VfB Stuttgart: The Baden-Württemberg club oiling Germany's football engine
The raw materials are of high quality, and along the way they are shaped, lovingly put together by master craftsmen, polished, rolling off the high-functioning assembly line as some of the most sought-after products in the world.
What is true in a city known for its production of luxurious Porsche, Mercedes-Benz and Daimler cars is also true for Stuttgart‘s football club, which has an equally smooth-running system of production, regularly unearthing gems that shine with a ball at their feet and developing them into world-class footballers.
No fewer than seven of Germany’s 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup-winning squad took their first steps in the professional world in the colours of VfB, from new kids on the block such as Timo Werner and Joshua Kimmich, to ones who have been around rather longer, like Mario Gomez. The club motto ‘furchtlos und treu’ — ‘fearless and loyal’ — may be 200 years old, taken from the royal House of Württemberg, but it still rings true today, tailor made for a club that has the courage to stick to its conviction that if you’re good enough, you’re old enough.
Watch: Stuttgart’s conveyor belt
That faith is not the fruit of economic necessity nor a recent enlightening, but a deep-rooted commitment that started with Gustav Schumm, president for just a year in 1918, but whose 12 months had a profound effect on the face of not only Stuttgart football, but of the sport in Germany.
Schumm split youth football into age categories along the lines of the A, B and C classes that still exist today, first in Stuttgart and then nationally while at the DFB. In 1980, the club took the pioneering step of building a dormitory for youth academy players, a move mimicked by a wave of other clubs since. It was named after former Stuttgart president Fritz Walter. No, not the same Fritz Walter whose name adorns the prestigious medals handed out to the best U17, U18 and U19 players in Germany annually, but the coincidence is a happy one.
Stuttgart’s philosophy is clear: education of young players is multi-faceted. The club lays bare “Our Identity” on the youth academy page of its website, justifiably puffing out their chests that they “produce national and international players”, but adding just as proudly that “our players are well educated and brought up in a sporting and academic sense.”
It is a three-pronged approach, developing players in “Training”, “Learning” and “Life,” and rooted in the fact that of the 150 players currently on their books, only a small group will make it into a Bundesliga first team squad, never mind that of VfB. “I think a lot of what makes me what I am today,” replied Kevin Kuranyi, another Stuttgart academy graduate of note, when asked what he has retained of his youth academy days. “VfB was a perfect school for me, not just football-wise. It has always been important to know how to behave outside of football.”
While forming well-rounded individuals is admirable, it is a side-effect of an ethos whose main focus remains giving fledglings flight as top-grade footballers. It’s something they have also been very good at.
While Stuttgart boast the most title wins of any club in the A and B youth categories of German football, some 29 current professionals, such as Confederations Cup victors Kimmich, Werner and Bernd Leno, U21 EURO winner Jeremy Toljan, long-standing top-flight goalkeeper Sven Ulreich, and Bundesliga forwards Julian Schieber and Sven Schipplock, had part or all of their grounding at VfB. Philipp Lahm and Alexander Hleb did not join the VfB youth academy, but unsurprisingly found Stuttgart to be the ideal springboard to the next step in their careers.
Young, wild, and winning
The most stunning validation of the club’s ideology, however, came with the Bundelsiga title triumph of 2006/07. Under the tutelage of Armin Veh, the term ‘Junge Wilde’ — ‘wild youth,’ previously only used in art or political circles — became forever associated with football in Stuttgart.
Veh’s side featured the home grown Timo Hildebrand, Andreas Beck, Serdar Tasci and Gomez prominently, and even current captain Christian Gentner was on the fringes of the first team. It was fitting that Sami Khedira — another son of Stuttgart — scored the goal on the gripping final day of the campaign to secure the club’s third and most recent Bundesliga crown.
Though it was a success ‘made in Stuttgart’, it has inevitably also since served as a yardstick, one that has sometimes been used to beat following generations who haven’t managed to scale the same heights.
“From the VfB point of view, it’s actually not that simple,” said Kuranyi, himself a ‘Junge Wilde’ along with the likes of Andreas Hinkel and Hildebrand who finished runners-up to Bayern in 2002/03. “On the one side, the Jungen Wilden is a brand, even a VfB brand. On the other side, of course there is more pressure on every young player when they are compared to great players like Sami Khedira, Mario Gomez or Alexander Hleb. It’s quite a balancing act.”
It is one they seem to be getting right again, and the club’s return to the Bundesliga will mean talents such as Werner and Kimmich will perhaps no longer seek to depart quite so quickly, potentially helping to build another title-challenging team.
Building for the future
Construction of a literal sort is taking place in an attempt to put that in place. While the new youth academy dormitory opened in 2007, the training facilities around it are now being revamped. Even in that regard, the money invested is done so in line with the club’s “identity”, of being “conscious of our tradition and [to] pass it on to our players.”
“What can be more motivating for a youth player than having a permanent view of the stadium and the professional players?” said Stuttgart’s Head of Finance, Stefan Heim, as he explained why the training pitches in the shadow of the Mercedes-Benz-Arena will be updated rather than opting for an off-site youth academy.
Watch: A peak at the 60,469-capacity Mercedez-Benz Arena the academy players hope to star in one day
Stuttgart will hope it will provide the foundations for a third generation of “junge Wilden” as they are no longer alone on the Autobahn of fast-tracking youngsters to success. They last won the A Category German championship in 2005, and there is little doubt other teams have caught up and even overtaken them. Bayern recently opened their state-of-the-art FC Bayern Campus, Borussia Dortmund have won the last two A titles, while the experiences of former Schalke man Kuranyi led him to state, “It’s no longer something unusual to rely on young players who have come through your own ranks.”
With men like Hinkel now involved in their youth set-up and Gentner still on the pitch, Stuttgart’s up-and-coming stars have living examples of how the club’s culture not only works but continues to this day, as well as a reminder of how not even the “junge Wilden” can do it all alone.
“There is no recipe,” said Kuranyi, who played alongside experienced performers like Zvonimir Soldo and Krasimir Balakov in 2002/03.
“The blend has to work. A good team needs hungry, young players, who put on pressure and are physically good, but also a pair of battle-hardened old-timers who can lead the team, keep their calm and use their experience, even though they’re not the quickest anymore.”
Watch: Behind the scenes at Stuttgart’s media day ahead of the 2017/18 season