Not just Bundesliga fans, but most fans of European football in general know of Schalke 04’s famed youth academy, die Knappenscmiede des S04. This academy is a special place, consistently churning out world class talent, like Manual Neuer, Mesut Özil, Benedict Höwedes, Julian Draxler, Leroy Sane, Sead Kolasnic, Ralf Fährmann, Joel Matip, and Tim Hoogland. Players from this academy play for some of Europe’s and Germany’s best clubs—any mention of a new Knappenschmiede prospect raises the heart rate of any fan of Bundesliga follower. The Bundesliga Fanatic was fortunate enough to secure and interview with Knappenschmiede coach, Sam Farokhi, who was recently in the United States, including the home city (Pittsburgh, PA!) of this article’s author.
Bundesliga Fanatic (BF): Herr Farokhi, recently you were in Pittsburgh (my current hometown!). What German city most resembles Pittsburgh, and why? (I’ve been told the correct answer to this question is Dortmund!)
Farokhi: Of course it is not Dortmund (which we call the “Forbidden City”). We actually have a lot in common. Regarding the background, the history, and cultural diversity of both cities, I would say that Gelsenkirchen and Pittsburgh are very similar!
BF: Did you learn anything new about America or American culture on your most recent trip?
Farokhi: I have been to the United States before, and had once lived in California, so I had previous knowledge about America, but every trip brings new experiences and knowledge. It always depends on the people you meet, as well as the feelings you experience.
And this time, we learned a lot because we met so many great people in such a short time. Owing to the diversity, it was a bit like home for us, because the city has so many different and various influences from all over the world.
BF: Tell us more about your time in California.
Farokhi: I have a lot of family in California, and also had a good contact in the AGSS (American Global Soccer School), so the former manager Afshin Ghotbi brought me to California and organized tryouts so I could stay in California at UCLA. I was in America a total of one year.
BF: Based on what you saw during your visit, what progress do you see American youth soccer making? Put differently, what is America doing correctly with youth soccer right now?
Farokhi: It is hard to answer this conscientiously, because we had just a short visit to Pittsburgh, offering us only small insights. What we saw was a lot of passion, enthusiasm, and self-motivation. You can see that there is a high number of kids participating in the sport. So there is a great opportunity to make a big progress in America, but there is still no clear structure, especially at the youth level.
However, it would really hard to control, and create one clear structure and philosophy for developing young football talent in such a big country. The association has to help and to control it so that the clubs can keep their talents. If they lose them despite that, clubs should take advantages of player movements to another club.
I think just because of the increasing number of talents moving to Europe, who want to play in the highest leagues, individual development (based on the talent of a player) is currently really good in America. But there is a need for a clear structure for kids before they move to successful college teams. The best coaches have to work with the most promising young talents.
BF: What could America be doing better with youth soccer?
Farokhi: As is said before, America should install a clear structure that is based on a standardized philosophy for every club and every team in the focal points of development. They also need a substructure, and they should try to build up leagues with regular competitions based on the level of the kids to create environments with most intense competitions for every kid in every age group, but especially for the most recent talents.
BF: Currently, what is the biggest difference you observe between youth players in Germany vs. the U.S.?
Farokhi: Based on the intensive competition, as well as the high number of talents playing every weekend on the highest level, you see the difference in the development and the environment that we create for our players in Germany. That environment, with so many intense competitions based on a clear structure in combination with the best development based on professional work by the best coaches for every age, is an indicator for our success. So I think these are just some facts that illustrate the differences.
BF: What is the biggest mistake you see regularly made in youth coaching?
Farokhi: Too many coaches are commentators who are not working with kids to make them better with every experience on the pitch. I learned a motto that helps me a lot in my work: “We are there for the kids, and not the kids for us.” So I have to bring in all my knowledge to make every player better with every contact.
BF: You are listed as the Leiter Knappen-Fußballschule at Schalke. Can you tell us what this means and what your main responsibilities are?
Farokhi: I’m just the technical director of the Knappen-Fußballschule. Marco Fladrich is the “Leiter” / head of the football-school. Because of my work in the academy, I build the bridge between the best talents in our academy and the development center, so that every kid who wants to learn, and receive the same development as the kids in our academy, can sign up for our camps and clinics from the Schalke football school. I’m responsible for all programs, concepts, content for our coaches, and I have to control and coordinate everything that happens on the pitch in the younger ages.
BF: How did you end up at Schalke 04?
Farokhi: I played in the youth system for Holstein Kiel. At that time, I earned my coaching license and started early at the age of 16 as a youth coach. I also played almost one year in California. Afterwards, I started studying in Bochum and worked, in addition to studying as a coach and speaker for the German football academy. During that time Schalke, scouted me and signed me. So since 2007, I’ve been bleeding blue and white.
BF: What were your first impressions of Gelsenkirchen and Schalke when you were recruited there?
Farokhi: It was a great feeling to sit in the office’s of one of the best youth coaches in Germany and the world and hear him tell me that he wanted me in his academy because of my work. A great feeling and honor! It was a completely new world with so many new and professional ways of working and player development! I knew this was where I wanted to work and help players to develop, because of the personal and familiar feeling everyone gave me from day one!
BF: What is the most surprising thing about your job that a layperson wouldn’t know?
Farokhi: The conversations, dialogues, telephone calls, emails and listening to thoughts of parents about development of their kids in football.
BF: As a coach, what is the unifying philosophy/vision that drives your work?
Farokhi: As I mentioned before: We are there for the kids, and not the kids for us! My ambition is to develop as many kids as possible in sporting as well as in social aspects so that they can reach the highest level as a good athlete, a role model, and exemplary personality. If one of our U9/U10 or U11 players reaches the first league, then we’ve done a good job. Always with a smile in the face of our players! “For the love of the game.”
BF: What is something outside football (e.g. a book, film, etc.) that has had the biggest impact on your coaching?
Farokhi: My son and my daughter. Always treat your players as if they were your own children.
BF: Is there anything from your coaching work that helps you in life outside football?
Farokhi: There are many things about the behavior of kids and also my relationship with their parents. The adults often wish for their kids to become the next super star, and I learn a lot about the intentions and influential patterns of behavior. Also experiencing how many adults and parents try to make an impact on their kids in their own work. This attitudes helps me a lot in every part of my life and in every situation in life where you have direct contact with different people and different situations. So I’ve learned a lot about humans behavior, manners, and conduct which helps me in every situation of life!
BF: When did you know you were going to be a coach? Was there a single moment or two that pushed you in this direction?
Farokhi: The time when my father coached me in the U17. When I was 16, I knew I wanted to be a coach for kids and help them to develop.
BF: What was the most surprising thing you learned from in your formal coaching education programs?
Farokhi: The birth of my son. He made me become a much better coach in my behavior and handling of the kids and players.
BF: Which coach (or coaches) had the biggest impact on your own work?
Farokhi: First of all my father. Then Pep Guardiola. I like his way of thinking about that game. And our U19 coach Norbert Elgert. He is one of the best in the development of players in the whole world.
BF: In your estimation, what is the special element that gives Schalke’s famed academy its edge?
Farokhi: The quality of the coaches and the philosophy of the Knappenschmiede (youth academy). That, and the mix of the best development, familiar interactions, and atmosphere,
BF: Football coaching most resembles what other job/occupation?
Farokhi: Manager / executive and of course being a father (the hardest job in the world!).
BF: What is the most underrated skill effective football coaches need to possess, especially at the youth levels?
BF: Given what you’ve seen in your travels abroad, let’s do some compare and contrast. What element is the most “German” about Schalke’s academy and German youth players in general?
Farokhi: It’s our acronym …
S Selbstbewusst self-confident
C Charakterstark strong character
H Hilfsbereit helpful /supportive
A Anständig fair/respectful
L Leidenschaftlich passionate
K Konzentriert focused /concentrated
E Ehrlich honest / truthful
BF: As a teacher myself, I know how grinding it can be to teach. What keeps you going?
Farokhi: Of course the love of my family and especially my kids. The smile and joy of my players during their development and a cup of good coffee every morning.
BF: What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Farokhi: The most rewarding part is the part on the pitch: the sessions with the kids. Their grateful eyes, emotions and feelings are a big motivation in my work!
BF: Two-part question. First, are kids in Germany still playing football for fun (outside of formalized settings) as much as they used to? If not, how has this shift changed your own coaching?
Farokhi: Unfortunately, the so-called “street player” is dying because there is no opportunity to play like we did in our youth. So that is why it is so important to include this missing element into our training content as one of the main points. Also different bodily movements involvements requiring coordination, like climbing on trees for example, are movements that are missing today. So we try to catch all these missing movements, and put them as a main content in our training.
BF: Story time! Do you have a story about one the players we’d know on Schalke’s first team, whom you coached at the youth levels?
Farokhi: There are many but I would not be fair to pick up one out because all stories are so full of funny and exciting things. So maybe it helps if I say, all players who made it to the first team have their own exciting story.
BF: Sam, it’s been a pleasure talking with you! We’re glad to hear that you enjoyed your visit to Pittsburgh. Hopefully, we’ll see you state-side again very soon.