In 2008 when I was in need of an interesting essay for my German A Levels, I stumbled upon a subject most Bundesliga fans were obsessing over.
TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, a name not historically associated with German footballing prowess, were perched astonishingly at the top of the league table heading into the winter break that year, in what was their debut season in the top flight.
To provide the briefest of backgrounds, over the past 20 years Hoffenheim have risen remarkably up the ranks from amateur status in the early 1990s to Bundesliga members by 2008. The small village located in the South West region of Baden-Württemberg owes much to the local boy-cum-software billionaire Dietmar Hopp. A former Hoffenheim player, Hopp has invested roughly €350 Million into the club so far, reinventing the village outfit and arousing much dispute and controversy along the way.
After researching their history and how they came to find themselves in such an incredible position, I titled the essay:
Inwiefern ist das Märchen von TSG 1899 Hoffenheim eine Katastrophe für den deutschen Fuβball?
Translated it reads, ‘To what extent is the fairy-tale of Hoffenheim a disaster for German football?’
Whilst this may have been an over simplified and naïve take on one aspect of the German game (especially considering that my own team Manchester City were in a similar process of financial reinvention at that point), it does still hold some resonance today. At the time, the free spending, high scoring village outfit were upsetting the natural order and sending shockwaves through the Bundesliga.
In a league recognised today across Europe as financially stringent, especially with the 51% membership rule preventing major foreign ownership, a newly promoted team spending so lavishly was practically unheard of. The club under coach Ralf Rangnick seemed to have the world at its feet.
Fast-forward to present day, and the outlook has dampened. Currently in 17th place on 28 points and with only two league matches remaining, TSG’s Bundesliga status is rapidly slipping away. ‘Die Hoffe’ know that failure to yield results at home to Hamburg and away to Dortmund in the final stages of the season will seal their fate. Two points off Augsburg in 16th and holders of the 2nd worst goal difference in the league, the odds are immeasurably stacked against them.
Where did it all go wrong?
For starters, the team’s inability to build on the early promise shown during the 2008-2009 season has progressively become apparent each year. After an encouraging 7th place finish, the club went on to epitomise the cliché of mid table mediocrity, making the 11th place finish their own over the next three seasons. How their fans would adore a return to that target now.
Hopp’s ambition never flagged in the press, with him backing the side for a Champions League spot in the lead up to the current campaign. Unfortunately, the owner’s outspoken drive for success has not so confidently been replicated in their transfer policy over the years.
Since 2009, a host of key players have left, with their replacements proving less than adequate. Demba Ba, Luiz Gustavo, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Vedad Ibisevic are just a few notable names to have departed the Rhein-Neckar Arena for bigger challenges. This seemingly ‘feeder club’ tag was no more apparent than in December 2011 with the departure of the aforementioned Luiz Gustavo. Sold to Bayern Munich without the consultation of manager Ralf Rangnick, the coach was astonished at being kept in the dark by Hopp and parted company with the club he’d achieved so much with.
For all the Bundesliga’s global adoration, this recurring theme of marquee names being snapped up by the likes of Munich, Dortmund and other major foreign outfits, is perhaps one glaring blemish on the German game. Too often teams such as Wolfsburg, Werder Bremen, Borussia Mönchengladbach and Hoffenheim have succumbed to the lure of selling their talent at the first opportunity, preventing them from becoming consistent Champions League and title contenders.
The saga of Gustavo signalled a turning point in managerial stability, with five new faces having come and gone since Rangnick’s departure. The current man at the helm, Markus Gisdol, could yet be the man to scrape survival.
Gisdol has enjoyed a mixed start to his tenure, winning two, losing one and drawing two, including a spirited comeback in their crucial relegation tie with Werder Bremen this weekend. With five minutes of normal time remaining, Sven Schipplock stepped up off the bench to score two goals and make it 2-2 at the Weserstadion. Similar heroics will be needed again before the season is up.
With the sales of their biggest names, including around €15 million for Gustavo and €18 million for Brazilian Carlos Eduardo to Rubin Kazan, the club has consistently failed to reinvest the money wisely in similar talent. This season’s signings included familiar Bundesliga faces, namely former German international goalkeeper Tim Wiese, Stuttgart stalwart Matthieu Delpierre, and Leverkusen striker Eren Derdiyok. These three along with other new faces have flattered to deceive, and the squad has needed continuous bolstering throughout.
Die Hoffe’s lack of an in form striker has shown in front of goal, with the scoring impotence of strikers Derdiyok, Kevin Volland, Joselu and Sven Schipplock hampering their survival hopes. None has hit more than five goals in the league so far, and their combined league haul of 16 is still two goals less than Vedad Ibisevic’s tally in their debut Bundesliga campaign (and the striker only played until January due to injury). The Bosnian’s 13 league goals for Stuttgart this season have been sorely missed.
Their form at the other end of the pitch has not helped matters either. Three goalkeepers have had chances to cement their place in between the sticks, all failing for one reason or another. Tim Wiese’s poor form and Heurelho Gomes’s broken hand have now left the mantel to 20-year-old Koen Casteels. 62 goals conceded in 32 games tells its own story, the joint highest in the league.
With two games remaining, the team will need to rally around their manager and pull out two sublime performances, starting with Hamburg at home on Saturday. The experience of club mainstays Andreas Beck, Tobias Weis and Sejad Salihovic will be pivotal. These are the only three first teamers remaining that donned the blue and white of Hoffenheim in 2008, and their leadership could be what separates Die Hoffe from fellow relegation strugglers Augsburg and Düsseldorf, both inexperienced Bundesliga contestants themselves.
Hoffenheim have proven to be no disaster for German football, yet if they fail to drag themselves out of the drop zone, their antics under Dietmar Hopp could yet prove disastrous for themselves.
Image courtesy of n24.de
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