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A German Resurgence, Feet First

Johannes Eisele | AFP | Getty Images

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.

(Read more: Germany Can Lead Euro Zone Out of Recession)

"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.

(Slideshow: Europe's Richest Soccer Clubs)

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.

(Read more: Merkel Wins Party Vote, Eyes a Third Term)

"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.

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The crowning achievement for German soccer would be a World Cup or at least a European Championships title. The Germans lost in the semifinals to Italy last summer in Poland. Soccer history is littered with cautionary tales of unrealized potential: Portugal's so-called Golden Generation never won a major championship.

West Germany won the World Cup in 1990, less than a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall and only a few months before the formal unification of East Germany and West Germany. In keeping with the unbridled optimism of the time, the country's coach, the former star Franz Beckenbauer, crowed after the victory that a unified Germany would be "unbeatable" for years to come.

Instead, the '90s were a sobering period for the country as optimism gave way to the difficult reality of fusing a bankrupt state to a prosperous one. While clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United became global brands, German teams languished.

Germany was known for robotic play, bad weather and worse food. The ignominious early exit from the European Championships held in Belgium and the Netherlands in 2000 marked the nadir. A similar performance while playing host to the World Cup in 2006 would have been a catastrophe and galvanized the national association and the league to action.

The Bundesliga made youth academies with full-time coaches compulsory. They peered westward, cribbing a few ideas from the French academies and others from Ajax's famous talent mill in Amsterdam.

(Read more: Gap Between German, French Economies Widening)

"We looked over the fence for inspiration, but with our own particular approach and emphasis," said Bodo Menze, administrative director of youth department at Schalke.

The Germans applied systematic quality-control checks. The country's emphasis on social justice is reflected in the solidarity fund, which provides financing to help less affluent clubs with top-rated academies to meet the costs of coaching and facilities.

The D.F.B. has its own program that aims broader and younger, with 366 centers nationwide where 1,000 coaches work with roughly 25,000 boys and girls at an annual cost of at least $13 million.

Schalke was at the forefront of the new soccer academies, working with the Berger Feld school, which sits in the shadow of the stadium, to turn physical education classes into world-class training. The professionals at Schalke are often referred to as the miners, a nod to the club's roots among workers, and the youth program is called the Knappenschmiede, or forge of the miners.

Their coaches hammer out goalies at an astonishing rate. One Saturday this autumn, five goalies who trained at Schalke took the field for Bundesliga squads. One of them, Manuel Neuer, a star at Bayern and the national team's No. 1 keeper, began training with Schalke when he was 4 years old. Losing him to its rival in Munich was devastating, a reminder of the cutthroat nature of competition for talent.

Schalke won its Champions League group but has had trouble with stiff competition at home. On game day Dec. 15, the otherwise gray industrial town was decked with royal blue and white, the club colors. The team's high-tech Veltins Arena, which opened in 2001 and was one of the World Cup sites in 2006, has not only a retractable roof but a grass field that slides in and out of the stadium like a giant drawer so it is not trampled at rock concerts and other events.

So successful in Europe, Schalke was picked apart by a precise and obviously hungry Freiburg team with its own young, homegrown players. Five of the starters were products of the Freiburg youth program, a necessity for a team representing a Black Forest town of only 230,000 residents. Freiburg won, 3-1.

Schalke's coach, triumphant victor on the European stage, was fired for his trouble keeping up with the competition at home.

Looking at the achievement of the soccer academies and the rise of the German game, Schalke's Menze displayed a German form of positive pessimism.

"We can't make the mistake of easing up," he said. "In success, one makes the biggest errors."

Contact Europe: Economy

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