Why Borussia Dortmund is the destination of choice for soccer's best young players
Jadon Sancho, Erling Haaland and Gio Reyna are just three of the starlets Borussia Dortmund have polished into bona fide first-teamers and top Bundesliga performers as the eight-time German champions have become the destination of choice for talented youngsters.
"There are few other clubs in Europe that place as much emphasis on youth as BVB." Sancho could not have better stated the reason why he — and so many other fledgling superstars — have made the Signal Iduna Park their home.
Sancho had a promising career with Manchester City, and the English Premier League club wanted him to sign a professional deal with them after two highly impressive years starring for their youth academy sides. City boss Pep Guardiola had Sancho plotted on a path to his starting XI, but with the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva and Raheem Sterling making it a potentially picturesque but circuitous route, Sancho — aged just 17 — decided to fast-track his introduction to first-team football. Goodbye Manchester, Hallo Dortmund!
Watch: Sancho and Haaland star in Dortmund's top 10 goals of 2019/20
"We're really delighted that Jadon Sancho, one of the biggest talents in European football right now, absolutely wants to and will play for BVB," said Michael Zorc, Dortmund's sporting director, as he handed the new signing the number 7 shirt.
Both his words and the gesture were significant: Sancho "will play", and immediately had his hands on the shirt previously worn by Ousmane Dembele, a teenage prodigy who had just shone spectacularly at Dortmund and earned himself and the club a huge-money move to Barcelona. Sancho recognised what it meant, too. "I would have taken any number but getting seven was a big boost to my confidence," he told BBC Sport. "It doesn't faze me. It is about coming here and proving myself. That is why I am here."
Sancho 'a genuine asset'
Zorc was wrong about one thing though. He'd said the Londoner would be "a genuine asset to our team in the mid-term." Sancho was to prove his worth a lot sooner than that. When he would most likely still have been turning out in front of three men, a dog and a handful of club scouts for City's youth teams, by mid-October of the 2017/18 campaign, he was playing in front of over 51,000, making his Bundesliga debut in a 2-2 draw with Eintracht Frankfurt.
Two games later, he got a first taste of the Yellow Wall and Dortmund's 80,000-strong sell-out crowd against Bayern Munich. Der Klassiker ended in defeat, but it was a success for Sancho, whose faith in Dortmund to give him the chance he'd been craving had already been vindicated. By the end of that season, he'd played 12 Bundesliga matches, started seven, even taking the starring role with a goal and two assists in the Matchday 31 win over Bayer Leverkusen.
Sancho may be the stand-out example from the current squad, but for a long time, Dortmund's philosophy has not simply been 'If you're good enough, you're old enough', but rather, 'If you're good enough, we don't care how old you are.'
Nuri Sahin made his Bundesliga debut in August 2005 aged a fresh-faced 16 years, 11 months and a day, still the league record. Reyna made it three Dortmund players in the all-time top 10 when he made his bow on Matchday 18 of the 2019/20 campaign. Given he was nearly 17-and-a-half when he first stepped onto the Bundesliga stage, Mario Götze was almost a veteran.
Yes, the spine-tingling chants from the Yellow Wall, the free-flowing front-foot philosophy employed by a string of coaches from Ottmar Hitzfeld to Lucien Favre via Jürgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel, and the passion for football of the Ruhr Valley are all attractions. But — as Sancho himself said — the biggest draw of all is that young players will always get their chance to pull on that black-and-yellow shirt.
"Dortmund was the first professional environment I was in," said Christian Pulisic, the USMNT star who was 16 when he swapped Pennsylvania for Germany and was making his Bundesliga debut less than a year later. "I had been in an academy back in the US, but it was a big step. I looked up the history and knew about Dortmund as a club and their trust in young players, and I just felt it was a great chance for me.
"I could not believe how fast I was able to make it there, and they trusted me all the way, so I was very pleased."
Pulisic's trajectory from the Dortmund youth team to captain of the USA served as the blueprint for Sancho, himself now the standard-bearer of the club's ethos. "Dortmund have a lot of young talented players and a lot of history, so at the time I was looking at Christian Pulisic and he was about 18 or 19, and I just looked up to him and thought I could do the same thing," he said.
Pulisic's progress — and his endorsement of Dortmund — swayed compatriot Reyna and his father, ex-Bundesliga midfielder Claudio, when deciding which European suitor to respond favourably to when leaving New York City FC last summer. Following his eye-catching UEFA Champions League group stage exploits with Red Bull Salzburg, Haaland had the creme de la creme of European football begging for his services — the Norway international, who turns 20 only this month, chose Dortmund in January as he felt they were "a good match". Thirteen goals in just 15 Bundesliga appearances suggests they are actually soul mates.
Unlike Sancho, Pulisic and Reyna, Haaland had already made his breakthrough at the top level before arriving in Dortmund. As successful as Dortmund have been in helping youngsters such as FIFA World Cup winners Mats Hummels and Kevin Großkreutz, and Bundesliga stalwart Marcel Schmelzer fulfil their dreams, not every starry-eyed kid with talent in his feet hits the ground running.
'Train and work hard'
Some, like Alexander Isak, who is performing fabulously in Spain at Real Sociedad now after struggling at BVB, need to move away to fulfil their potential; others, like Sancho, need to be handled with kid gloves until they get used to being in a man's world.
"It was clear when he came that he needed an optimal relationship between load and recovery, because he was not used to men's football," former Dortmund reserve team coach and Huddersfield Town manager Jan Siewert said of Sancho. "The club had to build him up quite carefully. In 2017 when he came, he had just three games with me. We started him with 55 minutes, then 65 and, at the end, 75.
"And within the week, he played with the U19 team. The good thing was he came and didn't think he was anybody superior in my team - he just wanted to train and work hard."
Hard work is a fundamental part of the "winning mentality" Dortmund's youth academy director Lars Ricken tries to instil in all the youngsters taken under the club's wing. If Ricken's name sounds familiar, it should: he is the man who scored THAT lob against Juventus to claim the UEFA Champions League for BVB in 1997. As a 17-year-old when he made his Bundesliga debut for the club, he knows what it takes to deliver on promise, and while he may be a role model he is no father figure for those he hopes to deliver to the first-team coach.
"The Borussia Dortmund youth academy is not a big amusement park. We don't want to coddle the youngsters, but accompany them sensibly through their 70 or 80-hour week," explained Ricken, who has been in the job for more than a decade and aspires to making well-rounded humans just in case the football dream fades.
"Football actually gives you so much for the other parts of your life. You develop values like team-playing, respect, resilience, you learn a lot about the world. Our aim is to develop youngsters so they can be successful in other areas of life, not just football."
Watch: From Bryne to the Bundesliga - the making of Erling Haaland
To ensure the conveyor belt of talent keeps rolling, the system is a continual work in progress, particularly as Ricken's fellow academy directors are equipping themselves ever more effectively in the race to acquire the continent's best talent. Bayern have recently opened their state-of-the-art Campus in the hope of boosting their youth development, and Dortmund have plans for a €20 million extension to their current academy, which they hope will help the talents of tomorrow flourish.
"It is also a matter of constantly developing infrastructure, because we are now competing on a European level," explained Ricken, who can see youth development coming into even sharper focus following the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Right now, in such a crisis, the youth academy is going to be an even more important factor for Bundesliga clubs. It's possible that, as a result of the economic situation, the significance of youth development will increase at many clubs."
It would be tough for Dortmund to up their commitment to guiding youngsters from academy to first team, and they already look to have 'the next big thing' in their productive pipeline. Youssoufa Moukoko is playing — and breaking scoring records — for Dortmund's U19 team at the age of 15, and made his Germany U16 debut when he was just 12. He's a prodigy with a capital P.
"We have a plan with him, but I can't say exactly when he'll join us," said Favre last season of the Cameroon-born forward. The coronavirus altered the strategy, although the Swiss tactician will no doubt bring Moukoko into the first-team fold at some stage in 2020/21 when the Germany U19 striker could break Sahin's record after the DFL approved a rule allowing 16-year-olds to play in the Bundesliga.
"We're not trying to break records," Ricken told the March edition of the BVB members' magazine. "It's about giving Youssoufa the option of playing in the Bundesliga at 16. By the end of this season, so after about three years in the U17 and U19 teams, he will have scored 120 to 130 goals in the Junior Bundesliga. So, it makes sense to take him to the highest level.