BY DAVE LONG
Chelsea, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain are the most famous high-profile clubs to have been taken over, heavily invested in and taken to the pinnacle of the world game. But Bundesliga side TSG 1899 Hoffenheim are one of many smaller clubs to have taken the same money-laden route to glory. Despite the fairy tale journey, their rise through the divisions from the amateur divisions to this season's UEFA Champions’ League group stage, akin to a Northern Premier League Division One team making the leap to Europe's top club competition, has been mired in controversy.
Dietmar Hopp, a co-founder of SAP – the world's third largest software company – was a former youth team striker at Hoffenheim before making his fortune in the 1990s. Looking to invest in a football club, he chose a less traditional route; rather than purchase one he had no emotional ties with, he decided to go back to his roots and invest in his boyhood team.
Hoffenheim, who hail from a village of fewer than 3,500 inhabitants and were as low as Germany's ninth tier in the mid-1990s, reaped the rewards of Hopp's investment almost immediately. Hopp paid for a new 5,000 capacity stadium, imaginatively titled the Dietmar Hopp Stadium, and they won successive promotions between 2000 and 2002 to the Regionalliga Süd, Germany's fourth tier. Hoffenheim found their level there and league finishes steadied for a number of seasons.
2006 saw Hopp and Hoffenheim move up a gear; growing restless of the fourth tier he sought to vastly improve the standard of coaching in order to gain promotion to the 2. Bundesliga. He helped sign former VfB Stuttgart, Hannover 96 and Schalke 04 manager Ralf Rangnick, whose experience and connections helped Hoffenheim, after five seasons in Regionalliga Süd, gain promotion in 2007. More importantly, though, the club became professional for the first time meaning they could attract a higher calibre of player with the riches at their disposal.
Hopp had foreseen the club's expansion and because of the rapid ascent, their stadium was insufficient. As a result, Hopp financed their second move in just six years. The new stadium, just a few miles from Hoffenheim, was built with a capacity of just over 30,000. With a budget, infrastructure and playing staff vastly superior to that of the rest of 2. Bundesliga it was clear Hoffenheim wouldn't be hanging around for long.
Hopp and Hoffenheim started to garner plenty of press attention due to their rise through the divisions. Their story, however, wasn't always seen as positive. Heavy criticism and accusations of simply buying success, and comparisons to Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour were, somewhat unfairly, levelled at Hopp. He hasn't merely thrown around money idly; apart from bringing professional football, employment and investment to the town, Hopp has heavily invested in the club's youth system. This has had its own rewards too as the various Hoffenheim youth teams won nine titles between 2008 and 2017.
The club was, and still are, among the most disliked in Germany. Only a couple of decades ago, VfL Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkusen, who are privately financed by Volkswagen and Bayer Pharmaceuticals respectively, were roundly disliked because of their private sector owners. However, they were products of their owner's workforce football teams and have since separated from their manufacturing roots and gained some credibility.
On the flip side, Rasenballsport Leipzig are financed by Red Bull, and like Hoffenheim are viewed as a club without any tradition; a club manufactured like an X Factor boy band. Success breeds jealousy and these views could be considered as plain and simple envy. However, tradition is worn as a badge of honour among football fans all over the world and the accusations of being ‘artificial’ and ‘synthetic’ are made by fans of clubs with heritage, whose teams, for better or worse, have a long and storied history.
Some fans, especially those of clubs in the former East Germany, saw Hoffenheim’s surge into professional football as a political metaphor. To some, Hoffenheim and Hopp are a symbol of old West German capitalism; fans of clubs with vociferous fan bases in the east such as Hansa Rostock, Dynamo Dresden and Energie Cottbus, were particularly critical of Hopp’s methods.
It wasn't just opposing fans who showed a dislike for Hoffenheim. The media also made a lot of their overnight success; for many, they had no connection with Hoffenheim, no rivalry or backstory had been formed. As far as the media were concerned Hoffenheim was a village team with a rich owner who had marauded their way through Germany's lower divisions in a crass and undignified manner.
On the pitch, having spent more than the rest of 2. Bundesliga put together, Hoffenheim laid down their intentions to win promotion at the first time of asking. Rangnick’s signings of defensive midfielder Luis Gustavo, and strikers Chinedu Obasi, Demba Ba and Vedad Ibišević, came to symbolise the sheer gulf in quality between Hoffenheim and the rest of the league. Gustavo, now at Marseille, was celebrated for his tough, cavalier style during his time at Hoffenheim. Senegalese international, Demba Ba – before he was a flop at West Ham United – was, along with Obasi, Hoffenheim’s joint top goalscorer in 2008. Ba, Obasi and fellow new-signing Ibišević, were key to the team’s success and inevitable promotion after just one season in the second tier. The promised land of the Bundesliga beckoned; from the ninth tier little more than 15 years earlier to the top division, Hopp certainly deserved a lot of credit for staying the course, but he wasn’t finished just yet.
Hoffenheim started the season as they finished the last; their free-flowing, attacking style was admired and, inevitably, envied and scoffed at by the rest of the Bundesliga. They retained much of their promotion-winning side and Ibišević, in particular, made the leap into the top division in style. His 18 goals in the first half of the season catapulted Hoffenheim to an unprecedented first place at the turn of 2009. Having experienced an almost unbroken ride of goals and trophies on their rise to the Bundesliga, Hoffenheim and Ibišević suffered a cruel blow during the winter break as the Bosnian striker suffered a torn ACL and was ruled out for the rest of the campaign. Their magnificent start couldn't be sustained, but Demba Ba's 14 goals meant they finished seventh in their first season in the Bundesliga.
Hopp's journey from youth team player to financial advocate was completed in 2015. The Bundesliga's unique '50+1' rule states a club cannot be majority owned by a single entity, yet, Hopp satisfied the German FA that he had provided significant investment for both the professional and amateur teams at Hoffenheim for more than 20 years and thus met the requirement for a majority takeover. The decision by the German FA was significant as it was the first time, they had decided in favour of an individual who looked to exercise the ‘20 year' clause.
The same season, Hopp – ever the businessman – engineered a behind the scenes transfer deal with Bayern for Luis Gustavo, reported to be around £20m, a very healthy return on the £1m they paid for him three years earlier. However, the fallout saw Rangnick resign in fury the next day. His resignation paved the way for a lot of managerial turmoil at Hoffenheim as eight managers patrolled the dugout at the Wirsol Rhein-Neckar-Arena in just five years. Most recently, Julian Nagelsmann – who was just 29 when he took over in 2016 – is the most recent and arguably most successful Hoffenheim manager since their promotion to the Bundesliga.
Roberto Firmino had been sold to Liverpool in 2015 but Andrej Kramarić and Sandro Wagner were brought in to launch Hoffenheim into Europe. At the end of the 2014/15 season they had just missed out on a UEFA Europa League place by two points but eventually made it to fourth in 2016/17 and gained entry into the UEFA Champions League for the first time. Hoffenheim's debut season in Europe didn't quite end as happily as they would've liked as they were knocked out by Liverpool in the qualifying round. As a result, they dropped into the Europa League but finished bottom of a group containing Braga, İstanbul Başakşehir and Ludogorets. Hoffenheim finally qualified for the Champions’ League group stages after finishing third in the Bundesliga last season meaning the former village team are now one of Europe’s elite clubs.
Former Hoffenheim youth coach Nagelsmann has taken much of the credit for leading the first team into Europe’s premier competition. He took over in February 2016 with the team seven points from safety. Miraculously he kept them up and guided them to their two best Bundesliga finishes. Their debut among Europe’s upper classes have yet to bring a win, but they are very handily placed to qualify for the Round of 16 with two games remaining.
Ten years since their first season in the Bundesliga, Hopp’s investment has provided the club with stability, despite narrowly avoiding relegation on a few occasions; and now they’re firmly part of Germany’s aristocracy, Hoffenheim are setting their sights on European success.
Depending on your point of view Hopp's story is of a self-made fan pouring his life’s earnings into his favourite club. Equally, it could be the ominous tale of greed and egotism. Hoffenheim are an example of just how well the story can turn out, but for every Hoffenheim there is a Gretna; their short rollercoaster ride from non-league to Europe came crashing down in 2008. Theirs is a cautionary tale and Hopp would do well to learn from it.
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