Borussia Dortmund Youth Coordinator Lars Ricken, 42, won many titles during his playing career – among other things, he won the Champions League in 1997 with his BVB. For several years, he has been in charge of Germany’s most successful youth footballing talents. In an interview with "DIE WELT" Ricken talks about Borussia Dortmund's youth philosophy, weaknesses in the system and a new generation of footballers who have to learn to deal with resistance.
Mr. Ricken, Oliver Bierhoff has identified "weak points in the system" in the work done with youth players and complained that German talent is lacking in resilience and mental strength. Is he right?
It cannot be denied that some of the young players of today are less resilient than they used to be. We have been tackling this subject for several years. As a youth coordinator of a big club, I cannot wait for someone to come up with concepts or strategies on how I should do it. We have to take care of this ourselves. Oliver Bierhoff has also said that the impact of some of the measures that the DFB wants to take will only be shown in five to 15 years from now. But I can hardly approach Michael Zorc and Hans-Joachim Watzke and say: 'Unfortunately, we are going to have a lean period now until we enjoy success again.' That's why we took action several years ago.
How have you noticed the mental health deficiencies?
We have also observed developments in our youth system which we considered to be questionable: For example, we found that although we had the strongest u19 squad in Germany over the past two years, but were fortunate to narrowly reach the semi-finals of the German championship. We came to the conclusion that this is not a purely football-specific problem: the players often lacked resilience. This is to be seen in an overall social context. Young people today find it harder to fight against resistance. But we do not want to develop little princes in colourful football boots!
Target: "Strong teams with compete for the German Championship"
What is Borussia Dortmund doing to counter this social trend?
As one measure, we have introduced a parenting school especially for the younger teams. Specifically, we have created a catalogue of measures for consciously developing responsibilities - for players, coaches and parents.
Why for the parents?
Parents are special to the really young players along with coaches, managers and sponsors. But that must never cause them to buy their children only the best and most expensive football boots and take care of everything. Also, not every problem has to be solved by the mother or the father, the boys must learn to tackle problem solving independently. The boys have to learn how to do that - but so do the parents as well.
In addition, BVB has launched an educational program for players. What does this include?
This program is specially tailored to the older age groups. After all, we also have a lot of players in the U19 squad who have already finished school and are just football players. These players do the B Licence coaching qualifications with us. But they also receive instruction for everyday life: What should be done when I move into my first apartment? What do I have to pay attention to? They receive nutritional advice and instructions on how to deal with social media. They receive lessons in public speaking and English and Spanish. There is a workshop, which we carry out together with our fan representatives: How is our fan scene set up? What do the individual Ultra groups stand for? There are keynote speeches about courage, motivation and true passion from former players like Sebastian Kehl and Florian Kringe.
Is it not a fundamental problem that the youth system focus is too much on match results and too little on supporting the individual?
For us it is important that we have strong teams that also compete for top spot in the German championship, because the players only learn resilience through such challenges and goals. They learn nothing when they are playing for fourth or fifth place. They learn something when they play in a final against Bayern Munich in front of 34,000 spectators.
Most of the current crop of U21 outfield players come from BVB
The influence of agents has grown steadily over the past few years, including in youth football. What dangers arise from this?
Of course, there is a fine line between supporting and pampering - players must be supported and instructed on how solve problems themselves. Wages in the youth set-up cannot be compared to those of ten years ago. There is hardly a talented youth player who does not have an agent. On top of this, we have the importance of social media activities, which mean that players not only often rate themselves for their performances on the pitch, but in particular on the number of followers they have. That poses dangers. The core business of football and the realization that a youth performance centre is not a comfort zone are being partially suppressed.
Why are there less youth players in the squads of Bundesliga clubs than in other major European leagues?
There are still a lot of young German players who are willing to work very hard, with discipline and a lot of passion. But of course, the opportunity for social advancement is an important motivation to work towards the goal of becoming a professional footballer. And possibly this motivation could be slightly bigger in other countries than in Germany. In addition, you have to go to school in Germany until the age of 18. It's different in England, Spain and France. There, young people from the age of 16 can often concentrate completely on their career. This has an effect on training intensity and regeneration measures.
It is noticeable that at the moment there are no current German Under-21 internationals in BVB’s Bundesliga squad. Why is that?
Of course, this is down to the high standards we have in Dortmund and the competition for places. But that does not mean that no players will be trained here who will later go onto to play in the U21 squad. FC Bayern and us are the clubs that have trained the most of the current U21 outfield players.
"...that touched my heart"
Is the youth market too heavily internationalized now?
Of course, the market has become European. In my time as a player, I was the top talent in Germany. At that time, however, the market was not as professional as it is today. Otherwise BVB could have said at the time: 'In England there is one Michael Owen, in France one Patrick Vieira, in Chemnitz one Michael Ballack.' Today, our talents have to deal with talents from all over Europe. BVB also relies on top international talents in the older age groups - but we do not want to do it in a broad way, but really only bring players from abroad when we spot exceptionally high potential. As with Pulisic, Bruun-Larsen or currently with Gio Reyna and Immanuel Pherai.
Jadon Sancho was known to have made a huge number of sacrifices to fulfil his dream of professional football. Are German talents no longer willing to do the hard yards?
It's quite a hassle the lads have to put up with: they have a workload of 70, 80 hours a week, and basically have two jobs: school and football, often getting up at six o'clock in the morning and not finishing until 8:30 in the evening - five times a week. This is not fun! But we still want the players to have a lot of fun and enjoy the game at the weekend. Ensuring this is not always easy. Also, the number of games played by the top teams in which the top talent plays has risen sharply in recent years. But I see another problem.
We also talk about personality development and how to develop individuals that are assertive and capable of dealing with conflict. Therefore, we have to be careful that young players don’t just live in the football bubble, but also keep in touch with people who are not top athletes. Recently, one of our youth players celebrated his birthday. He invited eight people, including only two players and six classmates from his school. Honestly, that touched my heart!