“It’s the perfect club for me right now at this point of my development,” said Jude Bellingham when he was unveiled as Borussia Dortmund’s new £22.5m signing on 20 July. “There is nowhere better at developing talent and producing them for the next level.”
Barely a month after celebrating his 17th birthday, the son of a sergeant in the West Midlands police who himself racked up more than 700 goals in non-league football became the latest English teenager to head for Germany.
A trend that began with Jadon Sancho’s move from Manchester City to Dortmund in August 2017 has since meant 13 English players have made at least one appearance in the Bundesliga, with seven – including Bayern Munich’s 17-year-old Jamal Musiala and Reece Oxford of Augsburg – now on the books of a top-flight club.
It is not just players from England. Many of Europe’s most promising youngsters are now preferring to try their luck in a league that has become renowned for giving them a chance to play first-team football. According to Robert Klein, the chief executive of Bundesliga International – the league’s international broadcast rights-selling arm – the roots of Germany’s youth revolution developed around two months after Sancho was born.
“If you go back to Euro 2000, when Germany was eliminated in the group stages, it caused the whole of German football to go through a big rethink about how they approached things,” he says. “The DFL [German Football League] was created with clubs in the top two divisions as shareholders and as part of that they also created a stringent licensing system which covered financials and youth. All clubs had to have a certain set-up in their academies to ensure the development of youth football. That was the starting point.”
Since 2001, German clubs have invested €1.6bn in youth development and their national side has been reaping the rewards. The team that won the European Under-21 Championship after beating Stuart Pearce’s England in 2009 contained several of the side that would go on to lift the World Cup in Brazil five years later and Klein believes that was a result of the faith placed in players such as Manuel Neuer, Thomas Müller and Mesut Özil by their clubs from a young age.
“They played a really exciting style of football that was high-tempo and high-pressure, pack-orientated,” he says. “All of that has gained momentum and it has become a big part of German football. When players have been good enough, they have stayed in.”
Bundesliga teams had an average age of 24.4 in the 2018-19 season – the lowest recorded – and it is almost 27 in the Premier League. But while some leading English clubs have started to give more opportunities to young players coming through the academy system, Sancho’s example is still encouraging others to seek their fortunes in Bundesliga.
“He has definitely shone a bright light on that possibility,” says Klein. “He took a risk but he went to a club that is renowned for taking care of their players and giving them a chance and has been rewarded. Over the last few years we’ve had lots of English players but there are also players from other parts of the world like America, New Zealand and Canada with Bayern’s Alphonso Davies.
“More importantly, they are getting the playing time. Jadon Sancho came across at 17 and was given an opportunity. He has taken it because he is a remarkable player. Now the league is a mix of top international stars and young players who know they will have a chance to prove themselves.”
Klein believes the international set-up of most clubs and that many people in Germany in English “means the language is not really a barrier any more” for young players, like Bellingham, hoping to establish themselves in a new country. “He looks a really exciting prospect,” says Klein.
“We are attracting some great young players because they believe they can really make an impact here. Erling Haaland arrived midway through last season at Dortmund and took the league by storm. It’s great, they add some spice to the magic we have got and complement the talents of the seasoned professionals throughout the league. That mixture works perfectly.”
But despite the possibility of Sancho moving on this summer, perhaps to Manchester United, Klein rejects the suggestion that the Bundesliga has merely become a finishing school for the best young players with Ousmane Dembélé and Luka Jovic sold on for large fees in recent seasons. “Everyone knows about the clout of the Premier League but it’s not the case with other leagues,” he says. “German clubs have shown they are still able to compete.”
Bellingham’s move to Dortmund was marred by racist abuse he received on social media after playing his final match for Birmingham, with his new club posting a message of solidarity. The Premier League has recently introduced a new reporting system for players to help them deal with any abuse and the Bundesliga has something similar that allows players to report abuse via their clubs and player liaison officers.
Germany’s top flight was the first major league to restart its season after the Covid-19 outbreak led to matches being suspended for almost three months, something Klein says was testament to the Bundesliga’s organisational capabilities.
“Once we saw that everything was going to be postponed for a few months, the league reacted very quickly, and I would say bravely, to try and accept the challenge to be the first league back out,” he says. “They worked in an incredible way with the government and it was a very complicated process. But I will never forget the first matchday on 16 May – it was a worrisome, exhilarating, unbelievable day in the end because it went off well.
“There was a big spotlight on the Bundesliga and it was great to be able to enjoy that but it was more important that we managed to pull that off and everyone was healthy.”
BT Sport recorded its highest viewing figures for the Bundesliga in the first few weeks after the resumption and it is hoped some of the new fans it has gained around the globe will be tuning in for the new season on 18 September.
“When all leagues and other sports come back then attention is going to be spread among them,” says Klein. “But if there was a feelgood factor and the people who don’t usually watch it were excited about the style of football and they want to continue, then we would be more than pleased.”