking fashion this season. Germany sent seven professional teams into European competitions, and for the first time all seven advanced to the knockout rounds beginning in the new year.
The three German teams in the hypercompetitive Champions League — Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Schalke — all won their groups. Less noticeable but equally important is the depth and parity in the German game. Teams from the midsize cities Leverkusen (pop. 160,000) and Mnchengladbach (pop. 260,000) were among the four that advanced in the slightly less prestigious Europa League.
The German league has seized the advantage while many clubs in crisis-stricken, austerity-squeezed countries like Spain and Italy have been unable to deal with deep debts and older stadiums in poor condition. The Spanish team Valencia started the season with an unfinished stadium and no sponsor for the team's jersey, a standard moneymaker in European sports.
The German teams "are preparing for an era of European dominance," Hembert said. "The time of the German league is coming."
Where England's soccer analysts bemoan a British league brimming with foreign mercenaries but crowding out local players, German teams have improved with a rising share of domestic players. At the same time, they have overcome stereotypes of ugly but effective play and today are more likely to be compared by opponents to finely tuned Porsches than grinding Panzer tanks.
"It's no longer this wooden, boring soccer," said Horst Heldt, the general manager at Schalke, a blue-collar squad with a national following similar to that of the N.F.L.'s Pittsburgh Steelers.
German teams have benefited from and contributed to the country's improved reputation abroad, not to mention an economy that has held up far better in rough economic times than many of its neighbors. Eager German talents are nurtured with the best coaching and conditioning, and presented in cutting-edge stadiums.
In preparation for the 2006 World Cup, Germany invested $1.84 billion in new and renovated stadiums, helping German clubs to set a record with 13.8 million spectators last season. The sport has entered an empowering cycle in which better play helped earn a richer television deal, which in turn is being used to plow more money into player development.
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Today the German league, the Bundesliga, pulses with an abundance of young homegrown stars, like Borussia Dortmund's Marco Reus, 23; Bayer Leverkusen's Andr Schrrle, 22; and Munich's Thomas Mller, 23. Reus's Dortmund, the reigning German champion, even topped the so-called Group of Death, with the Dutch power Ajax, Real Madrid of Spain and England's big-spending Manchester City, in the Champions League.
"What we are experiencing at the moment is incredible," the Dortmund executive director Hans-Joachim Watzke told 1,300 members at the club's annual meeting last month. He was talking not about the performance on the field but about the 40 percent increase in revenue to 215.2 million euros (about $284 million) and the club's record profit of 34.3 million (about $45 million).
"We want to have maximum athletic success on a solid economic foundation," Watzke said, "without creating a single euro of debt."
That sort of debt aversion would be music to the ears of Germany's first fan, Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has placed a similar emphasis on parsimony and long-term planning in Berlin.
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"Clubs have done their homework," said Schalke's Heldt, echoing a favorite phrase of Merkel's during the European debt crisis. "We are in a position to pay good salaries where a lot of countries no longer can."
Germans, even in depressed areas like the Ruhr Valley, simply have more money now for tickets and merchandise. Companies, like the brewery Veltins, which sponsors Schalke's stadium, have more money for naming rights.