I was speaking at the Deutscher Fußball–Bund (the German Football Association, otherwise known as the DFB) headquarters in Frankfurt at one of the regular think-tank events the organisation runs. These think-tanks are held by the DFB to bring together coaches, academics and industry experts in an effort to encourage and facilitate innovative developments related to football performance enhancement. Proceedings had temporarily halted for a Kaffeepause when he approached me. “Whereabouts in Scotland are you from?” I was impressed as it was the first time in three years living in Germany that a native had placed me based purely on my accent. “Edinburgh,” I told him. As it happened, he had spent a year living in our capital city nearly 30 years prior, working as a foreign language assistant at a high school. My interest was piqued. I asked which one. His reply: “Balerno High School” – my alma mater. The connection was formed and we chatted away. This was my introduction to Markus Weise, the man with the plan at the DFB.
That was in the summer of 2017. Fast forward to February 2018 and I was back in Frankfurt, this time specifically to interview Weise for Nutmeg. He holds the position of Head of Concept for the new DFB Academy. The construction of the DFB Academy represents the second phase of German football’s rebirth; the first being the widely-publicized implementation of the youth academy system within Bundesliga clubs and the national network of Stützpunkte (regional training centres). This first phase was initiated in 2000 after the nadir of the European Championship that year. One could be forgiven for thinking it was a case of mission accomplished for the DFB, watching the Germans waltz past Brazil in the semi-finals en route to eventually winning the World Cup in 2014; however, their unrelenting push for footballing success is continuing apace. So what exactly is the new DFB Academy and who is the man leading the project?
Born and raised in Mannheim, southwest Germany, Weise did not grow up a football obsessive as you might think given his current position. In fact, hockey is his sport of choice. The sport has been a significant part of his life, both as a player and a coach. During that aforementioned year spent living in Scotland he played for a local hockey club where he won the accolade of player of the season and was awarded his prize at the end-of-year-dinner by none other than guest of honour Andy Goram. However, it is as a coach that Weise truly made his mark within his sport, leading the German national women’s team to Olympic gold in 2004 and then repeating that achievement with the men in 2008 and 2012. Reflecting on this phenomenally consistent success, the modest Weise sheepishly concedes that he was “fairly successful”. Perhaps this gives an insight into why the DFB felt he was worth poaching from German hockey in 2015.
As if any further evidence was needed to demonstrate the professionalism and ambition of the DFB, the recruitment process for the Head of Concept for the DFB Academy position was conducted in conjunction with the renowned McKinsey & Company management consultancy firm. Weise underwent a gruelling regimen of five interviews on the same day. “I was so tense I managed just one bite of a sandwich all day,” he recalls. Clearly, the DFB wanted to be sure they were getting the right person for the job. Two days after the interviews the call came from Oliver Bierhoff, Sporting Director for the DFB, offering him the job. It was only at this moment, Weise says, that his mind switched “into game mode and I had to decide, ok, do I really do this?” His decision to accept Bierhoff’s offer was down to a combination of excitement at the new challenge in a new sport as well as the feeling that he had probably gone as far as he could in the sport of hockey.
When asked why he thinks the DFB chose him, Weise is unsure exactly which personal qualities endeared him to the selection panel; however, he does reveal that the organisation was keen for someone from outside of football. When probed further as to why that was the case he explains: “It was about being open to other influences. German football, much like in most other countries I presume, is a world on its own but looking left and right into other sports is something you should definitely do. I’ve always done that and tried to ‘steal’ the best bits from other sports. Oliver [Bierhoff] is an open-minded guy who is not interested in the closed-shop football has already been.” Weise is, perhaps surprisingly, not the first senior figure from German hockey to make the jump to football. Bernhard Peters made the switch from German hockey to football club TSG Hoffenheim almost 10 years prior. When asked what it is about German hockey that German football likes so much he doesn’t give much away.
Sir Clive Woodward, who won the rugby World Cup with England in 2003, is one of the very few, if not the only example of a high-profile figure from one sport moving into a prominent position within a football club in the UK. He subsequently joined Southampton as performance director in 2005; however, his tenure was relatively short-lived and by 2006 was no longer at the club in any capacity. I asked Weise if moving into the football world has been a difficult transition. “Yes and no. The first thing you should be doing is to get yourself familiar with the culture you are entering. You come from a certain culture and now you’re entering another one and I think you can’t just enter your new world and try to establish what you’ve done before. You have to adapt on the one hand but you also have to be demanding of others and this is really hard.” He alludes to the fact that his position is not under the glare of the public eye and cites this as a good thing, which has perhaps made the transition easier than it might have been. However, the absence of public interest within his current role may not remain indefinitely. The DFB Academy project is still in its early stages. While the land for the new physical development has been secured and the DFB board has officially sanctioned the funding required (around €150,000,000), the construction is not expected to be completed for another three years or so. Once ground is broken and the publicity around the development ramps up Weise will undoubtedly gain in profile.
So, the plan. The ‘DFB Academy’, as it has been coined, is a grand aspiration, as much an idea, a way of working, as it is mere bricks and mortar. The most visible aspect of the DFB Academy will be the new headquarters buildings and training facilities. Without doubt these will be spectacular (the initial artists’ impressions are freely available on the DFB’s website). The headquarters will house the staff of the DFB while the training facilities will be available to all the national teams from men’s to women’s, from age groups to the senior teams. This facet of the development is reminiscent of our own Oriam facility in Edinburgh, which now acts as the training base for both the Scottish national football and rugby teams. However, Weise stresses that the Academy will be so much more than a centralised facility for German football. If the establishment of professional club youth academies and the network of Stützpunkte in the early 2000s was Germany installing its footballing hardware or ‘infrastructure’, the new DFB Academy will be akin to the downloading of the software that will bring this hardware to life. The remit of the Academy includes coach and referee education, an innovation and technology lab, and wider organisational knowledge generation and management.
The DFB has been committed to being at the forefront of sport science for quite some time. Jürgen Klinsmann’s decision to recruit physical preparation staff from the United States when he was head coach has been well documented. Hiring experts from outside Germany for the national team raised eyebrows at the time; however, in doing so the DFB demonstrated that it isn’t afraid to stray from the beaten track in search of excellence. This objective and sensible approach to performance enhancement will continue via the new Academy. The DFB already supports a number of PhD students from around the world, each working on different studies covering a range of topics from injury rehabilitation to the use of virtual reality to the development of cognitive function related to football. However, Weise makes the point that “we’re not just putting money into ‘science’ in general. The principle is we’re putting money into science that interests us and there must be a strong connection to the practitioners, so we do not run projects if we don’t find practitioners like an under-16 or under-19 coach who are interested. If we don’t find anyone who is interested then we’re not going to run the project. If we do find something that we believe is going to help us then we’re going to fund it.”
Within Scotland and the wider UK there is something of an ‘anti-academy’ element. It is not an uncommon occurrence to hear coaches, commentators, journalists and fans bemoan the sanitisation and professionalisation of youth football. While the sentiment is understandable, one need only look at Germany to see that a wide network of youth academies and a progressive, liberal outlook on player development has clearly not hindered them as a footballing nation. On whether such an aversion to the gentrification of youth football exists in Germany, Weise was not convinced. “No, I don’t think so.” However, he did concede that the desire of some coaches to win at youth level was a concern, citing the argument that results should be inconsequential in comparison to developing players capable of success as adults.
The construction of the new DFB Academy and, perhaps more so, the fulfilment of its wide-ranging remit, requires massive investment from the organisation. It is a bold vision, yet one that, if successful, could ensure Germany’s place at the top table of world football for decades to come. Here is an organisation that, on the face of it, is so far ahead of the Scottish Football Association it is almost frightening. However, they are a mature organisation, 18 years into their long-term plan. Germany faced its footballing nadir in 2000 and is still working hard, with purpose and a vision to ensure those dark days never return. In Scotland, we are still waiting for a return to the big stage of major competition, 20 years on from 1998. All hope is not lost, however. We should look to Germany and take heart that it is possible for a country to hit rock bottom, take stock, regroup, plan, invest and ultimately claw its way back. One of my closing questions to Weise was what the best piece of advice he had received upon starting his current role was. “It’s not enough to know, you also have to apply. It’s not enough to want, you also have to do.” The words of Goethe, the German writer and philosopher seem to perfectly encapsulate the current mindset of the DFB and indeed Weise himself. Lastly, on how Die Mannschaft will fare in Russia this summer, he says: “Pretty good.” If Weise’s definition of “fairly successful” is any barometer to go by, I’m guessing that means we may well be watching them in Moscow on July 15.