For those of you who aren’t into German football, an unfamiliar name currently parades near the top of the Bundesliga table—TSG 1899 Hoffenheim.
This is the remarkable story of a club rooted in the small country-village of Hoffenheim in South-West Germany. The little village only has about 3,500 inhabitants, yet is home to a Bundesliga club. For comparison, imagine some small English country village like Needham Market in Suffolk having a club that performs in the Premiership.
For the romantics among us it is a fairytale; the cynics on the other hand will argue that the rise of one of Germany’s most controversial clubs of the last few years sets a dangerous precedent.
The promotion to the Bundesliga has completed an eighteen year mission which began for Hoffenheim's owner way back in 1990 when Dietmar Hopp—the co-founder of the software giant SAP and one of the richest men in Germany—took over the club when they were in the lower levels of the German leagues. Hopp brought with him his vast personal fortune, looking to invest some of his wealth into his own former football club.
Hopp has backed Hoffenheim with considerable sums over the past eighteen years, ensuring his clubs rise through the divisions. Unlike Roman Abramovich with Chelsea, Hopp and Hoffenheim didn’t invest in arrived top players, but in up-and-coming talents and youths.
Hopp has stated that his investments are solely to provide his club with the foundations for long-term success, so he invested in state-of-the-art training facilities. As such, a part of 1899 Hoffenheim’s success thus far has been based on the development of youth players from its range of youth academies.
Besides training their own players, Hopp and Hoffenheim also had a keen eye for capable playing and coaching staff. Amongst the newcomers brought in by Hopp was a manager, Ralf Rangnick, whom he believed had the credentials to push his beloved Hoffenheim into the upper echelons of German football. Rangnick’s management CV boasted the likes of VfB Stuttgart, Hannover 96, and Schalke 04.
The aim was to be playing in the Bundesliga within three seasons. Other newcomers included the Nigerian forward Chinedu Ogbuke, Brazilian play-maker Carlos Eduardo, African forward Dembe Ba, Swedish international Per Nilsson, Bosnian goal-scoring sensation Vedad Ibisevic, and Austrian international Andreas Ibertsberger.
Their quick rise through the divisions has caused some envy with the fans from neighbouring clubs. Parallels were drawn between Hoffenheim and Chelsea, and players and fans from the little club are labelled “corporate whores” by jealous rival supporters.
The criticism has been especially forthcoming in former East Germany, where fans of clubs with larger support but less money view Hoffenheim as the epitome of the unfair nature of West German capitalism.
Still, the club is performing very well, having topped the Bundesliga table already and still going strong—trailing leader Schalke 04 by a mere point.
I’m curious to see how the club will do in the long run. Will the club last when Hopp retires or will we see a Gretna-scenario in Germany?
Time will tell.