Michael Zorc, 56, and Lars Ricken, 42, once won the UEFA Champions League together. Nowadays, they work closely identifying, developing and promoting the best youth players for Borussia Dortmund. Speaking in an interview with the members' magazine Borussia, the sporting director and youth coordinator talked about the number of talented youngsters that have come through the ranks in recent years, while also urging caution about the state of youth development in German football. They then discussed BVB's plans to upgrade its academy facilities. In the next two years, the club is planning to invest up to €20 million in the Hohenbuschei training ground in the district of Brackel alone.
Lars, you were a professional footballer, a Bundesliga champion, a Champions League winner and you've long since become an institution as youth coordinator despite being only 42. What lies ahead for you at BVB?
Ricken: I've never pursued a career plan. For me, it was always important to be deeply rooted in this club and to work for BVB for as long as possible. It was not my objective to rise within the hierarchy within the shortest-possible time. The great thing about my current job is that I can help people. I can help the players to fulfil their sporting potential and to develop on a personal level. The same applies to the staff that work alongside the teams. We've now trained at least 15 members of staff at the BVB youth academy − coaches, assistant coaches, athletics coaches, physiotherapists − who have since found a permanent role for themselves in professional football on a national or international level. So in that sense, I have the coolest job in the world!
Hans-Joachim Watzke said at the annual general meetings in November that you had "enormous potential"...
Ricken: Well, it's not simply a question of what you believe yourself to be capable of. It goes without saying that I'm delighted when people at the club feel that I'm contender for further roles at the club in the future. That simply shows that our youth development work is appreciated.
Michael, in which areas has Lars undergone the biggest development over the course of the past two decades?
Zorc: I've now known Lars since he joined the first-team squad as a school pupil in the mid-1990s. At that time, three of our strikers − Riedle, Povlsen und Chapuisat − were out with torn cruciate ligaments. Lars und Ibrahim Tanko were promoted from the youth ranks and were quickly handed playing time in important matches, even international ones. I can still remember how, after one European game, he flew back to Germany that same night in a plane with the supporters so that he could take an exam in Dortmund the next morning...
Zorc: (laughs) Then he suddenly started listening exclusively to Metallica and shaved his hair off. No, joking aside, Lars has continually developed. On the one hand, he has matured as a person and a father and possesses a great sense of responsibility. On the other hand, in his role as... well, I call it "Head of the Youth Department", he has created important structures on behalf of BVB which have made it possible to develop lots of talented youngsters for the senior squad. In doing so, he and his staff have claimed a number of titles to boot in the past few years − which is not exactly unimportant at youth level. I very much like working with Lars, because we can discuss things with each other in a good atmosphere and in a factual and structured way.
What is the unique selling point of the BVB youth academy?
Ricken: I believe that what sets us apart is the mixture of highly ambitious sporting objectives and, in spite of that, an incredibly family-like atmosphere. Borussia Dortmund are one of the top ten in Europe and it's our objective to develop players capable of playing in the Champions League too. But in the process we never lose sight of the basic idea of a community of values that sticks together and communicates in a familiar fashion – parents, players and advisors repeatedly attest to that. The Hohenbuschei training ground in Brackel is now where the heart of this club beats. That's where professionals and youth players train close together. And at the end of the day, the U10s will pass by as the first team do a penalty shootout. That's how it should be.
What do you see to be your core responsibility within this team of over 100 people that you lead?
Ricken: Well, of course, I have to find and sign the right players, but above all I need to decide on who are the right members of staff. That's the be-all and end-all! Over the years, we've created a wonderful atmosphere in a very young team that is bolstered by some experienced hands in the form of Edwin Boekamp (editor's note: sporting director) or Matthias Röben (editor's note: head of teaching). Nobody in the team is working for their own benefit, nobody is out to take the next step of their career. I'm convinced that everyone feels very comfortable in their roles and is working for the good of the club. This atmosphere is definitely a strength.
When you look at the sporting successes of the recent past, one might easily conclude that the end of the road has been reached. Is that the case?
Ricken: We've won five out of a possible 10 titles with the BVB youth teams over the course of the past five years. I don't believe that will ever happen again at youth level anywhere in Germany.
Zorc: (laughs) More's always possible, Lars…
Ricken: It's become more and more difficult to be so dominant. By now, all of the top teams in Germany have really good youth academies. The output volume is enormous.
How do you stop complacency from creeping in?
Ricken: I believe that this permanent doubt is what sets us apart. What can we do better? In which areas can we learn lessons from other clubs? This triad of self-criticism, collaboration with a high degree of expertise in the individual fields and pioneering work is very important to me. We want to be pioneers in youth football in Germany and that's why we launch a range of projects. That's our standard. Not least because we enjoy success. When you can play an U19 final at Signal Iduna Park in front of a 35,000-strong crowd, then this ambition becomes internalised. And that's part of our developmental philosophy.
Michael, do you get happy or frustrated about players who make the breakthrough elsewhere?
Zorc: I would even expand the question, because the latest trend has been that our U23 coaches, who are also part of the BVB youth department, are in high demand in the English Premier League. David Wagner, Daniel Farke and Jan Siewert have all taken up roles in professional football in England in the last few years. But to come back to your question: in principle, I believe it's a natural process. At Borussia Dortmund, we want to embody absolute top-level sport. You have to imagine it like a pyramid. Towards the very top levels of performance it narrows. Not every youth player, not even every youth international player, can ultimately make the breakthrough at Borussia Dortmund. It's ultimately therefore a sense of satisfaction and a mark of the quality of our youth development work when people who we've trained play a good role at other clubs. Especially considering we have had a close connection for many years to quite a number of clubs, which comes in useful to our club. Regardless of whether it's players, coaches, athletics coaches or physiotherapists.
Ricken: We see our work from a very long-term perspective. It's no coincidence our youth director Wolfgang Springer, our sporting director Edwin Boekamp, our chief scout Heiner Finke and myself as youth coordinator have worked for BVB for more than 100 years combined. But when coaches from our department move to other clubs, it also offers us an opportunity to continue to observe them and their development at professional level. That was the case, for example, with Edin Terzic, who worked at West Ham United under Slaven Bilic. We never lost contact and look at where he is now: he's the assistant coach of our first team squad.
Zorc: Or let's take the example of Hannes Wolf, who moved from being U19 coach directly to professional football (editor's note: head coach at VfB Stuttgart). That's obviously very much an exceptional case, but it shows we have a good eye when selecting coaches at youth level. For us, it's generally always important to keep the contact up and to continue to observe these coaches in case we need to call upon them. Sometimes that's more sensible than bringing in someone from outside, because it's obviously much easier to evaluate people with BVB DNA on a personal level than third parties. We know their characters, which significantly minimises risks. Hence why we were considering last summer whether to incorporate Hannes Wolf into our coaching staff, for example.
There are now six academy products in the BVB senior squad. It was seven before Nuri Sahin joined Bremen. Are you happy with the status quo?
Zorc: Yes. Although it's not the number that counts for me; it's the individual quality of the individual players. I'm absolutely delighted that we currently have senior players such as Marcel Schmelzer and Mario Götze who have really made history for BVB. But there are also young lads like Jacob Bruun Larsen and Christian Pulisic who are already capable of deciding matches. Christian will admittedly be leaving us in the summer because the Premier League has always been his dream. But he is leaving under extremely favourable conditions. You can see that Lars and I have lots of overlaps in our work. When it comes to signing talented youngsters or making acquisitions, then for 16 or 17 year olds the question quickly arises about the connection to the senior squad. Then we often sit down together in appointments and work together on committing players to us.
Since the German national team was eliminated from the World Cup in Russia, there has been a lot of criticism directed at the state of youth development in Germany. Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote: "Not enough space to evolve, hardly any special player types, no independent thinking." Is the bleak picture currently being painted realistic?
Ricken: We obviously all need to scrutinise ourselves, that goes without saying. If we consider the youth national teams to be the cream of the crop of German youth football, one must conclude that the performance over the course of recent years – aside from some exceptions – has not been good. This summer too, there will be European Championships taking place at various youth levels and I currently cannot envisage that we are among the title favourites. However, I don't believe that we are talking about anomalies in the 16-20 age range, but that we need to look at the issue more broadly. We as a youth academy now obviously also have the problem that people like Michael have established such a professional scouting system...
Zorc: (laughs) …you can no longer keep up, right?
Ricken: …no, it's not that. But our scouting department obviously knows every young talent, really every single one, worldwide. I'm happy that Zorci was not yet sporting director back when I joined BVB. Because then perhaps he would've had the idea of signing the likes of Michael Owen from England, a Patrick Vieira from France or a Michael Ballack from Germany instead of me.
Zorc: (laughs) But you were beyond any competition, Lars.
Ricken: No, no, one may well have had this idea! Because Ballack − and just imagine this now − was hardly known by any clubs back then despite already being an U21 Germany international. Times have changed so drastically.
Zorc: But it's not only a matter of scouting, Lars. It's also the case that we currently don't have this top quality at youth level in Germany. As far as the Bundesliga is concerned, Kai Havertz (editor's note: Bayer Leverkusen) is definitely at that level. As is Leroy Sané, who joined Manchester City some time ago. Regarding the 17-21 age groups, we are currently not in as good a position as we were several years ago compared to other countries. We unfortunately currently have the feeling that German football is being overtaken left, right and centre. It's no coincidence that a player like Callum Hudson-Odoi (editor's note: 18-year-old Englishman playing for Chelsea) is currently being valued at around €40 million in Germany, even though he has only played three Premier League matches.
To name but one example, the national team has been waiting for a world-class centre-forward since Miroslav Klose retired. A problem?
Zorc: I wouldn't limit the analysis to positions. For me it's about having the absolutely top quality, regardless of which position, but especially in attacking areas. At Bayern Munich, Ribery and Robben have been playing on the flanks for a number of years; we developed Dembélé, Sancho and Pulisic. Everyone in German football needs to ask themselves why we're not succeeding in developing German players to this level. That's a task for us all!
Ricken: We need to make a vast number of chances in that regard. There are obviously a lot of players from overseas who as a result of their muscular build and genetics have a great deal to offer and obviously possess physical advantages. Physically, anyway, they are further along, but then there's also the fact – and now I'm getting to the point – that they're in a completely different school system. Even as 15-year-olds, they live partly like professionals. We in Dortmund hold seven training sessions with our teams per week too. But there is a difference between training individually at 08:00 CET in the morning, then going to school for seven hours and then only having a team training session in the evening, and between – as is the case in England – being able to concentrate predominantly on football from such a young age. The school system is another factor why many of our young players are lagging one or two years behind their counterparts from overseas in their development. And that's why we need to give the lads time. By the way, just so that I make myself clear, we have no intention of changing our school system from the ground up. We have far too much of a social responsibility towards young people to do that. But we can see potential for optimisation.
Let's get specific. Which changes can we make in the short term?
Ricken: For example, in the near future we need to establish it as part of our daily operations that we train with our U19s as early as 16:30 CET rather than the current time of 18:00 CET, so that the players still have time to train individually, to be attended to and to go to the physio. But also so that the lads sometimes get some time for themselves in the evenings. We constantly talk in Germany about personality development, but when does it have the chance to happen? The lads have two jobs: school and football. They don't have anything else. Almost all the U19 players have never been to a concert in their lives. That's simply because they don't have the time. As I said, I'm talking about short-term changes here. But in the long term, we in youth football in Germany need to ask ourselves: are we still training and playing correctly in terms of basic principles? Are we training the coaches correctly? Should we not be training and playing in much smaller groups – two against two, three against three, four against four? Do we need to develop special children's coaches who are not solely focused on the next result?
Zorc: Every question now needs to be allowed. So too does the issue of whether we in youth football in Germany perhaps focus too much on titles and thus neglect the individual development of a player. That is to say, do we let him play for too long in his age group to strengthen the collective, even though he could perhaps go up a level? Do we, as a result, prevent a quicker and better development? We simply need to acknowledge that, at least for the most part, we are discovering the best talented youngsters overseas. And by the way, that does not solely apply to the professional level.
Ricken: I think you're completely right. That said, the ambition of striving towards titles is part of our philosophy. We want to have the best players, the best coaches, the best physiotherapists, the best athletics and rehab coaches and the best teaching staff at BVB so that we can achieve the best-possible results. And, ultimately, that comes down to titles. That kind of aspiration results in an attitude – especially among the players. I can still remember back when I started here. I was having to put fires out on a weekly basis because some of the players had been in a disco before a match and had stayed up all night. But if you permanently have the aspiration to come first and play a final in front of 35,000 spectators, then this breeds a different attitude. If someone still chooses to go to the disco and, in doing so, endangers the sporting success of the others, then the players will sort that out themselves in the changing rooms. In short: I haven't had to discuss such a matter at BVB for years now.
Let's instead talk about Youth Development 2.0 in Germany.
Ricken: It's not a case of throwing out everything we have, but rather to optimise certain things. For example, when it came to the certification of our youth academy, what emerged was that we at BVB have an absolute unique selling point as far as finding creative solutions in the final third of the pitch is concerned. That's a very important and purposely selected part of our development philosophy, because the 81,000 in Signal Iduna Park want to see goals, moves and offensive football. The DFB examiners were really enthusiastic about the way in which we find creative solutions in tight spaces and under time and opposition pressure. We will continue to optimise that. And because we just touched on the subject: the development of strikers has always been important to us. Daniel Ginczek and Marvin Ducksch play in the Bundesliga (editor's note: Wolfsburg and Düsseldorf respectively), while Janni Serra (editor's note: Kiel) is currently developing well after serious injuries. But if we're being honest, if you're competing for a place with a Lewandowski, a Barrios or an Aubameyang, it's obviously going to be a big ask for almost any talented youngster.
Lars earlier spoke about the fact that some talented German youngsters are lagging one or two years behind their overseas counterparts of the same age. To what extent are German clubs shooting themselves in the foot by scrapping their own U23 teams?
Zorc: Every club has to make that decision for themselves. I believe that foregoing an U23 team is a grave error, because we require this platform for various different areas. And one purpose it serves is to help players who develop slightly later than others. Here, we're robbing ourselves of an opportunity to develop future Bundesliga and international players! If you don't have an U23 team, you have to tell your players after U19 level: "Last stop. That's it!" Then perhaps they're not yet good enough for the senior squad, and yet they can no longer play at youth level. But in any case, can one decide that so definitively at such a young age? I say no!
In the next two years, €15-20 million will be invested in the BVB training ground. In particular, that money will go towards infrastructure for the youth teams. It's a vast sum. What's the thinking behind the plans?
Zorc: It's absolutely crucial that we consistently continue to improve when it comes to infrastructure. It's not because, above all else, we want to play a pioneering role in this regard. We simply have the feeling that other clubs have invested a lot in their training centres in recent years and some of them have surpassed us. We must and will now react in order to continue to create top conditions for our youth players. The diggers will be getting started in spring...
Ricken: I'm very happy that my proposals were met with open ears from Hans-Joachim Watzke and Michael Zorc. That goes to show that at Borussia Dortmund there is not one sole focus on short-term success, but rather that the medium and long-term are considered too. In the course of the coming year, we will move our entire sporting division, which is current still based at our headquarters on the B1, to Brackel.
Zorc: That means shorter distances, synergy effects, more space and even more intensive exchanges. We can simply work more professionally there.
What do the construction works specifically mean for the youth players?
Ricken: We'll be expanding our youth centre from 22 to 50 rooms. Not so that we can bring in more talented youngsters from outside, but so that we can give much better care to local players who don't have the time after school to go home and then come to training. Like a daytime boarding school. Players can come to us, perhaps take a lie-down, do their homework, receive additional teaching help and then maybe use the footbonauts for an individual training session. As part of our investments, we'll build a canteen for players, parents and visitors. A new athletics division will improve our training possibilities even further. We're increasing the number of pitches, so that our youth teams will get on the big pitches much earlier, and we'll be getting a big hall with high ceilings that has been designed so that even set-pieces can be trained there. It was about time to make some optimisations and create the perfect conditions.
Should BVB become the benchmark as far as youth academies go?
Zorc: If you currently look at England, hundreds of millions are currently being invested in training centres. We cannot and do not want to enter this dimension. For us, it's a case of creating a leading position at national level for ourselves in terms of youth development and offering top talented youngsters the best-possible conditions. We don't need 35 grass pitches to do that.
Ricken: At youth level, Borussia Dortmund wants to be highly efficient, competitive at a top level and yet retain a family atmosphere. Ultimately, it doesn't matter how many pitches, halls or changing rooms you have. What is above all important is what I referred to at the very beginning: Who works there? We want to bring our concept to life with the best people, with ambitions, with credibility, with warmth! What we definitely don't want is to become like a machine!
Interview: Sascha Fligge / Photos: Mareen Meyer