The rise and fall of Hoffenheim
There are no Bundesliga statistics for distances covered by coaches on the sideline, but Holger Stanislawski would surely be well ahead of his peers in that particular discipline. The 42-year-old boss of TSG Hoffenheim 1899, a caffeine addict who confesses to drinking several pots (not cups) of the black stuff every day, often seems to cover more ground than one or two of his players. After his team's disappointing 2-2 draw against lowly FC Augsburg on Saturday, however, "Stani" stopped moving altogether. The former St. Pauli player and manager sat motionless on his bench "as if the cold temperatures had shock-frozen him" (
Hoffenheim, the club of U.S. national team players Fabian Johnson and Danny Williams, is still eighth in the table, in midtable safety. But a rotten run of only one win in 10 league games has left the club peering nervously over its shoulder. "If each of us don't start to do 20, 30 percent better, it'll be very tight this season," warned Bosnian midfielder Sejad Salihovic. That statement betrays perhaps the side's key problem: for a number of years, a very talented array of players have only been able to fulfill a fraction of their potential. A lack of motivation and a missing sense of unity have long been identified as the main reasons for this chronic malaise, but dealing with those two problems appears increasingly beyond Stanislawski, just as did for his predecessors, Ralf Rangnick and Marco Pezzaiuoli. The manager has tried both stick and carrot, alternating between threats and warm words for his players, without making any discernible progress along the way. On the contrary, his erratic course only seems to have puzzled his charges and weakened his own authority.
TSG should still be good enough to stave of the drop. But one cannot help to feel that this might well mark the beginning of the end for German newest and most unusual top level team. Hoffenheim, it's important to understand, were barely a club at all when software billionaire Dietmar Hopp decided to invest heavily at the turn of the century. It's essentially a "village club" from a place with only 3,300 inhabitants. The 71-year-old Hopp, who had played for TSG as an amateur in his youth, took the fifth-division team to the top flight in the space of eight years with an outlay of €250 million ($327M), and managed to erect a new 30,000 seater stadium and a state of the art training complex along the way.
In their first Bundesliga season, the Rangnick-led bunch of unknowns such as Vedad Ibisevic (now at Stuttgart), Demba Ba (now at Newcastle), Carlos Eduardo (now at Rubin Kazan), Chinedu Obasi (now at Schalke) and Luiz Gustavo (now at Bayern Munich) set the league on fire with a fast attacking style that was reminiscent of Arsenal at its very best. Hoffenheim finished 2008 as "autumn champions," at the top of table. But then it all fell apart.
"After the outstanding first half of the season, some enjoyed the sweet life and reveled in the success," Hopp explained in a recent interview on the club's website. "Half the team spent the winter break in New York and came back with a cold. Then Ibisevic tore his cruciate ligament and Carlos Eduardo was banned (following an altercation in a friendly). The team spirit vanished, the atmosphere became bad and the performances suffered. We've never quite recovered from that." 1899 finished seventh at the end of that campaign.
With the exception of Salihovic, the squad has changed completely since. But Hoffenheim are still paying for that brief flirtation with greatness. The initial success attracted interest from bigger clubs, and Hopp was in turn forced to improve his star players' wages, against his better instincts. Losses to the tune of €30M ($39M) per season, made good by Hopp personally, were the effect.
Little over a year ago, Hopp seemed to have enough with being southwest Germany's answer to Roman Abramovich. He declared Hoffenheim "a small club," sold key players to get back some of his money and announced that TSG would have to work toward self-sustainability, in line with UEFA's Financial Fairplay regulations.
The upshot of a smaller budget is a greater reliance on products from Hoffenheim's youth system. Hopp, though, admits that reaping the fruits of that labor will take "another three to four years." Thus, the club simply has to keep buying players who see TSG as little more than a steppingstone to bigger and better things. No wonder Stanislawski is struggling to overcome the mercenary mentality in the dressing room.
In the meantime, the Hoffenheim brand has also been damaged. Bundesliga traditionalist were never going to accept the upstarts from nowhere but plenty of observers were initially full of praise for Hopp's pioneer spirit and the club's clever startup strategy. It bought players that were overlooked by bigger, more established sides and employed coaches who were not afraid to introduce modern training methods influenced by other sports.
Today, Hoffenheim look a lot more like a failure, a warning example, even: its history in the top flight seems to suggest that following the franchise model (a new club with new fans and new player) just doesn't work in German soccer. The last remnants of the romantic "zeros to heroes" notion were buried last August, when the club was embarrassingly caught using a loudspeaker to drown out anti-Hopp chants by visiting fans in the Rhein-Neckar-Stadion.
The wealthy backer has so far refused to discuss the possibility of relegation. But there's a real fear that the club could not survive for too long in the second division, especially if Hopp were to lose interest in his pet project altogether. It's fair to say that right now, few neutrals would mind too much if Hoffenheim was to eventually end up where it came from -- in the obscurity of regional football.