Germany’s U17 is world champion: Great for the moment, counterproductive for the future?

As of: December 2nd, 2023 7:37 p.m

The world championship title for the German U17 national team is a huge success, but not a promise for the future. Studies see other factors for world class in adulthood.

Volker Schulte

Germany’s U17 footballers have made their dream of winning their first World Cup come true. The celebrations continue after the final win against France. In the middle of it all, there was another birthday coming up a few days ago: Winners Osawe turned 17 on Wednesday, the last in the squad.

The RB Leipzig attacker belongs to a minority in the team: he is one of only six players born in the second half of 2006. In contrast, there are 15 players who have their birthdays in the first half of the year – and are therefore older. They make up 71 percent of the squad.

Relative Age Effect – Relative age effect

This distribution is typical for U-national teams; according to DFB employee Damir Dugandzic, it is sometimes even as high as 80 percent. The phenomenon is called the “Relative Age Effect”. It is the result that older children and young people in the same age group enjoy great advantages. A few weeks or months head start can make the difference between being appointed to a squad, receiving remedial training and offers to change.

The result: children with later birthdays and late developers fall through the cracks, even though they may even have more potential. In the worst case scenario, they stop playing sports in frustration.

Youth football is highly results-oriented

The effect is known and proven by several studies, but counteracting it is difficult. The current DFB reforms in children’s football aim, among other things, to prevent early selection. They should enable all children, not just the best ones, to play time and play with the ball. The critics are still numerous and loud, especially when it comes to the omission of tables and recorded results. Former national player Dietmar Hamann, for example, complained about a departure from the performance principle.

To date, youth football in Germany has been heavily oriented towards results and early top performances. Children move to youth training centers at a young age, where they play for championship titles with the club and for trophies with the national team. But this principle is counterproductive, says Arne Güllich. Because “Those who start very early, those who train relatively a lot very early on, have a higher risk of suffering from overuse injuries in adolescence”he says.

“Early starters are not the ones with the highest perspective of success”

The sports scientist from the Technical University of Kaiserslautern and his team examined international studies on the life paths of top athletes. A result: “The early starters are not the ones with the best prospects of long-term success. The best youth athletes are not always the best adult athletes. It is more the case that the world-class athletes did quite well in their youth, but were not great – most of them, anyway.”

Güllich emphasized this in an interview with the Sportschau in mid-November and explicitly referred not exclusively to football, but to sport as a whole. According to Güllich, promoting talent requires above all patience and maturation time. “We can’t recognize or force that at the age of 12, 14 or 16.”

Less results, more football?

Another finding: World-class athletes started training in their main sport later, entered support programs later and only won titles later. “We’re talking about a two to three year delay.”said Güllich. A diverse training is important. “The world-class athletes trained on average 1,000 hours less in their main sport over the course of their career and 1,000 hours more in other sports.”

Training less on results, more on football – that is a widespread demand. However, you first have to find trainers who have the courage to train and set up like this, even against the pressure of expectations from parents and club representatives. The DFB now wants to at least take a little pressure off those responsible for the youth training centers. In the A and B youth leagues, the professional clubs should no longer be able to be relegated – there is also criticism of this.

Musiala raves about training in England

There are other approaches, for example in the youth academies of Benfica and Sporting Lisbon. Both traditional Portuguese clubs have been skipping league play up to the U14 level for many years, concentrating on invitational tournaments and sometimes letting players play in other years.

And Jamal Musiala raved about his youth in England: “In Germany there is a league system for under ten-year-olds, whereas in England it is not common up to the U18 level. There you have a lot less pressure and more time to develop, you can play a lot more freely.”

U17 World Cup every two years in the future

Meanwhile, the world association FIFA is putting its U17 World Cup product in the spotlight and will be holding it every year from 2025 instead of every two years. It plays a crucial role in identifying young players. “The tournament is essential for the growth and development of footballers”said former Paraguay international Julio Gonzalez, a member of FIFA’s Technical Study Group.

In fact, later world stars also left their mark on the U17 World Cup. Cesc Fàbregas (2003), Toni Kroos (2007) and Phil Foden (2017) appear in the list of the best players in the respective tournaments – but also names of players who missed the breakthrough into the professional field.

What happened to Germany’s U17s in 2017?

A look at the German U17 national team from 2017, when Germany last took part in the World Cup, also supports Güllich’s thesis. Only a few players from the starting eleven from the quarter-final against Brazil (0-1) made a name for themselves as professionals. The most prominent are Yann Bisseck (Inter Milan), Josha Vagnoman (VfB Stuttgart) and Jessic Ngankam (Eintracht Frankfurt).

What the three have in common: They all have birthdays in the second half of the year. So they seem to have been there in 2017 primarily because of their talent – and not because of a natural advantage of premature babies and the relative age effect.