Hoffenheim have lost three key players in this transfer window, and look as if their Bundesliga status might be in jeopardy after four short years.
TSG 1899 Hoffenheim’s rise to the Bundesliga has been an incredible story, and it’s one that has been read with appreciation, envy and sometimes hatred in Germany. Disliked and disrespected by many football fans as having no tradition and no fans, Hoffenheim have been seen to have acquired success unfairly. Bankrolled extensively by the deep pockets of Dietmar Hopp, founder of the software company SAP and a childhood fan of the club, they have made an astonishingly swift rise to the top. Bernard Reeves, a free lance football writer currently based in Munich, Germany, chronicles their unprecedented rise and ponders whether they are still heading in the right direction.
At the beginning of the 1999/00 season, TSG 1899 Hoffenheim were in the Verbandsliga Nordbaden – a regional league in the state of Baden-Württemberg and the fifth tier of German football. After winning that division, they advanced to the Oberliga Süd, Germany’s fourth division (until the league system was restructured in 2008). A second consecutive promotion thrust them into the Regionalliga (German third division, and the highest amateur league in Germany at that time) at the beginning of the 2001/02 season. Here their progress was halted, but only momentarily. After finishing 13th, fifth (twice), seventh and fourth, they finally entered German professional licensed football by reaching the 2. Bundesliga in 2007. With new players, new investment and a new manager in Ralf Rangnick, TSG finished 2nd in their first season in Germany’s second tier and again achieved automatic promotion, completing an amazing ascent to the summit of German football.
The rest of Hoffenheim’s recent history is relatively common knowledge. Playing some explosive attacking football and boasting an array of young talent, the club blitzed its way to the top of the Bundesliga and occupied first place at the halfway stage of the 2008/09 season. There was talk of them becoming Bundesliga champions in their first season in the top flight, and matching the feat only ever managed by 1. FC Kaiserslautern of winning the title as a newly-promoted side. However, injuries to key first team players, most notably Vedad Ibisevic, who ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament in January 2009, took their toll on Hoffenheim’s title challenge. After such a strong start to the season, they fell away towards the end of the campaign, managing a still very decent seventh-placed finish. They’ve since become an established Bundesliga side, finishing 11th in 2010 and in the same position in 2011.
With a new, young and exciting manager recruited in the summer – Holger Stanislawski from FC St Pauli – expectation this season was of a push for Europe, or at least a top-half finish. They began the season reasonably well, with four wins from their first six games. But since then, it’s been, on the whole, a rather forgettable time for Hoffenheim fans. They have won just once in their last nine games, and are the fourth-lowest scoring team in the division, with just 20 goals in 19 games. For a team with their reputation, that is an embarrassing statistic indeed. With eight games drawn this season, they’re gaining a reputation as a distinctly boring and uninspiring side. Before their recent game with Hannover, 1899 had had the least amount of shots on goal this season. Coupled with their comic and – they sometimes flatter the Blackpool back four of last season – teams are relishing playing against Hoffenheim right now. They can’t score, and they’re easy to score against.
That’s the on the pitch story. Off the pitch, things look just as bleak. In late November infighting broke out in the squad after a drab 1-1 draw at home to Freiburg. Goalkeeper Tom Starke publicly criticised Ryan Babel (who displays weekly why Liverpool were right to get rid of him) and questioned his performances, to which Babel retorted, “As far as my performances go, I won’t let anyone criticise me.” It may all have been a storm in a teacup, but it required the intervention of manager Stanislawski and Sporting Director Ernst Tanner to defuse the situation. Barely a few days later, Chinedu Obasi and Roberto Firmino, two recognised first team players, were made to train by themselves and struck off the matchday squad to face Bayer Leverkusen after arriving late to training. And there’s also club captain Andreas Beck, strongly targeted by Juventus in the summer, but over whom Hoffenheim dug their heels in. One gets the feeling that the German international believes he could and should be playing in a better team.
Hoffenheim’s activity in the recent transfer window points to a club looking in the wrong direction. In the 2010-11 season, Gylfi Sigurdsson, known to fans in England from his time at Reading, was Hoffenheim’s player of the year. But after an injury-interrupted first half to this season, he has been loaned to Swansea City, where he is already showing better form. Chinedu Obasi, a name synonymous with Hoffenheim’s ascent to the big time, has also been loaned out to Schalke, playing a large part in their last two wins and looking a far better player than he did a month or so ago. And then there was the sale of Ibisevic to local rivals Stuttgart last week. This really was a symbolic event for Hoffenheim, and said a lot about where the club is heading.
Ibisevic was perhaps the player who best epitomised Hoffenheim. After Carlos Eduardo and Demba Ba, he was the last in their great attacking triumvirate to leave the club. With the exits of Sigurdsson and Obasi (albeit temporary), and the sale of Ibisevic, the phrase ‘leaving a sinking ship’ springs to mind. Srdjan Lakic has been brought in on loan from Wolfsburg until the end of the season, as well as youngsters Sandro Wieser from FC Basel and Stefan Thesker from FC Twente, both on permanent deals. But those hardly seem adequate replacements for three established players, and neither do they send out that big a message as to the club’s expectations.
Indeed, the previously deep pockets of owner Hopp have been well and truly tightened in recent years. In the same interview where he hinted of his regret at not being allowed to join Juventus, Beck said, “The club can’t buy players like Raul or Robben, so we have to pursue success another way.” TSG made €37 million Euros from the sales of Carlos Eduardo to Rubin Kazan and Luis Gustavo to Bayern München in the 2010-11 season. Since then, their most expensive purchases have been Ryan Babel, bought for €7 million from Liverpool and Sigurdsson, signed for €5.2 million as a replacement for Eduardo. Their most expensive acquisition this season has been Knowledge Musona, a little-known Zimbabwean forward signed from Kaizer Chiefs in the summer. With no marquee signings to freshen up the squad and give players like Beck some encouragement, the final few months of the season may make it very difficult for Hoffenheim’s modest fan base to get excited.
Hoffenheim face newly-promoted FC Augsburg at home in the league this weekend. On paper it pits eight against 17th. But this is a much bigger game than the league table suggests. Augsburg, despite a squad of limited quality, have given some of the best teams in the division a real game this season, and if I had to pick a team which looks up for a fight at present, it would most definitely not be Hoffenheim. This is a real crossroads for 1899. They look like a team with little or no confidence and, without the addition of a quality player to boost confidence in the camp, could certainly see themselves dragged into a relegation scrap. A good cup run might give fans more reason to smile – Hoffenheim have a quarter final at home to Greuther Fürth next week. But with Bayern, Dortmund and Borussia Mönchengladbach still all in the hat, winning it will be a tall order. It could also distract the team from their league predicament, which should be their priority now.
There would, of course, be plenty of people in Germany happy to see the back of Hoffenheim. They don’t have a proper history to speak of, and their games are rarely sold out unless they play Bayern or Dortmund. A recent German Cup last 16 tie against Augsburg attracted a crowd of just 10,375. To be sure, Holger Stanislawski’s project at the club is a work in progress. After the sale of Ibisevic last week, ‘Stani’ said in a press conference, “We have embarked on a process where we are integrating young players into the team, but also keeping to the rules which our financial situation permits.” It certainly will take time before we see results on his project. But treading a new path like this may just come at a big, big cost.
Follow Bernard on twitter @reevsinho9