Until recently, Hoffenheim was heading in one direction: up. The future seemed bright. In almost mythical fashion, the ‘village club’ went from a 5th division team to the Bundesliga, all in under an awe-inspiring decade. But now the club’s caught in a storm. The team is currently fighting relegation and in the midst of another coaching change.
On Monday the club sacked Markus Babbel after a disastrous 4-1 defeat against Werder Bremen over the weekend. The coach managed a meagre seven wins in 29 games. The team managed to win only a single game on the road, not to mention its distressing losses at home. Hoffenheim has also conceded a league high of 36 goals, more than any other team in the Bundesliga including Augsburg and Greuther Fuerth, who sit below them in the table.
Compare that to the team’s fairytale first season in the Bundesliga. In its debut year, Hoffenheim were Herbstmeister (Fall/Winter champions), collecting 35 points in 17 matches and ending the season in the top ten. A glimpse into the past reveals an ecstatic and optimistic mood after the crowning, unaware, of course, of the struggles ahead.
“We’re no longer the village team, we are the club of the metropolitan region Rhein-Neckar,” the club’s chief financial backer Dietmar Hopp told Spiegel Online at the time.
In retrospect, what a season it was. Life couldn’t get any better with the team welcoming its new stadium the following month, the Rhein-Neckar Arena, with a capacity of over 30,000, signifying the club’s growth and solidifying an identity reaching far beyond its immediate borders.
The future would not turn out to be so rosy, however. After a respectable 11th place finish the following three seasons, today, with two matches remaining before the winter break, the team has 12 points in 15 matches.
But to understand the club, it’s important to understand the owner. Hopp is often described as the face of Hoffenheim, a team that has been mired in controversy since the multimillionaire and software giant took over the club in 2000 and transformed it into a national competitor.
Hopp is a polarizing figure, to say the least. Back in August 2011, there was an embarrassing loudspeaker incident at home involving Borussia Dortmund fans when it was discovered that a worker at the club had installed one to deliberately tune out BVB’s chants and cheers against Hopp. It didn’t sit too well with the German Football Association, yet Hoffenheim escaped punishment.
The Dortmund fans are not alone, either. Aside from the few Hoffenheim fans, the rest of the country isn’t exactly fond of this team. And it’s not the size of the fan base that is problematic. Despite referring to it as the ‘village club’, it still represents a legitimate group of people equally as passionate about their team as the rest of the fans in the country.
With that in mind, however, it’s clear the club suffers from an image/identity problem. It is a rootless team to most of its critics, a club without tradition. Apart from its history that dates back to 1899, many still argue its amateur past doesn’t erase its almost overnight growth on the back of Hopp’s investment. And it’s true: if it wasn’t for Hopp’s money, the club would have in all likelihood not come this far.
Perhaps not, yet to some degree this is the same team that gave rise and attention to almost relative unknowns at the time, such as Demba Ba, Carlos Eduardo, Luiz Gustavo and Chinedu Obasi, players that contributed to the team’s initial success.
Still, injecting money into a club and providing financial stability seems unfair to other small yet ambitious clubs, who don’t have a deep-pocketed owner to bail them out or buy talent to win promotion from one league to the next.
It’s not just the money, however. There’s also the overwhelmingly cozy relationship between Hopp and player agent Roger Wittmann. And many believe Hoffenheim has managed to violate the league’s beloved 50+1 rule and effectively override fan control of the club.
Roger Wittmann operates the firm ROGON, one of the country’s most successful football/sport management agencies. Here is a list of players the agency represents in Europe: Kevin-Prince Boateng, Julian Draxler, Luiz Gustavo, Marcel Schmelzer and Jermaine Jones to name a few.
While player agents in football are perfectly normal, there are concerns over the amount of influence they can potentially exert over teams. The advisers’ roles essentially guard the interests of their players rather than consider what is best for the clubs.
An article in Stern magazine discusses these pitfalls in detail.
“For the clubs these advisers/agents can become dangerous when they represent many of the clubs’ players. This way they can gain influence. An agent only thinks of himself and his clients: He wants to make as much money as possible from a club.”
Hoffenheim is no exception. Six of the team’s current players are also Wittmann’s clients including Sejad Salihovic, Tobias Weis, Chris Hening, Kevin Conrad, Tim Wiese and Roberto Firmino.
Earlier in the spring even Hopp admitted to the dangers, but just last month when he was questioned in the Rhein-Neckar Zeitung about his close relationship with Wittmann, he appeared to dismiss the whole situation.
“Often friendships develop from business relationships…I’m convinced that in football too, friends can do business.”
While no one can know for sure, there is speculation some of these players had their contracts extended despite mediocre performances and poor results. In any case, it’s a subject of debate around the club.
Then of course, there’s the 50+1 rule dispute, a bit of a financial grey area. Hopp holds 49% of the club’s stimmrechts (rights to vote) and according to the Frankfurter Allgemeine roughly 99% of the club’s stammkapitals (shares). Just last year, he finally disclosed to the public he has invested around 240 million euros since buying the club. Some believe this investment has given him de facto control over the club, despite having only 49% of the vote share.
Hoffenheim, obviously, isn’t the only club not operating in the spirit of 50 + 1. One can argue it’s unfair to single out one team, while making exceptions for Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkusen (there are complicated histories behind these two teams). This gray area further highlights the loopholes and implementation problems with the 50+1 rule in the Bundesliga. As one legal expert told Zeit Online the club is nothing without its main investor:
“Behind this club stands one known person: Dietmar Hopp. He made TSG successful/big with his money and has been for many years compensating the losses all on his own…At first glance TSG’s legal form conforms to the statutes. Behind the facade it’s clear that Hopp undermines the 50+1 rule. From the complicated capital structure one can see that the club depends on Hopp.”
These claims gain further ground when one recalls the incident with Ralf Rangnick, who of course, fell out with Hoffenheim and resigned after Luiz Gustavo was sold to Bayern Munich without his approval.
Fears the club may be heading in Manchester City or Chelsea’s footsteps seemed to have also died down. In the past two years, the club has offloaded some of its more expensive signings. Hopp said he’d like to focus more on developing and acquiring players from its youth ranks. It’s a laudable move, but it won’t end the cries of ‘geld schiesst tore’ (money scores goals), which arguably held true for this club, allowing them to reach the Bundesliga.
Neither does it alter the narrative of the club’s rise to fame that sounded like something straight out of a Disney sports movie (without the software mogul coming in to buy the best players bit). But it remains to be seen if Hoffenheim will truly “live happily ever after.”