The Great German Project

Earlier this week Niklas Wildhagen wrote a piece about the UEFA financial fair play rules and what this means for the likes of Hoffenheim. This week’s special treat for you is a piece that was sent to us by the writer of the Hoffenheim offside blog, Saurabh Ananth. In this piece Saurabh chronicles Hoffenheim’s incredible run to the Bundesliga. Enjoy!

Hoffenheim isn’t a club steeped in history like Kaiserslautern or Borussia Mönchengladbach. Instead, Hoffenheim became one of German football’s greatest projects. Like Fulham and Wigan in the Premier League, Hoffenheim came through the lower leagues on the back of a benefactor. As a result of this almost unprecedented rise, the club hasn’t been the most popular during their rise through the ranks. However, unlike most clubs that have been taken over by rich owners, Hoffenheim’s model was and still is one to admire.

Hoffenheim's players during a training camp.

Coming from a small village in the south of Germany, Hoffenheim was nothing more than an amateur side for a majority of their existence. They were up to the fifth tier of German football where they stayed for a few years. In the 1999-00 season they finished top of the league and earned promotion to the Oberliga, the 4th division of German football at the time.

It was around that time that Dietmar Hopp, co-founder of software company SAP, took over his boyhood club where he had played his entire career. Hopp’s new team were crowned champions of the Oberliga and were promoted to the Regionalliga Süd in the 2000-01 season where they would stay a solid top table side, finishing as high as 5th in the 2003-04. It was the same year that Hoffenheim made a dream run to the quarter finals of the DFB Pokal. On the way they beat several 2nd division sides, and most impressively, Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen. The same Leverkusen team that had reached the Champions League finals in 2002 and eventually lost 2-1 to Real Madrid thanks to a wonder strike from Zinedine Zidane. Hoffenheim ran out 3-2 winners against Leverkusen but were dumped out in the next round by 2. Bundesliga side, VfB Lübeck.

Hoffenheim finished in top table positions in the Regionalliga but around 2006 Dietmar Hopp started investing more into the club. He acquired the services of pragmatic manager, Ralf Rangnick who had just been relieved of his duties at Schalke. Rangnick was given free rein over the club as long as the club’s ambitions were met. The long term plan at Hoffenheim was to get the club up the ranks of German football and compete in the Bundesliga. The move paid off immediately, with Hoffenheim earning promotion to the 2. Bundesliga in the 2006-07 season after finishing 2nd in the Regionalliga.

 

As things started looking up for the small village team, Dietmar Hopp put plans into place for the new Rhein-Neckar Arena in nearby Sinsheim. The 30,000+ seater was set to replace the smaller Dietmar-Hopp-Stadion, which now hosts Hoffenheim’s reserves. The move to Sinsheim was an important one in bringing in new fans from the nearby towns and cities. Along with the new stadium came the improvement of training and youth facilities and Hoffenheim’s focus on youth grew. The small village team was starting to stir the pot, and for a team like Hoffenheim to break the mould the way they did, it started to attract negative attention from the German fans and media.

 

The club hadn’t made any major signings early on, Sejad Salihovic was the biggest signing for the club, joining the club in 2006 from Hertha Berlin. The 2007-08 season however, was a major season for Hoffenheim in terms of signings. The club acquired the services of striker Vedad Ibisevic from league rivals Aachen but wasn’t as prolific as he would prove to be later on. The key player that season was Demba Ba, the Senegalese striker signed from Belgian team Mouscron. Ba went on to be the team’s top scorer, putting away 14 goals to secure the team’s promotion. Chinedu Obasi, Carlos Eduardo and Isaac Vorsah also joined the team and helped shake up the 2. Bundesliga.

The season in the 2. Bundesliga started positively for the club, and at the winter break they were comfortably sitting in eighth place. Not good enough for Rangnick however and Hoffenheim rallied to fight harder, only losing three games in the second half of the season. During their time in the 2. Bundesliga the team and Dietmar Hopp himself were on the receiving end of a lot of abuse. Despite that however, they managed to keep their heads and make their historic first appearance in the Bundesliga under the guidance of Ralf Rangnick. Rangnick’s men finished runners up behind Gladbach and earned a consecutive automatic promotion.

Every year, all around the world, a newly promoted team surpasses all expectations before crashing back down to earth. In 2008-09, that team was Hoffenheim. Ibisevic who had only scored five goals the year before, fired Hoffenheim to the top with the help of his strike partner Ba. Ibisevic scored 18 goals and got 7 assists in 17 games. This prolific run of scoring saw Hoffenheim crowned “Winter Champions”. Unfortunately, that’s where the run ended. Ibisevic suffered a cruciate ligament injury during a friendly match and that derailed Hoffenheim’s season. All the expectation was put on Demba Ba for the rest of the season and along with his teammates they managed to hold the team up to a solid top table finish. The signings of Luis Gustavo and current captain Andreas Beck at the start of the season had proven to be popular ones, both of them solidifying themselves into the hearts of the Hoffenheim faithful.

It was a season of ups and downs for Hoffenheim and they were one of many surprises for Bundesliga fans. That season saw Wolfsburg end the season as champions and Hoffenheim finish in a solid seventh place in the league. The dream run which had started more than ten years ago had culminated in Hoffenheim’s highest ever finish.

Not much has gone in the way of Hoffenheim in recent times however. After moving to their new stadium and aiming for European football, Hoffenheim suffered once again from mid-season injuries that saw them drop out of the top five to a lowly eleventh place finish in the 2009-10 season.

Later, the 2010-11 has been a difficult one for Hoffenheim. The departures of Timo Hildebrand, Carlos Eduardo, Luis Gustavo, Demba Ba, and finally Ralf Rangnick himself would have an adverse effect on the club. Despite trying to shore up the losses by signing Tom Starke and Ryan Babel, a boring mid table finish looks on the cards at the end of this season. Dietmar Hopp’s attempt to balance the books and get the club safely within the new Financial Fairplay regulations while admirable has been a major setback in the club’s quest for European football.

Despite recent shortcomings, the team was built by the vision of both Dietmar Hopp and Ralf Rangnick. Rangnick’s outlook on football was a brilliant one. Unlike, many team’s who have billionaire owners, Hoffenheim focused on improving it’s facilities to bring through the next generation of German footballers. In the words of Rangnick himself:

“You have to let them run. If you play defensively with a young team it is a contradiction. Young players have many advantages. They learn faster, listen, can cope with the intensity of training. Young players also know that they need team spirit and need trust and confidence from us.”

And the team’s poor form and a more defensive minded manager in the latter half of this season has proven that high tempo attacking football will be a big key in driving the club forward again in the future. Something which should come back to Hoffenheim in the upcoming season with the appointment of St. Pauli manager Holger Stanislawski.

With a vast scouting network and the staff to match, the commitment to blooding a new generation of footballers and the brand of smashmouth football Hoffenheim is set for a long and successful spell in Germany’s top flight.

Our thanks go to Saurabh Ananth! You can visit his blog HERE, and follow Saurabh on Twitter as well.

Feel free to leave a comment!

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Niklas Wildhagen

Niklas is a 32-year-old football writer and podcaster who has been following the Bundesliga and German football since the early 90s. You can follow him on Twitter, @normusings, and listen to his opinions on @TalkingFussball.

3 Comments

  1. Yes, Gylfi is an outstanding player in my mind. I’d sure like to see Hoffenheim return to the excitement of a couple years ago when they were neck and neck for the winter break lead, and then Vedad Ibisevic’ injury in the winter offseason seemed to knock the winds out of their sails. I do believe this team does have the talent to have a realistic chance at European competition….it will be interesting to see what the offseason brings.

  2. Nicely done. Pezza seemed to come in after Rangick this season immediately putting paid to dreams of Europe this season. Maybe Stanis lets them run again. And for the love of Pete, more Gylfi! Love that Icelandic lad.

  3. Excellent article. I’m looking for a better performance next season by Hoffenheim under Stanislawski.

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