SV Sandhausen – Out of Hoffenheim’s shadow

“Authentisch, glaubwürdig und echt, 100 Prozent Sandhausen” – Jürgen Machmeier

Six years ago, SV Sandhausen, the club from a small town in Baden-Württemberg, had the chance to join forces with TSG 1899 Hoffenheim and create a Rhein-Neckar ‘superclub’, with heavy financial backing. Sandhausen’s President Jürgen Machmeier rejected the proposal.

Hoffenheim’s sponsor Dietmar Hopp pressed on without the then fourth-tier club, and to great success. They have just completed their fourth consecutive season in the Bundesliga and moved into a 30,000 capacity stadium in Sinsheim, while little has been heard of Sandhausen and Machmeier in between.

All that has changed. Here is one of the remarkable success stories of the season: Sandhausen are celebrating their first ever promotion to the 2. Bundesliga. Next season, SVS, a club with only 700 members, will be competing with the likes of Köln, Kaiserslautern and 1860 München, and in some of the finest arenas in the country.

Compared to some of those sides they will be welcoming to the town of only 14,500 inhabitants, Sandhausen’s history is fairly obscure. In national terms, the club is perhaps most famed for a remarkable upset in the DFB Pokal in the 1995/96 season, in which the minnows defeated Baden-Württemberg giants VfB Stuttgart in a famous 13-12 penalty shootout win.

Then, in the mid-2000s, software entrepreneur Dietmar Hopp, 1899 Hoffenheim’s chief financial backer, had wanted to merge three football clubs from his home region – Hoffenheim, Sandhausen and FC Astoria Walldorf. His intention was to form a new club for the Rhein-Neckar region to be proud of, one which would be heavily financed and highly ambitious. However, this proposal fell through in 2006 as Sandhausen pulled out of the merger.

Machmeier’s decision to reject Hopp’s plan would provide the backdrop for the next few years of Sandhausen’s development, and for its remarkable promotion story too. At the time, Machmeier doubted the move was in the interests of his club. Despite the lucrative offer on the table, he had felt that the proposals made by Hopp and Hoffenheim were “bit-by-bit geared to the interests of TSG Hoffenheim and away from those of SV Sandhausen”.

The final blow to the proposal had been that Sandhausen would not be permitted promotion to the Regionalliga, then the third tier, until the merger. Machmeier decided to stay put, not wanting to have Sandhausen reduced to a “farm team”, and have the club’s budget determined externally.

In 2007/08, SVS duly achieved promotion into the third tier, and a year later were integrated into the 3. Liga, the DFB’s new professional federal league, in one of the most significant moments of progress in the club’ history. Meanwhile, Hopp concentrated his efforts on 1899 Hoffenheim, employing Ralf Rangnick, previously a coach at Stuttgart and Schalke, to take the Regionalliga team into the Bundesliga for the 2008/09 season, with a new stadium on the immediate horizon too.

So although the mid-late 2000s represented a period of good development and success for Sandhausen, they were left very much in the shadow of their heavily financed neighbours.  In the years in between then and now, Sandhausen achieved relative stability in the 3. Liga. After flirting with relegation in 2009/10, they reappointed the coach who had initially guided them to success – Gerd Dais.

With promotion in 2011/12, Dais, who grew up locally in Heidelberg and represented Sandhausen during his playing career, has guided the smallest professional football club in Germany from the regional divisions to the second tier for the first time in its 95-year history. Close observers of Sandhausen’s development see the 48 year-old coach as central to their promotion. “Anyone who knows the SV Sandhausen system knows it’s Gerd Dais”, the Baden Football Association President Ronny Zimmermann explained. “He holds a huge share in this success”.

A methodical coach, Dais has fashioned a side which plays disciplined, hard-working football. His football philosophy centres on the whole, with an emphasis on tactical awareness, team spirit, and, in particular, having a settled group of players who work well together in a set system. “I changed the system to take out a striker in favour of a second ‘number six’, brought players in from the second team, and added some continuity”, he said on his team’s success. “Also we made good reinforcements in the summer to have a team which works well together.”

Sandhausen’s current squad is firmly youth-centric, with most of its players 25 or under, which caters to its hard-working style. The more experienced members are drawn mostly from the same sort of level Sandhausen are used to playing at. 30 year-old top scorer Frank Löning tasted promotion from the 3. Liga previously with SC Paderborn, but has found some of the best form of his career in his two years in Baden; while January signing Nico Klotz has been a great addition to the team, having seen little playing-time during his two years with Paderborn in the league above.

Importantly, the continuity which is so central to the club’s on-field success is carried higher up the club ranks, with Machmeier demonstrably holding the club’s identity in the highest regard too. Although it’s rare to see a club’s core upheld against financial interests so fully as here, it would be false to think that Sandhausen are the polar opposite of Hoffenheim’s riches. Despite rejecting Dietmar Hopp’s millions, Machmeier has still made sure his club is in a fairly strong position financially, supporting them himself and ensuring that they receive, as he has put it, “extremely strong support” from sponsors.

Indeed, their budget next season suggests that they will be able to compete in the higher league. German publication Tagesspiegel reports that their overall budget for next season of 9m euros will be close to that of relative giants 1. FC Kaiserslautern, who have spent the last two seasons in the Bundesliga. SVS’s 2. Bundesliga status will give them the added bonus of 3.5 million euros in TV rights, and the money will be used to both strengthen the squad and improve the 11,000 capacity Hardtwaldstadion.

Finance may only be part of the story when it comes to measuring a club’s progress. Nonetheless the fact that their budget for next year is so similar to that of Kaiserslautern is a significant one, since FCK, with their four Bundesliga titles, are seen by Machmeier’s club as big rivals, with the two located just 80km apart.

In recent years, though, Sandhausen have been battling an even closer rival. But with Hoffenheim’s rapid development this rivalry has restricted itself to off-field affairs only. Now, through promotion to the 2. Bundesliga, SV Sandhausen have bravely stepped out of the shadow of Dietmar Hopp’s 1899 Hoffenheim.

Jürgen Machmeier’s rejection of the three-way merger proposed by Hopp is starting to pay dividends. Not only are they seeing greater success on the pitch, but their president and chief financial backer has stood up for, and reinforced, the core identity of the club. Justifying his rejection of the merger, Machmeier stated “we remain authentic, trustworthy and real: 100% Sandhausen”, a slogan which quickly has become a part of the club’s character.

Now Sandhausen enters possibly the greatest period in its history. With Machmeier and Dais at the helm, it would not be unrealistic to suggest the club can continue its great progress. Their president hailed promotion as a “miracle”, “a fantastic story”, as their coach put it. And they’ve achieved it all as SV Sandhausen 1916.

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Jonathan Lines

Jonathan is a teacher and football writer based in the UK. He writes mostly about German football, with a particular interest in clubs from eastern Germany, past and present. Follow him on twitter @JDL_1989

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