There’s Only One Roman Abramovich

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“I fucking hate that fucking club,” Simon says, handing me my usual bag of bonbons. The 35-year-old owns a sweetshop in Heidelberg, Germany, and everyone who walks by can see his very own visualization of the downfall of “King Football” in the shop window. “I just hope that they go right down again.”

Simon is one of about 40 million Germans who all have got something in common: they hate TSG Hoffenheim with an almost unrivalled passion. “They are the new Chelsea. The German version,” he snorts before turning to the next customer. “Without all that money they’d still be where they belong: non-league football.”

Indeed, the similarities with the other club playing in blue seem scarily striking.

TSG Hoffenheim — a village club located roughly between Frankfurt and Strasbourg, only one train-stop from Heidelberg — is the latest newcomer in German topflight football.

Sponsored by SAP-founder Dietmar Hopp and trained by the renowned coach Ralf Rangnick, the “club no one knows” has managed the way up from the Regionalliga, Germany’s third league, to the first Bundesliga with spending only one transitional season in the second Bundesliga — and a lot of money on top talent from all over the world. Further money is being splashed out on a new 30,000-seater-stadium which shall replace the current Dietmar-Hopp-Stadium with its capacity of 6,000 by January 2009. The only thing the club seems to lack is a fan base.

Of course there are locals from Hoffenheim, men who have followed the team all through its unfruitful years in various lower leagues, but the usual Heidelberger isn’t really that interested in football. “Ice-hockey’s huge in the region,” Sabrina, 24, born and raised in the city, says. Indeed, the Adler Mannheim, also sponsored by Hopp, are one of Germany’s best and most-followed ice-hockey clubs. Also, handball is played by nearly everyone, every village featuring its own small club, and, astonishingly, rugby is quite popular as well. But…. “This place just isn’t that football mad.”

Luckily for Hopp, locals only make a part of the region’s population. However, there is another a part, a part which has turned Heidelberg black, red and gold for the World Cup and the Euros, a part which maybe already supports a club but can’t afford to travel hundred of kilometres for a game: the students.

“Go to a game?” Philip, law student and fan of Hertha BSC Berlin, asks. “Maybe. The tickets aren’t too expensive. At least there’s one decent football club around now.”

This exactly is Hopp’s huge bonus. The nearest Bundesliga clubs can be found in Karlsruhe, Frankfurt and Stuttgart — but Stuttgart is expensive, Frankfurt’s style is dire, to say the least, and Karlsruhe’s terraces seem more to be made for a passionate native of Baden than for a med school student from Hamburg or Dortmund.

“They look alright from what I’ve seen on the TV so far. Better than most clubs, to be honest.”

Indeed they are — Hoffenheim practice the same style of fast, fluid attacking football which Germans usually associate with the likes of Werder Bremen. Their good attack and bad defence make most matches even for outsiders very entertaining to watch, like the 5-4 loss in Bremen’s Weserstadion some weeks ago. Victories over Frankfurt, Dortmund, Borussia Mönchengladbach and Cottbus have provided an arrival in style. Established clubs like Bayern Munich or Schalke 04 have needed to wipe the disdainful grins at “that club” off their faces and to come to terms with the sudden existence of a new top contender.

When Hopp announced this summer that Hoffenheim were going to challenge for Europe, even the most respected sports writers barely managed to suppress their giggles. But if today’s table were still the same at the end of the season, the club would welcome the likes of Real Madrid, Olympique Marseille, Juventus or Liverpool FC for their first full season in the new stadium.

According to the club’s officials, this success is based on nothing but hard work and an excellent youth system with famous coaches like Bernhard Peters, the former manager of the German men’s hockey team. “Hopp is the exact opposite of Roman Abramovich,” Theo Zwanziger, president of the German FA, said in a press release damning fans’ assaults against the patron. Indeed, Hopp used to play for the club he now sponsors in his youth, has earned his money in an honest way and is, in his own words, “here to stay”.

Critics, meanwhile, are quick to point out the signing of Obasi, Ba and Eduardo for 15 million Euros, a high amount for the usually subdued German transfer market. “These three are not local talent which is finally given a chance thanks to Hopp,” Martin, who supports the second-Bundesliga-club 1. FC Kaiserslautern, says. “If you look at their first team, most of them are foreign players, brought in with Hopp’s money. It’s a shame for German football that test-tube clubs like this play in the Bundesliga while clubs with history and tradition struggle to survive.”

Clubs like Waldhof Mannheim. Waldhof spent more than twenty years in the two top-flights of the German league, finally forced into amateur football due to financial problems in 2002. Many locals still can’t understand why Hopp chose to create a new heavyweight instead of reviving the region’s old one which developed players like Uwe Rahn, Hanno Balitsch and Christian Wörns. “I just don’t get it.” Simon shakes his head. “We would have welcomed him with open arms. Waldhof still have a larger fan base than any other club in our league. But maybe he doesn’t want a proper, independent club at all.”

Football-nostalgics like Martin fear that Hoffenheim’s rise signals the demise of German football. “In a few years’ time, the whole Bundesliga will consist of village clubs owned by millionaires: Hoffenheim versus Wehen, Aalen versus Zwickau.” That Hopp is trying to push a club into the Bundesliga which just doesn’t belong there. That fans aren’t locals with a bond to their club anymore but a prawn-sandwich-brigade longing for an afternoon diversion before they drive off to the golf club with their black Porsche Cayennes.

He doesn’t want to accept that tradition and history don’t seem to count for anything anymore in today’s game. And he can only laugh when I mention that Hopp has filed a charge against a Dortmund fan holding a hate poster against him. “Fans have always been a part of football and their chants and posters — even radical ones — create the atmosphere everyone comes into the stadium for. If Hopp doesn’t like it, he can piss of to his posh golf club and maybe sponsor synchronised swimming instead.”

A lot of others, however, have quite a more relaxed attitude towards the newcomer. “That’s just the way modern football is going,” Philip says. “German clubs don’t challenge in Europe anymore, and we need more sponsors like Hopp to play our part in the Champions League again. Clubs like Bayern Munich, Hamburg or Dortmund get money from their sponsors just as well as Hoffenheim but no one says that they’re a threat to football.”

Even though they both wear the same colour, Hoffenheim isn’t quite on a par with Chelsea yet. And Hopp isn’t a man who spends 30 million Euros on a benchwarmer. He has a business plan, he has put up-to-date youth training facilities into place and he is taking care of the community. Not only the football players but also the gymnasts are being looked after, new jobs are being provided, local initiatives are being supported and, should the talent prove to be insufficient for a career in sports, an apprenticeship in Hopp’s SAP company is always available.

But business plans can change just as well as football changes. Who knows, maybe next season already Philip’s dream of seeing a world-class-player in the Bundesliga will come true when Cristiano Ronaldo dribbles down the wing, somewhere between Frankfurt and Strasbourg….

Written by Stefanie Müller.

This article is a submission for the Soccerlens 2008 Writing Competition; to participate, please read the details here. The competition is sponsored by Subside Sports (premier online store for football shirts) and Icons (official signed football jerseys).

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