How German football rose from the ashes of 1998 to become the best in the world

In an extract from a new book, Das Reboot, Raphael Honigstein speaks to one of the unknown heroes of the German football revolution, which ultimately led to the country winning the 2014 World Cup
Germany celebrate winning the 2014 World Cup
Germany celebrate winning the 2014 World Cup in Brazil; they were a side transformed after the ignominy of failure at France 1998. Photograph: Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

Dietrich Weise lives in Heilbronn, in former US Army barracks that have been converted into a modern housing estate. “The best thing about my apartment is that there’s no one above me,” he says. “I can’t stand it when somebody throws parties above me late at night. This way, I have peace. That’s what I have always wanted. It’s nice when you’re happy and content in old age.” Weise turned 80 in November 2014.

He has bought cake for his visitor. Käsesahne (cheesecake, but the lighter, central European variety). Four slices are lined up on a little table in the living room, which doubles as his office. Built-in cabinet: cherry. You can hear the coffee dripping through the filter. “Shoot. What do you want to know? Do you want milk and sugar? Help yourself, it’s all here.”

Weise suffered a severe heart-attack in 2013 Unblocked Games 66. His life was saved with seconds to spare. He has recovered well since. He still goes to watch amateur football regularly, in Heilbronn or Neckarsulm, talking to pensioners on the touchline. Bundesliga stadiums are not his world any more, the travelling takes too much out of him. “The engine is getting weaker all the time,” he says, and looks at the floor. “Maybe I’ve worked too much in my life. And I’ve probably kept too many things bottled up, sadly.”

He was an early prototype of the modern trainer. Not a dictatorial patriarch, more like a sensitive teacher, willing to listen to key players before coming to a decision. He was a man of hard work and details; sideline theatrics were not his genre. “In Frankfurt and Kaiserslautern the fans sometimes said: ‘This guy is falling asleep on the bench.’”
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He chuckles. In 1974, Weise won the World Cup for West Germany. One of his Eintracht players did, anyway. Kind of. “It was my idea to make Bernd Hölzenbein a left-winger,” he says, suddenly. “We had many good right-wingers in the Bundesliga at the time. Uli Hoeness ran up and down the touchline, and Jürgen Grabowski was the god of crosses. So I said to Bernd: ‘Look, what happens if you come in from the left?’”

Weise jumps out of his armchair, spreads his legs, ready to take on an imaginary opponent. He drops his shoulder, turns inside on his right. “When you cut in from the left as a right-sided player, you attack the weaker side of the right-back.” Weise takes two steps forward. He turns around to pretend that he’s the defender now. He hits his left thigh and makes a face as if he’s just been “done”. Now he’s the striker again. The carpet is slipping. He takes aim. His right slipper comes off and hits the wall. 1-0, Weise.

In the 1974 final, Hölzenbein attacked the Dutch box, employing the Weise move. He cut inside on his right foot, then went down after a sliding challenge from Wim Jansen. A dive, in all likelihood. Penalty by left-back Paul Breitner, another right-footed player playing on the “wrong side”, It was the equaliser and Germany were 1-1. These days, fielding so-called “inverted wingers” on the flanks has become a standard ploy.

West German football was at the peak of its powers in the mid-70s but Weise noted something odd. Why were the youth teams not winning any trophies? “We were by far the biggest football association in Europe but we didn’t even make it to finals in the youth tournaments. I believe that was down to politics. The DFB [German Football Association] was a huge machine then, with representatives from all the regional federations. They wanted to see their players getting picked. That meant that better players from the bigger states were left behind because somebody, somewhere, insisted on the inclusion of his guy.”

After his appointment as youth coach by the German FA in 1978, Weise set out to find talents in places where others hadn’t bothered to look. He went to see hundreds of youth games all over the country, turning up unannounced at training sessions. “Sometimes I looked at a player five times. I wrote everything down in a large file.” He carefully takes it off the shelf. The German FA have plans to include it in their newly built football museum in Dortmund, he says.
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Most youth games kicked off on Sunday morning at eleven. There were no videos or DVDs then. But Weise decided that all competitive games should be covered. He recruited senior professionals to join in the hunt. “Gerd Zewe, Wolfgang Seel, Ernst Diehl all worked for me in various parts of Germany. Klaus Allofs was doing the games in the west of the country for me. The trick was never telling them which players I was interested in. I wanted them to have an open mind. In return, the German FA paid them expenses, mileage.” Fortuna Düsseldorf striker Allofs was a fully-fledged international, a European Championship winner in 1980. Different times.

Weise’s network unearthed players who managed to win the Under-18 Euros in 1981 under his guidance, West Germany’s first ever international trophy at youth level. “In the semi-final, we beat France, at last. Their development work was exemplary.” That same year, Weise also won the U20 World Cup in Australia.

He takes a framed team photograph from the cupboard and gently puts it on his lap. “Michael Zorc and Ralf Loose were key players, Roland Wohlfarth was an important forward. We had Ralf Falkenmayer. Rüdiger Vollborn was in goal.” All those went on to become very successful Bundesliga professionals. Zorc works as Borussia Dortmund’s sporting director now.

Weise also coached the generation of the 1990 World Cup winners. “I worked with Lothar Matthäus, Jürgen Klinsmann, Thomas Berthold and Olaf Thon. Hansi Flick [Joachim Löw’s assistant at the 2014 World Cup] was one of my boys, too. He played in the U18s at the 1983 Euros.”
Wolfgang Niersbach, the President of the German Football Association, poses with Dietrich Weise, right, during a reception to celebrate Weise’s 80th birthday in November 2014.

Weise had achieved everything in the space of three years but youth development was still not being valued by those in the higher echelons. “I was able to introduce a second ‘A’ youth team, so that we had an ‘A1’ and ‘A2’ going forward. The French copied that. But that was all I could do, really.”
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Weise left his post in 1983 to coach first, Kaiserslautern and then Frankfurt again. With the exception of the U16s in 1984 and 1992 [European Championship], no German team would win another youth competition until 2008.

The call came in August 1996. National coach Berti Vogts had urged DFB president Egidius Braun to do more to foster youth development. The German FA were only concerned with the youth national teams then. The real footballing education was in the hands of the powerful Landesverbände, the regional federations, and the clubs.

Vogts’ idea was to install one German FA coach inside each regional federation to conduct additional sessions for gifted kids who weren’t part of the club system. That suggestion was turned down out of hand. It was considered unrealistic. The regional federations didn’t want interference from Frankfurt.

Braun called Weise, who was the manager of Liechtenstein at the time, and instructed him to come up with a more viable blueprint. Weise: “He said that Germany would be bidding for the World Cup in 2006 and that we needed to have a competitive team in place in case we won the vote.”

The decrease in talents was then widely seen as a sociological issue. Football was suffering thanks to the appeal of video games and individual activities, like going to the gym, the theory went. There were also mutterings about the current generation of teenagers being maybe a little too comfortable and well-off; too soft to defend their birthright against the post-Bosman influx of foreigners. “In Germany, there is very little social pressure to improve your position in society through sport,” said German FA youth coordinator [and later assistant to national coach Rudi Völler] Michael Skibbe in 2001. Nonsense, said Weise. “I told Braun that there was enough talent in Germany. We just didn’t get to them. And the ones we did get to didn’t spend enough time training with the ball.”

Together with his assistant, the fresh-faced former Darmstadt pro Ulf Schott, who had just graduated in sports science, Weise visited all the regional federations, and other national associations; they spoke to managers in other sports, too. What they found in nine months of research was that youngsters who didn’t happen to play for one of the professional clubs were falling through the cracks. They had to rely on the federal associations, the FA sub-branches in every state, for recognition and development.

If they called you up for the Länderauswahl, the elite selection of the federal association, you had a decent chance of being spotted by a big club and moved on from there. But if they didn’t, you didn’t. Schott: “There were big differences as far as the federal associations’ ability to look after these kids was concerned. Some didn’t have the finances, some didn’t have the manpower. We thought that was unfair. Every kid playing in Germany should have the same opportunities. We also found that not all big clubs were doing as well as they could, in relation to their financial resources. Our proposed first step was the introduction of a comprehensive talent-spotting and development scheme, with the help of a network of 115 regional centres. These were supposed to develop 13 to 17-year-olds. We also wanted to support the Landesverbände, so that they could work more regularly with the best 11 and 12-year-olds.”

That was in spring 1998. The German FA said no. Too expensive. “I told Braun we needed at least DM2.5m [£825,000],” says Weise. “He went mad and looked at me, his eyes popping: ‘Where are we supposed to get that from?’” Weise explained that youngsters needed good coaches. A whole new bus load of coaches was needed, in fact.

“It wasn’t enough to have a few coaches at the regional federations. And the fathers who were coaching youngsters in their spare time in many clubs didn’t have any real qualifications either. That’s not sufficient. Papa can’t be the solution.” “Pater Braun”, Reverend Braun, as the parochial president’s nickname went, was immovable. “Let’s see what the World Cup brings, they said,” recalls Schott.
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A disastrous quarter-final exit against Croatia, the end of Vogts as national manager and a win for the hosts, who had systematically re-engineered their talent development in the years leading up to the competition: that’s what France ’98 brought. And a window of opportunity. Within four weeks of Germany’s 3-0 defeat in Lyon, the German FA board approved Weise’s concept. DM3.2m (just over £1m) was made available to set up 121 regional centres (Stützpunkte) that would provide two hours of individual, technical coaching for 4,000 13 to 17-year-olds, once a week.

In addition, up to 10,000 boys under 12 would receive lessons by the Landesverbände. Total cost: DM5.2m per year. “The plans had been in the drawer for a while. We have now dusted them off and improved them,” said the DFB vice-president Franz Beckenbauer.

Weise and Schott crisscrossed the whole of Germany for an entire year, looking for suitable locations for their new network. They saw hundreds of clubs in the most remote, provincial spots imaginable. Weise sweet-talked village councils into making their pitches and sports halls available, hired dozens of former professionals to work as coaches, provided equipment and even petrol money to enable parents to drive their children to the centres. Growing up far away from any footballing hot spots should no longer be a bar to enjoying a first-class football education for any German youngster. “Everyone was supposed to have access to a regional centre within 25km of his home. That was the idea,” says Weise.

Weise vaguely remembers speaking at the first-ever convention of youth coaches in 1999 but nobody reported his comments. “There was no real interest in the whole subject then,” says Schott. “Everybody paid lip service to youth development, it was one of those things that people were happy to be associated with but when it came to putting ideas into practice, it was tough.” Nevertheless, the Bundesliga clubs realised that the establishment of academies was the necessary next step. They agreed to Weise’s and Schott’s programme – a couple of months before Euro 2000, as it happens.

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.”

By 2000, the majority of professional clubs knew that change was necessary, however, says Volker Kersting, who has worked as youth director at Mainz, one of the country’s most innovative clubs, since 1990. “We saw that we were getting behind internationally. The German FA were kicking in open doors.”

The German national team’s ineptitude at Euro 2000 had pulled the rug from under the last doubters’ feet. “After that tournament, the outcry was huge,” says Schott. “Everyone was demanding reforms, especially after the right to host the 2006 World Cup was awarded to Germany in July. What they didn’t know was that a lot of things were already happening on the ground, because the media had taken very little interest in the subject before.”
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Looking back, 1998 was the pivotal turning point, not 2000. The changes were formalised in October 2000, when the DFL, a body of the 36 Bundesliga clubs in divisions one and two with a large (but not total) degree of financial and regulatory independence from the German FA, was formed. The Bundesliga 2 clubs at first resisted the academy system, due to its high cost, but they, too, were eventually persuaded. Running an academy became a condition of obtaining a licence to play professional football in both divisions from 2002–03 onwards. In the first two years of the new regimes, the 36 clubs invested a combined €114m (£77.5m) into their elite schooling.

It was the German FA’s turn to improve their own infrastructure again. The Stützpunkt education for 11 and 12-year-olds was taken out of the hands of the federal associations and centralised: the national network was increased to 366 locations; 600,000 talents could now be seen at least once by the 1,300 FA coaches each year. The annual budget was raised to €14m. Weise: “A million more or less – suddenly it wasn’t a problem any more.”
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“Youth development must be the focal point of our work,” said the new DFB president Gerhard Mayer-Vorfelder, “everything needs to be done in order for us to have a team that can challenge the world’s great [sides] in 2006.”

In 2003, the German FA introduced a special licence for youth coaches to ensure a uniform level of competence. A year later, a nationwide U19 Bundesliga, split into three geographical tranches, came into being. The B-Junioren (U17) got their own national league in 2007. “People don’t really talk about it that much but I believe the introduction of the junior Bundesligas was a vital part of the reform process,” says Ralf Rangnick, a former youth coach at VfB Stuttgart who went on to become one of the country’s most respected managers. “Pitting the best of the best nationwide against each made it possible to compare players and increase the quality. It also, indirectly, forced clubs into spending more money on youth coaches.”

Weise retired in 2001, aged 67. “I didn’t want to hear any whispers in the hallways: ‘What is that old man still doing here?’” His work was done.

“When I saw the Löw team triumph at the World Cup in the summer of the 2014, I thought now and again: ‘oh man, oh man, oh man. You have had a small in part in that, you’ve worked on that.’ The football we are playing today is based on those ideas. At least 10 players who are involved in the national team today we would have never found otherwise. Think of Toni Kroos. He hails from a small place in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. No one would have looked at him.”

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