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Inside Germany’s football factory

Gelsenkirchen (Germany) (AFP) – Schalke 04 are a sleeping giant in the German league, yet their youth academy is one of Germany’s most successful, producing World Cup winners, Bundesliga stars and Premier League exports.

Germany has just qualified for Russia 2018, where they will defend the World Cup title they won in Brazil when four former members of Schalke’s academy were in the squad.

Bayern Munich goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, Arsenal playmaker Mesut Ozil, Juventus defender Benedikt Hoewedes and Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Julian Draxler all came through the Gelsenkirchen club’s youth set-up.

Schalke 04 are nicknamed “The Miners” due to Gelsenkirchen’s industrial setting and their youth academy, called the “Miners’ Forge”, has a long list of talented alumni.

Manchester City winger Leroy Sane, 21, Liverpool defender Joel Matip, 26, and Arsenal left-back Sead Kolasinac, 24, are just some of its graduates. 

The latest starlet to rise from the academy to Schalke’s senior squad is 19-year-old Weston McKennie, a future US international in the making.

But what attributes make a future professional or a World Cup winner?

“Talent is important, but that only gets you through the door,” Norbert Elgert, coach of Schalke’s Under-19 team, told AFP.

– Have a ‘Plan B’ –

“Athleticism and skills as a team player are all important. Then there are also things which are often overlooked — character, personality, desire to improve.

“You have to have the confidence to elbow your way up in a squad of 25 to 30 players, or you have no chance, but then you still have to be a team player.”

The 60-year-old has seen an impressive list of names roll off the production line at Schalke since 1996.

Elgert is passionate about coaching and, with his flowing grey locks, adopts a father-figure role.

“We put a lot of emphasis on education, right up to ‘Abitur’ (university entry qualifications),” he said.

“We encourage that because what percentage actually make it? — Four or five percent maximum will be Bundesliga footballers.

“Whenever I speak to a player about their future, I always ask, ‘what is your Plan B?’

“We have to look past football, for those who don’t make it, get injured or get sick.”

His success with Schalke attracted an offer a few years ago from Bayern Munich, but Elgert, who was born in Gelsenkirchen, opted to stay.

He said Germany’s ability to produce talented young players stems from the lessons learnt from mistakes in years gone by — namely Euro 2004, when die Mannschaft failed to qualify from their group.

“It was important for us to learn from the past,” said Elgert.

“It wasn’t just enough for German teams to be organised, we were overtaken by countries like Spain, Holland or Italy.

“The German Football Association (DFB) has been very innovative with the academies and always kept an eye on what is going on in other countries.”

He clearly has strong links to his former players and eagerly asks how Ozil and Kolasinac, who joined Arsenal in June, are regarded in England.

His eyes light up when he describes spotting talent — like the teenage Ozil.

In fact Elgert receives a text message during the interview — he smiles as he shows the caller ID that reads “Ozil, Mesut”.

“He was playing an Under-17 trial here, which I was overseeing as part of a school project,” said Elgert.

“It wasn’t just the way he controlled the ball with great technique, it was the way he could read the game.

“He was always looking where his players were and making good decisions.”

Elgert persuaded Ozil to join the academy at Schalke, where he made his senior debut in 2006, leaving two years later for Werder Bremen in a deal worth five million euros ($5.8m).

He went on to Real Madrid and when he joined Arsenal from the Spanish giants in 2013, Ozil cost 47 million euros.

Elgert looks pained when discussing Neuer, arguably the world’s top goalkeeper who is currently sidelined with a fractured foot.

“It’s just a huge pity, he lives for football and just wants to play football,” said Elgert.

“I don’t worry about him. Of all the people this could have happened to, he will come back and be in his best form for Russia” and the World Cup finals.

– ‘Welcome home’ –

“I have known ‘Manu’ since he was 10 or 12 years old,” Elgert recalled.

“He wasn’t fixed in the goalkeeper position then, he trained and played as an outfield player.

“He was obsessed with football, in a positive way, he took tremendous pleasure in playing football.

“You could see his ambition by the time he reached the Under-19 team.

“He wasn’t first-choice, someone else was playing goalkeeper.

“I said to him: ‘Manu, with your talent you can decide for yourself when you play.’

“He quickly became the first-choice for our Under-19 team, but also for Germany.”

Doesn’t it hurt when, after years of investing time and resources in players, they pack their bags for bigger clubs?

“When they leave, your heart bleeds. Sead, for example, developed well here, but on the other side you are pleased for him,” admitted Elgert.

“I’d rather see him here, like a lot of ‘Schalkers’, but I am pleased to see he has found his feet and is helping his team.”

Schalke are currently mediocre and firmly a mid-table side in the Bundesliga.

“It would have been an interesting team here if all the boys had stayed,” Elgert said.

“We could have challenged the likes of Bayern Munich, but that is the past and the club (Schalke) profited from those who left financially.

“You only have a career for a short period of time.

“The boys who left, like Manu, will always have a bit of Schalke in them.

“When they return to visit, I always greet them with ‘welcome home’.”

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