Youth of the Nation

For some reason at the start of May, I found myself in South Bermondsey at The Den, home to Millwall Football Club. On a rainy Thursday evening, I found myself at The Den to watch the Premier League International Cup Final: Bayern Munich Amateure vs Dinamo Zagreb II.

Almost anonymously sitting on the cusp of international stardom, the players that took to the field were representing two teams whose reputation for highly talented alumni is well earned but whose reputations in the senior arena vary wildly.

One and the Same

Both Zagreb and Bayern’s club history boast a hall of fame of Champions League winners, Ballon d’Or nominees and winners of that; an overall star-studded line-up of players you would gladly have in your team up the common. On paper, these teams are one and the same.

Dinamo Zagreb are, in some regards, the Bayern Munich of Croatia. The most successful team in the Prva Liga, Dinamo have won the championship a record 20 times, the Croatian Football Cup a record 15 times and the Super-cup a joint-record of 5 times (shared with Hajduk Split). Their performances outside of domestic competitions, however, is where they fall short to their German counterpart.

For some fans, Bayern’s record-setting domestic dominance is growing to be the absolute bare minimum. A continental treble win in 2013 cemented Bayern’s position as one of the top teams in Europe and a genuine contender for the big prizes every season. Since then, barring the occasional lapse in concentration, they have remained challengers for the Champions League and are often considered as one of the teams to beat.

A quintessential Pot 4 team, Dinamo Zagreb’s last appearance in the Champions League came in 2016 where they failed to score against Juventus, Sevilla and Lyon, finishing last in Group H. In 2018, a last-16 run in the Europa League saw them almost go the distance with Benfica before 2 goals in extra-time knocked them out. Their height of European glory was a run to the semi-final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1961. For the foreseeable future, Dinamo Zagreb will have to make do with domestic dominance; for as long as the big television-deal money goes to the same places, i.e. England and Spain, Zagreb’s chances of getting out of the group stage get smaller and smaller. Simplifying it, “the money”, in this case, gets used to bring in the best players. For Zagreb, it would maybe be more of a case to keep the best players; Modri, as they are known by locals, has been a launching point for an extraordinarily talented and celebrated group of individuals.

The Graduates

The graduates of Dinamo Zagreb’s academy is a “who’s who” of European heavyweights. Dinamo as a whole appears to be a prerequisite for Croatian footballers looking to make a name for themselves. The club was, at one point or another, home to 7 of the 13th players to feature in Croatia’s World Cup final appearance in 2018, with 6 of them representing Zagreb at an U21 level.

Mario Mandžukić, Dejan Lovren, Domagoj Vida, Marcelo Brozović, Luka Modrić, Andrej Kramarić and Marko Pjaca.

All runners up for the 2018 World Cup, all Dinamo Zagreb alumni. The Croatia squad for the tournament, 14 of the 23 players that Zlatko Dalić took had represented Dinamo Zagreb before. Four years prior, it was 16. In 2006, it was 12. Since 2002, 56% of all Croatian internationals at the World Cup had this team in common.

Since 2002, Croatia have taken 64 different players to the World Cup. Over half of them had represented Dinamo Zagreb before.

Looking from the outside, the obvious conclusion to draw is that the most successful domestic club produces the best players for their national team.

While this may be true for Croatia, the Germany team that won the World Cup four years prior paints a slightly different picture.

While 9 of the 14 players who faced Argentina in 2014 had Bayern Munich on their CV at some point, only 5 had come through Bayern’s academy. Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Müller, Mats Hummels and Toni Kroos all came through the ranks before representing the senior team at some point. But of this five, there is an asterisk next to at least two of them.

Mats Hummels, was the only player of that group that wasn’t still with Bayern at the time of the final, having left for Borussia Dortmund six years prior to make a name for himself. Prior to the World Cup final, a 38-minute stint against Mainz was the only senior appearance that Hummels had for Bayern Munich before moving to the Signal-Iduna Park. Schweinsteiger, Müller and Lahm had all represented Bayern from the start of their respective careers, barring a loan spell at Stuttgart in Lahm’s early days. Schweinsteiger, once heralded as Mr Bayern Munich, is the only player of this initial group to deviate from the fairytale ending, having completed a move to Manchester United at the end of the following season.

Against Argentina, Schweinsteiger’s midfield partner in the double pivot changed after 40 minutes. The heavily concussed Christoph Kramer went off in place of André Schürrle. The substitution moved Mesut Özil to the number 10 spot while then-current Bayern Munich player Toni Kroos dropped deeper to play as the 8 to Schweinsteiger’s 6. While Kroos had featured for the Bayern’s academy team a number of times, he had regularly played for the senior team since his arrival. Considering him a Bayern “product” seems somewhat tenuous.

By 2018, the number of Bayern Munich players (past or present) in the squad had risen to 9 (although technically 10 as Leon Goretzka had signed an agreement with Bayern and was only 4 days from being officially registered when Germany crashed out of their group in a remarkably unremarkable manner). For former Amateureplayers, though, this number, including Kroos, had fallen to 3.

There are a number of reasons as to why these numbers vary so significantly for Croatia and Germany. Money and resources are most of them, but oddly not in the way one would typically think.

Time Is Money

On paper, Bayern Munich’s academy should be able to produce the best youth players around. Listed as Forbes’ 4th richest club in the world, the club offers state of the art training facilities, an academy that has recently undergone a huge renovation, the overall acclaim and allure of possibly training with World Cup winners and a club whose sights are set for the highest stage in Europe… so why aren’t they?

Part of it is down to the fact that football, as an industry, is less and less rewarding of patience. Bayern Munich’s 2019/2020 squad is set to feature 6 World Cup winners, 6 Champions League winners, 2 European Championship winners and too many other achievements to count. To sustain their current level, Bayern cannot afford to wait for the young guns. Without wishing to simplify it too much, Bayern’s ambitions are currently too high to have any meaningful youth set-up. They need players who can perform at the highest standard right now. Zagreb, on the other hand, have all the time in the world. Acquiesce to not lifting the Champions League any time soon, they can enjoy a youth system that has worked for them for the last footballing generation.

The fundamental difference between the two World Cup finalist teams is a matter of timing. At the start of the 2014/15 season, Bayern Munich’s World Cup winning contingent were welcomed back into their starting line where business resumed as normal. For Zagreb, they had to begin their 2018/19 season by looking back with nostalgia as their hometown heroes reached the final before returning to the clubs that had prized them away, content in saying ‘they were ours, once.’ In Croatian, of course.

When it comes to competition, Dinamo Zagreb will struggle to compete with teams like Bayern Munich for years to come. But I think back to The Den; a more level playing field without the mega-millions in investments, infrastructure and superstar signings. The Bayern Amateure lifted the trophy but, if history is anything to go on, Zagreb’s players will do it more often.