Stielike: "The Olympics would be very special"
When the 2004 UEFA European U-21 Championship takes place in Germany between 27 May and 8 June, the host nation will be coached by Ulli Stielike. The former defender, who was capped 42 times for his country, is determined to lead his youngsters to a top three finish and seal a berth at the Athens Olympics in August.
In conversation with FIFA.com, the 49 year-old discussed his team and their group rivals, his dream of seeing Germany compete at the Olympics for the first time since 1988 in Seoul, the problem of player availability and long-term commitment involved in developing young talent.
You're in a group with Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland. Can you imagine a more difficult draw?
Ulli Stielike: What can you say about Portugal, they always put out competitive youth sides. They've qualified against top quality opponents such as France, who included players with senior experience such as Cissé. Sweden and Switzerland are highly regarded by the experts, and they both knocked out top-notch opponents on the way here. Sweden put paid to Spain and their extremely promising team, and Switzerland saw off reigning U-21 champions the Czech Republic with an away victory, and they were down to ten men for a long period. Our European Championship Group B is definitely a tougher prospect than Group A.
How do you assess the quality of the eight nations at the European Championship, and who do you rate as favourites?
Portugal are firm favourites in our group, Italy in the other group, although let's wait and see who loses players to the senior international squad. Depending on the quality we're forced to give up, and I know what that means from personal experience, each and every nation may suddenly find its chances drastically reduced.
And what of Germany's prospects of qualifying for the Athens Olympics? Can you realistically be described as favourites without players such as Kuranyi and Hinkel?
We were without Kuranyi and Hinkel for the play-offs against Turkey, but the question now is what happens to Philipp Lahm, Benjamin Lauth, Bastian Schweinsteiger and one or two others. There are a few players we might have to release to the senior squad. We'll just have to wait and see what the final line-up looks like. But if we keep these players, we have to be among the favourites.
What would taking part at the Olympics mean to you personally?
It would be very, very special indeed. As a footballer it's not like you get the opportunity every four years like the athletes and other sportsmen and women. Many of the footballing greats never appeared at the Olympics, they never revelled in the special feeling, the true "spirit of the game". And this time around, the games are being held at the birthplace of the modern Olympics. It promises to be a tremendous experience for the players and for me as a coach, and more than a little out of the ordinary.
What will you be working on in your remaining games until the European Championship?
In the first instance, we've got work to do on finding a blend as we've always been missing players in the past. As we approach the meeting with Georgia, we've got another fixture pile-up, because the Monday night second division match often features some of my players. It's happened again on this occasion, Mainz have a game and I've had players drop out. We're nowhere near any kind of fine tuning, and even before the European Championship we'll only have three or four days together.
Regular keeper Tim Wiese has been in outstanding form for months. Is there a danger Rudi Völler could take him to Portugal as third-choice keeper?
That would be a heavy blow for us because I don't have an alternative in goal, or at least another keeper appearing regularly in the top flight. Our number two, Tom Starke of Hamburg, is usually confined to the bench. Otherwise I've got Timo Ochs who plays for a struggling second division team, and on the fringes there's Michael Rensing, Oliver Kahn's understudy at Bayern München. We'd be losing a huge amount of quality if we don't have Wiese. If the seniors haven't cleared up this problem with Lehmann and Völler throws him out of the senior squad, I'd be a very worried man. But the way things stand, I'm hopeful Tim Wiese will appear for us.
b>You take on Georgia's full international side in your next game. Did you deliberately go looking for a genuinely tough challenge?
We went looking for U-21 opponents who weren't involved in the European Championship, but had no success. It's not a problem unique to us, so we ended up accepting a friendly against this summer's group rivals Switzerland. Basically, what's happened is that countries which didn't qualify have disbanded their teams or have already started work with the next generation, so maybe it's better for us to play against stronger opponents. We had the idea of taking on senior international sides and that's how we came to get in touch with Georgia. They have a couple of Bundesliga players in the team, so it's an attractive proposition for the fans.
A number of your young players have already picked up valuable experience at club level, including Champions League appearances in front of huge crowds against the best in Europe. Does that add quality to your team?
The problem is that we only have a few players who appear regularly for their clubs, keeper Tim Wiese of Kaiserslautern or Benjamin Lauth at 1860 Munich for example. The rest only get a game every now and then, so one of our biggest problems is lack of match practice.
Do you see the need for a ruling on the number of foreign players, so that your up-and-coming stars get more match practice? There was a similar debate in German ice hockey a few years ago.
I think we should be making sure that foreign players coming over here possess a certain level of quality. In the Netherlands for example, they insist on a minimum salary for foreign players, and they fix the level relatively high, so in these terms you only get a higher class of player. People have started thinking about how we might introduce a ruling for Germany. Something definitely has to be done as overseas players are frequently getting ahead of our own youngsters at club level even though they're not necessarily better. That's why I'm delighted at what Stuttgart are doing with young, home-grown players.
A number of other clubs have introduced a policy of selecting more young players in the future.
Yes, but the change of policy has often been forced on them by external factors, such as a financial crisis or their league position. There are very few cases to date where it's been a club's deliberate philosophy or policy. We're just happy that this has happened in Stuttgart, but even there the policy was a response to an emergency situation. We can't declare ourselves satisfied yet, because there's still no clear path for promising youths allowing them to develop right through to the first team.
But on the other hand, right up to U-20 level, we're in good shape in international terms. We've taken part at European and World championships and we've been matched with teams rated as top of the class, although we're missing a landmark success at youth level. Our biggest problem is moving players from senior youth status to the professional ranks, the transition isn't very well thought out.
What improvements would you like to see in youth development work in Germany?
The German Football Association (DFB) kicked off a project around 18 months ago with the aim of increasing the number of centres of excellence across Germany to 380. The idea is to spot young talent earlier, but also to build up our supply of coaches capable of solving the current problems with high-quality solutions. However, this process will take years, we can't expect results after just two or three years. The French needed 10 or 12 years before enjoying the fruits of their labours. And Bernard Challandes, Switzerland U-21 coach who led his side to the U-17 European Championship, recently confirmed they're only now seeing the benefits of measures they initiated several years ago.
How would you sum up your first year in your current job?
I'm very pleased with what the team has achieved, especially qualifying for the European Championship against an extremely tough Turkish side in two very good games. It's a first step for this team, but it's also the continuation of a process. Players such as Hanno Balitsch and Christoph Preuss were with me through their U-17 to U-20 years, so it's a pleasing development in this sense. The European Championship will tell us where we stand, we'll have to show what we're really made of.