It is hard to argue against the claim that German junior football is currently setting the pace in Europe. The sides representing the German FA (DFB) currently hold the UEFA European Championship title at U-17, U-19, and as of a couple of weeks ago, U-21 level, an achievement which goes down as unique in the history of the European game.
One of the key influences and driving forces behind the recent successes is DFB coach Horst Hrubesch. The 58-year-old guided the U-19 to glory last autumn, and has now repeated the feat at the U-21 helm. However, the man feared in his playing days for his towering aerial ability, and who is now admiringly nicknamed Hotte by his players, faces an arguably even greater challenge in the near future. In less than two months, the man who won the European Championship with Germany in 1980, and finished a runner-up at the 1982 FIFA World Cup™, will coach the Germany team at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Egypt.
FIFA.com spoke exclusively to the former Hamburg and Borussia Dortmund marksman about his philosophy, what the future holds for his current protégées and Egypt 2009.
FIFA.com: Horst Hrubesch, you and your team triumphed in Sweden just a few weeks ago. Looking back on the tournament, what's your verdict now?
Horst Hrubesch: We're very satisfied. Our goal was to play as a unit and be in a position to dominate matches. We achieved just that, especially in the semi-finals and final.
What's the secret behind getting the best out of younger players? What's your philosophy in this respect?
On the one hand you have individuals, and on the other, you have team players. The task is to bring these two groups together. "I'll do it" is a very important statement in my book, because it means: I'll do it myself. It's how I personally behave, and it's what I demand from my players. Character and honesty, especially when it comes to assessing yourself, are also very important to me. Everyone should be looking at himself and asking: Is everything I do focused on success, and am I prepared to work for others? That's an attitude the players have to pick up. I can't use players who just nod their heads and listen. I want players who open their mouths, voice an opinion and are prepared to defend it.
Germany are the first nation to hold the U-17, U-19 and U-21 European titles simultaneously. What lies behind this dominance in junior football?
I've been at the DFB for a decade, and just looking at what's been put in place since 2000 – performance centres, academies, all the things the association has been doing – it all adds up to create the big picture. And let's not forget Matthias Sammer [DFB director of sport], who's been a real driving force behind youth development since he arrived at the association, and has always supported us tremendously.
The FIFA U-20 World Cup begins in Egypt just two months from now. What are you hoping to achieve there?
We're going there as reigning European champions. If I have all the players who were with me in Sweden, and also the players who've come to the fore since then, we'll certainly have a team capable of competing for the trophy. We won't simply be satisfied with surviving the group or making the semi-finals. We want to play right through from the beginning to the end.
What's the programme for the remaining weeks until the tournament?
I'll stay in touch with most of the players and discuss detailed schedules with them. We have two get-togethers during this period, one for four days and one for ten. We meet up in Frankfurt on 10 September and set off for Egypt on 12 September.
A handful of your players have already earned senior caps. How many more can step up a level?
I've always had players with the quality to make the grade at senior international level, but I can't influence their development once they leave me. But the lads definitely have potential, the likes of Savio Nesereko (West Ham United), Stefan Reinartz (Bayer Leverkusen) or Maxim Choupo-Moting (Hamburg). I could basically count them all in. They're all players who've proved they can hold their own on the international stage. But I always tell my players this: Becoming a European champion isn't hard, but you continually have to prove yourself once you're there. If you've made it to this level, you've got to be able to remain at the same level all the time.
Where does German youth football stand in global terms?
With this team, we have no-one to fear in Europe. We dominated the European Championship and deserved to win it. And the players have now learned all about how you approach a tournament. For the U-20 World Cup, I have the advantage of not having to create a new team from scratch. I also think, with our mental strength and on the back of the European trophy, the lads won't simply be satisfied with getting as far as possible. We'll have the trophy in our sights.
How will you fare in your group with the USA, Cameroon and Korea Republic?
There was a sharp intake of breath all round when the group was drawn, because it's an exceptionally tough group. The USA established themselves at the top of the world junior game a long time ago, and it's hardly their first time at the finals. Korea Republic and Cameroon need no introduction. The Africans - Ghana, Cameroon and so on – always produce a semi-finalist. We've really landed in a group of death this time. Whatever, every game at a World Cup is like a final. Obviously, we're aiming to win the group.
Who are the favourites in Egypt?
The European champions will always be among the top favourites, but there are a number of teams who will rightly be labelled favourites too, such as Brazil and Spain. You can't afford any slip-ups in the Round of 16 or the quarters, and I hope we can avoid that. With the team we have, we're in a position to play good football.