Village people

There's a new name in the German top flight and it belongs to a village team financed by a software billionaire. FC Hoffenheim's success has not been too popular, as Dominic Hinde explains

Tiny FC Hoffenheim achieved promotion to Germany’s top flight at the end of last season. It should be a story to warm the hearts of football fans everywhere. Yet many believe they shouldn’t be in the Bundesliga.

It all began when club owner and software magnate Dietmar Hopp, a former player when the club were no more than a Sunday team, offered to buy training supplies for the cash-strapped side. He eventually purchased the club and started investing a significant chunk of his personal fortune. Unlike other billionaire club owners, Hopp has a deep connection with his footballing baby. He is Hoffenheim through and through; the real problem is that almost no one else is. Seven years ago Hoffenheim, from south-west Germany, were playing two rungs below the regional leagues to crowds of a few hundred at their tiny village stadium. In 2009, after a year of costly groundsharing with SV Waldhof Mannheim, they will move to a colossal 30,000-seat arena that will dwarf the village’s population of 3,200.

As Gretna proved, clubs built on the fortune of an individual without a large fanbase are not financially viable in the long term, yet, in an age when TV money and sponsorship are as important as gate receipts to a club’s finances, Hoffenheim are investing wisely. Much hinges on the theory that, if success can be artificially maintained for a few years, the crowds will eventually come and the TV money will stack up year on year. The club are investing huge amounts in a youth academy, which they hope to make into a regional centre, thereby overcoming the handicap of being based in a village surrounded by a number of much larger clubs from both divisions of the Bundesliga.

Needless to say, these clubs are none too happy about Hoffenheim’s success. Christian Heidell, Mainz’s director of football, labelled Hoffenheim a “model club”, and not in a positive sense, saying that their rise was in no way a good development for the game and they amounted to an expensive plaything. Other figures within the game have been moderately more complimentary. Jürgen Klinsmann called Hoffenheim “one of the most exciting developments in German football”. Whether or not he will be saying that when his Bayern Munich side meet Hoffenheim remains to be seen.

Large financial backing for clubs is nothing new here – Leverkusen have been catapulted to arguably disproportionate success by the Bayer pharmaceuticals company – yet single individuals acquiring teams is a relatively alien concept. The majority of German clubs are sporting associations with a large number of teams in a range of sports and thousands of members, making it extremely difficult for an individual to achieve sole control. Furthermore, previous attempts at large-scale financial investment have used much larger vehicles.

The manner in which the club are run and what they represent ensure a hostile reception. After their promotion was confirmed, internet message boards were full of anti-Hoffenheim threads featuring statements such as “compared to Hoffenheim, Bayern Munich are my favourite team” (from a Hamburg fan). Hoffenheim’s away games have seen them subject to a barrage of abuse from home fans. They have been labelled “corporate whores” and accused of lacking history or substance. For old East German clubs with larger support but less money, they are the epitome of brutal, unfair, West German capitalism.

Hopp is rich enough to bankroll the club for 20 years if needs be; the real test will come when the 68-year-old is no longer around to sign the cheques. In Germany at least the Hoffenheim project is pioneering. Never before have such an insignificant club risen to such great heights so quickly and as yet there seems to be no ceiling. One thing is certain; if the wheels come off the Hoffenheim juggernaut, there will be no shortage of Schadenfreude.

From WSC 259 September 2008