For although the “Knappenschmiede” is an illustrious name in European football, it is not exactly a place – there are no gleaming buildings as can be found in Barcelona’s “La Masia,” or Munich’s FC Bayern youth academy.
Physically, the Knappenschmiede is little more than a selection of football pitches and changing rooms on Schalke’s training grounds. Emotionally and spiritually however, the Knappenschmiede is a combination of cult and College. Norbert Elgert, longstanding coach of the academy’s U-19 side, is its guru. Schalke 04’s die-hard fans are its loyal disciples. 600 academy players between the age of 5 and 23 are its members. Finally, forty currently active footballing professionals – including Ozil, Howedes, Neuer, Matip, Kolasinac, Draxler and L. Sane – are its proud alumni.
A text from Rio de Janeiro
Thirty minutes after the final whistle of 2014’s World Cup final in Rio de Janeiro, Norbert Elgert, a middle-aged man living in Germany’s Ruhr valley, heard a faint buzz. His smartphone lit up with a new message: “Vielen Dank fuer Alles” (thank you for everything). The message came from Benedikt Howedes, the only German player besides captain Phillip Lahm to have played every single minute of Germany’s World Cup winning campaign. Over the next 24 hours, more text messages lit up Norbert Elgert’s face and his phone screen. Other World Cup winners and former pupils of his football school messaged their former coach: Mesut Ozil, Manuel Neuer and Julian Draxler.
How can it be that among a World Cup winning squad of just 23 players – active in seven different European leagues – four players went through the same footballing academy? How can it be that Schalke – a club that has not won the Bundesliga once since 1958 – has brought up players that today earn their salaries at Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Paris St. Germain and Juventus Turin?
Mentality over Ability? The secret to the Knappenschmiede’s success
There is no doubt that after decades of service, Norbert Elgert deserves his status as the face of Schalke’s academy. However, he does not personify the Knappenschmiede. Schalke would still produce excellent talent if (or when) Elgert will retire from his post as U-19 head coach.
What then is the secret of the mining forge’s assembly line of young footballing talent? Foreign footballing scouts and youth developers – from Japan, the United States, the United Kingdom and China – have come to Gelsenkirchen to find out. They have left only partially satisfied, for there is no simple answer.
A BBC report on Schalke’s youth system discovered that Schalke’s youth coaches, scouts and managerial staff look for five qualities in their players:
1. Technique, Pressure, Space, Time.
2. Tactics, Game Intelligence.
3. Athletics, Speed.
4. Mental Strength.
5. Team Ethic, “We” is more important than “I”.
Out of five traits listed, two, or 40%, focus on personality, not ability. The academy’s staff place a high value on non-sporting traits: personal integrity, honesty, intelligence, school performance, and team spirit.
When Thilo Kehrer - at the age of 17 - signed a contract with Inter Milan despite having a long-term contract at Schalke, the club put their foot down: Milan was publicly criticized for their illicit transfer pursuit; Kehrer was suspended from Schalke training for two weeks; and player and agent were told that Kehrer must stay. Less than a year later, Kehrer captained Schalke’s U-19 side to a junior Bundesliga title. Two years later, he made his debut for the senior team, rubbing shoulders with Nastasic and Howedes in central defence.
During this summer’s pre-season campaign the young new coach Domenico Tedesco gave a chance to five highly rated Knappenschmiede players – Lukas Hemmerich (LM), Haji Wright (CF), Bernard Tekpetey (LW), Weston McKennie (CM) and Fabian Reese (CF). Weston McKennie was always the highest rated prospect – he already has sixty minutes of Bundesliga experience under his belt. The first three players though – Hemmerich, Wright, Tekpetey - were all loaned out to second-tier clubs to get more playing time.
Tedesco surprised many when he insisted that Fabian Reese – who very few had on their radar – stays put at Schalke this season. Spotted by Schalke scouts at the ripe age of 15, the German teenager from the northern port city of Kiel has shone through his high work rate in training, his yearning desire to learn from his coaches, and his excellent mentality.
Although many at the club attest him only average sporting talent, Fabian Reese is now on the verge of a breakthrough season in Schalke’s senior team. His current and future success is a testament to the striker’s mental strength and team ethic – two out of the five qualities the Knappenschmiede academy is built around.
Beyond the miners’ forge: football youth developments outside Gelsenkirchen-Schalke
In a transfer market where a nouveau-riche Parisian club pays 222M Euros for a 25-year old Brazilian midfielder, competition for talent is fierce. Most clubs today see their only chance for economic survival in spotting young, raw talent. As a result, teenagers as young as thirteen are transferred across international borders, sometimes for seven or eight digit figures. Oliver Ruhnert, the longstanding director of the Knappenschmiede, has said specifically that Schalke does not participate in such speculative deals.
So how can the Knappenschmiede survive in a market where Rasenballsport Leipzig spends 60M Euros on a new academy center; Dortmund spends 90M euros on teenage players in one transfer window (summer 2016); and clubs all over Germany emulate the Knappenschmiede’s model? How can Schalke survive when its academy’s brightest prospects continue to be plucked away by bigger and richer teams (Sane, Matip and most recently Kolasinac)?
Gelsenkirchen is a working-class town in the industrial North-Rhine Westphalia region of Germany. Once thriving thanks to its coal mines, the town’s unemployment today is at 18%: well above the national average. The departure of home-grown boys to the glamorous, well-paying Premier League of England is a bitter pill for Schalke fans to swallow. However, the positive personality traits instilled in the Knappenschmiede graduates and the Schalke identity fostered in the academy stay with the academy’s alumni for years and decades to come.
At the end of August, Sead Kolasinac was spotted chatting with an 80-year old Schalke groundsman on the sidelines of an U-17 academy game. Leroy Sane was spotted in the VIP section of Schalke’s Veltins Arena at a home games last year. Mesut Ozil bought his former coach Norbert Elgert a plane ticket and game ticket to see him play at the Bernabeu during his Real Madrid days. Julian Draxler posted a throwback picture on social media of himself in a Schalke jersey at the age of 7 days. The occasion? An upcoming “Derby” match between Schalke vs. Dortmund, fierce local rivals. Finally, Manuel Neuer, at the height of sporting success with Germany and Bayern Munich, refused to rule out a future return to his hometown club in an interview with Kicker, a German football magazine.
When Norbert Elgert goes home after a hard day’s training with his U-19 Schalke boys, he may pick up his phone and read a message from Benedikt Howedes. He may pick up his phone to chastise his current center back for being late to that day’s training. He may text his current playmaker to congratulate him on a good grade in school. And in his head, he may be thinking about the senior side’s 2017-18 season and wondering which of his protégé players will be the next to grace Schalke’s match day team sheet.