A Look Into Youth Soccer Abroad
GoalNation interview with Lars Ricken, Youth Coordinator for Borussia Dortmund, or BVB as it is commonly called — the famous German soccer club based in Dortmund, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany.
While headlines like Thomas Tuchel’s elevates Borussia Dortmund above the ordinary on Dortmund’s winning efforts continuing may not be as often seen as those touting the success of FC Bayern München, who just announced a 3-game US tour, the club’s youth academy for boys ages 9 and older is also highly regarded and very successful.
Now retired, Lars Ricken played for Borussia Dortmund for his entire fifteen year professional soccer career. The former midfielder was the youngest player to ever appear for the club in an official match, a record later broken by Nuri Şahin. Born in Dortmund, Ricken also represented Germany from 1997 to 2002 on the Men’s National Team.
In 2008, after 15 years with BVB, Ricken announced his retirement and was immediately hired as the Youth Coordinator for BVB.
GoalNation interviewed Ricken to learn more about the BVB Youth Program.
Diane Scavuzzo: What is your philosophy on youth soccer and the BVB youth soccer academy?
Lars Ricken: What is crucial for BVB is how the game of soccer is played.
You should be able to recognize a BVB player by how he plays soccer –even when he’s not wearing the Black and Yellow.
We are always playing for first place with our youth teams. With such a winning mentality, the boys come onto the field of play in a completely different manner. They need to be self confident, but at the same time they must keep their feet on the ground.
Diane Scavuzzo: What is the style of play at Borussia Dortmund?
Lars Ricken: Our game is based on possession, attacking play, dominating the game, hard work on the pitch, as few fouls as possible, winning the ball back quickly, the use of ‘Gegenpressing’ – and all of that at the highest possible level.
Diane Scavuzzo: How does this impact the training at the youth academy?
Lars Ricken: Our style of play is very similar to that of our Bundesliga team. As such, we regularly exchange our players with Thomas Tuchel’s: our under-19 players often train together with the first team squad. Recently, our under-19 trainer Hannes Wolf travelled with the first team to their winter training camp in Dubai in order to get ideas for training exercises and an overall impression of their style of play, which he could then utilize in his own work.
Diane Scavuzzo: Top soccer clubs in the world offer youth soccer projects or academies. What makes the BVB project special and attractive?
Lars Ricken: Our soccer school in Japan, for example, is not a marketing ploy, but simply good, solid sporting work. A BVB trainer is always present to take care of younger players’ training and development according to our club’s principles and experience.
Diane Scavuzzo: What is working with BVB-CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke like?
Lars Ricken: Working together with him is great, as I have known him for a long time. He is very interested in the work we are doing with our young players and he attends lots of games. We have created a familial atmosphere at BVB – a cornerstone of our success.
Diane Scavuzzo: What are your plans for soccer in the USA?
Lars Ricken: We are currently working with our business partner Puma in the USA.
Diane Scavuzzo: Recently younger players like American Chris Pulisic advanced to the BVB-professionals. Is his career a success story of the BVB soccer education program?
Lars Ricken: Chris emerged from the U.S. as a very well developed player– a wonderful talent, we recognized that straight away. He pushes himself to his limits in every single training session; he’s ambitious, but also down to earth. Chris attests to the successful youth work that BVB is doing.
Diane Scavuzzo: Looking back into the history of players who started their career in BVB youth teams and became well-known pros – any names?
Lars Ricken: There are a quite a few names: Reus, Götze, Sahin, Schmelzer, Grosskreutz, Rüdiger, Ginczek – just to name a few.
Diane Scavuzzo: How many youth teams does Borussia Dortmund support?
Lars Ricken: BVB has eleven youth teams – from Under-9 to the Under-23. The boys remain in the appropriate age group in the interests of the team’s success and in order to keep the quality of the training high.
Generally there is no skipping over age groups, though there are sometimes exceptions for the first team, such as with Christian Pulisic and Felix Passlack at the moment.
Diane Scavuzzo: Do you have special youth soccer facilities in Dortmund?
Lars Ricken: Our training center is small, but highly efficient. We have at our disposal six large and three small pitches, a 200 square meter gymnasium, and a ‘Footbonaut’. There is also a boarding school on campus, in which 22 boys are living at the moment. It is like a high class hotel: the boys have their own rooms, two cooks, teachers, psychologists, a school very close-by and a family to take care of them!
Diane Scavuzzo: Last November a BVB U14-team took part in a tournament in Florida. How important is international experience for younger players early in their careers?
Lars Ricken: We offer such an opportunity once a year. We don’t like to take players out of school because combining school with soccer is already taxing on the boys.
International experience is very important for gaining knowledge of other cultures, languages and styles of play.
Diane Scavuzzo: In terms of educating strategic thinking and team playing or developing individual skills, do you see any difference between the German and the American system to bring up top soccer talent?
Lars Ricken: We tend to focus on individual strengths and weaknesses. It is probably no different in the US. However, the boys are tested every weekend at a high level in league games, as part of the national team or representative teams as well as in cup-ties.
It is a very demanding program an intensity the likes of which is found almost nowhere else.
Diane Scavuzzo: Are soccer players Artists or Athletes – as Paul Breitner said in a GoalNation interview last year?
Lars Ricken: We treat our players as youths, sportsmen and students. Of course, entertainment is a rudimentary aspect of our sport, but that’s something they work out by themselves.
Diane Scavuzzo: In the USA, children 10 years or under will no longer be allowed to head the ball in practice or games, while players ages 11 to 13 will only be allowed to do it during practice, not games. What do you think about restrictions to prevent youth soccer players from concussions?
Lars Ricken: It makes sense to introduce young players to heading the ball via special training techniques. It is important that balls of appropriate size and weight are used for each particular age group.
Diane Scavuzzo: Besides Borussia Dortmund, who is your favorite team?
Lars Ricken: Maybe Liverpool FC – because of Jürgen Klopp. Otherwise I am a BVB fan through and through.
Photos Courtesy of Borussia Dortmund