TSG 1899 Hoffenheim are playing the long game, and it’s about time. Over the last couple of weeks, the club’s new head coach Julian Nagelsmann has become more renowned internationally than any of his players. At 28 years old, he is the youngest Bundesliga head coach in the league’s history and is being asked to save the club from relegation. For some, this appointment shows the naivety of a nouveau-riche village team trying to cope in the Bundesliga, like a lottery winner joining an exclusive country club. But in reality it more resembles a return to the joined-up, forward thinking that has helped transform the club over the last two decades.
Whereas many clubs in Hoffenheim’s position would have appointed another firefighter manager with the simple remit of avoiding relegation at all costs, the club from rural Baden-Württemberg have put their trust in youth and long-termism and have taken a very bold step towards the future, regardless of what the next six months bring.
Based in a village of approximately 3,000 inhabitants, TSG Hoffenheim was initially formed in 1899 and never went higher than the fifth tier of German football until the turn of the 21st century, when an alumni of the club put his money where his heart was. Dietmar Hopp, billionaire and co-founder of German multinational software company SAP, grew up in the village and was not just a prominent resident, but also played in TSG’s youth team. It was his financial investment that was the catalyst for an extraordinary transformation from Kreisliga A, the ninth tier of the national football pyramid to Bundesliga outfit in just 18 years.
Shortly after the Second World War, in 1945, the modern-day club began life as TSG Hoffenheim, when the Turnverein Hoffenheim gymnastics club (which was founded in 1899) and the Fußballverein Hoffenheim football club united. TSG were placed in the Kreisklasse, the lowest peg on the footballing hierarchy – and remained there or thereabouts for decades, until league restructuring and promotion led to the heady heights of the Kreisliga. The return of Hopp, a striker in his younger days, led to a rapid ascent through the leagues with three promotions in six seasons.
Hopp made it clear from the beginning that he was in it for the long haul and furnished the club with a new 5,000-seat stadium, completely financed by his private wealth and finished in time for the club’s centenary year, 1999. The imaginatively named Dietmar Hopp Stadion (well, he did pay for it, after all) was officially opened with a match against the mighty Bayern Munich, with star names such as Oliver Kahn, Lothar Matthäus, Stefan Effenberg, Mehmet Scholl, Bixente Lizarazu and Giovane Élber. As ambitious as the new-look Hoffenheim were, even they couldn’t have imagined just how quickly such a fixture would become commonplace.
The new stadium reflected the transformed image of the club, from amateur village outfit to a professional team on an upward trend. Back-to-back promotions in 2000 and 2001 thrust Hoffenheim into the Regionalliga, just one tier below the 2. Bundesliga, the foyer to the promised land of the Bundesliga. Naturally, local interest in the club grew. An average attendance of approximately 300 fans doubled to over 600 in 2000, and to around 1,500 the season after – an impressive increase in terms of percentage, but still figures that did little to belie the club’s rural roots.
Nevertheless, the upward trend of the team and the attendances reached a plateau in the Regionalliga. In an attempt to combat this, the club slowly started to add players with top-level experience to a squad of largely locally recruited personnel. Still, Hoffenheim continued to struggle and it looked as though they had reached their limits, which, although frustrating, were still impressive for a club of their size, history and infrastructure.
Hopp, though, instilled with the qualities that brought him his fortune, sought a way of bringing professional football to the Rhein-Neckar region forward. His idea was to form a merger of three teams, TSG Hoffenheim, and regional neighbours FC-Astoria Walldorf und SV Sandhausen. But despite his intentions, the proposed formation of FC Heidelberg 06 never came to fruition due to a number of reasons, chiefly among them disagreements on the team’s stadium, and the fact that both Sandhausen and Walldorf would essentially assume the role of feeder clubs.
Undeterred, Hopp and Hoffenheim marched on, yearning for promotion, and into full-time professional football. An air of ruthlessness hung over the club and the 2005-06 season saw a great upheaval in personnel. Head coach Hansi Flick (later to become Joachim Löw’s World Cup-winning assistant) lost his job once promotion looked to have slipped away again, with replacement Lorenz-Günther Köstner stepping down at the end of the same season.
Despite the renewed disappointment of another season treading water in the Regionalliga, the club did make one important step on their path to success. That summer Hopp appointed Ralf Rangnick as head coach. As ex-manager of VfB Stuttgart, Hannover 96 and most recently Schalke 04, where he had fought toe-to-toe with Bayern Munich for the title, Rangnick was a real coup for Hoffenheim and showed intent on Hopp’s behalf. The upstarts from rural Baden-Württemberg could no longer be ignored.
Rangnick brought with him self-imposed expectations and duly delivered, winning promotion to the 2. Bundesliga at the first time of asking. Ready to mix it with the big boys, the TSG (Turn- und Sportgemeinschaft) was dropped from the name as it apparently gave off too much of a rural, old-fashioned whiff. And it wasn’t just the name. The entire image of the team was altering and with it the view from outside.
Hopp aimed to put a sustainable plan in place, with great emphasis on nurturing young talent, but many simply could not look past the vast sums of money oozing from every corner of the club. In football, the one thing money definitely does not buy you is love. Due to the club’s previously obscure nature, the majority of the football world – fans, players, managers and journalists – had no prior-relationship with Hoffenheim, no point of reference. The first time the club appeared on many peoples’ radar was as this manufactured boyband of a team rampaging through the leagues. As soon as they were seen to be taking the place of other, more traditional clubs, the disdain increased.
In German football the issue of tradition carries a lot of weight. Clubs will often be referred to by commentators, players and journalists as a “Traditionsverein” a badge of honour. In contrast, clubs such as Hoffenheim, and latterly RB Leipzig and, to a lesser extent, FC Ingolstadt, are generally tarnished as “plastic” clubs who are often reviled by opposing fans and even coaches and managers. As Hoffenheim became more prominent, so too did the scrutiny. Hopp was constantly forced to bat away comparisons with Roman Abramovich, arguing, and rightly so, that the Russian had not spent 15 years in Chelsea’s youth set-up. Things became so bad that Hopp felt compelled to write a letter to German football association demanding that the open “discrimination” towards his team be treated with the same consequences as racism.
On the pitch, Rangnick and Hoffenheim had no intention of spending as long in the 2. Bundesliga as they did trying to get into it. Rangnick quickly added quality with players such as Demba Ba, Carlos Eduardo and Chinedu Obasi as the team spent more than the rest of the league put together. No surprise then that in the 2007-08 season Hoffenheim were promoted to the Bundesliga at the first attempt, only 18 years after playing amateur football in the ninth tier.
And once they came up they never looked back, continuing the momentum from the previous season. Not content to sit back and acclimatise to the Bundesliga, Ragnick’s team flew out of the blocks and ripped into their opponents with direct, attacking football. They had a real swagger about them, a swashbuckling style, often of the mindset that if the opposition scored two, they would score three, four or five. The attacking trident of Demba Ba, Chinedu Obasi and Vedad Ibisevic tore through the first half of the season, helping the promoted team to a haul of 42 goals from the first 17 matches, confirming them as unofficial winter champions in front of Bayern Munich on goal difference.
Although the nature of the club’s rise on Hopp’s coattails still displeased many fans, people could not help enjoying the cavalier spirit of the team. Week after week, home and away they would continue to shock, upset and show contempt to the league’s natural order. They may not have been everyone’s second team, but they were becoming more associated with their football than their finances. And it wasn’t just the attackers; the team was full of talent. Arguably Rangnick’s best signing was Brazilian midfielder, Luis Gustavo, who arrived as a 20-year-old from Corinthians for just €1m. The stylish and calm youngster quickly became a point of reference in the Hoffenheim midfield, beside Sejad Salihovic, the Bosnian with a lethal left foot and a real dead-ball connoisseur.
The first half of that maiden Bundesliga season was all about momentum and the winter break came at a bad time. Not only did it stop them in their tracks, but it also brought about a cruel twist of fate, as Ibisevic, the league’s top scorer with 18 goals in 17 matches, ruptured his ACL during a friendly match and was ruled out for the rest of the season. Their form suffered and although Hoffenheim finished the season in seventh – a remarkable achievement for a promoted team – the second half of the season was disappointing and included a 12-match winless streak.
Despite failing to reach those highs again, TSG Hoffenheim managed to stabilise themselves as a mid-table Bundesliga outfit and even began to see some of their players called up for the national team. However, just as a sense of stability and sustainable progress began to settle over Sinnsheim, huge upheaval arrived. Infuriated by the club’s decision to sell Luiz Gustavo to Bayern Munich – albeit for an impressive profit – Rangnick stepped down as manager with immediate effect on the same day.
Unbeknown to Rangnick, Hopp had been negotiating the midfielder’s transfer with Bayern for some time. Rangnick’s ambition with Hoffenheim was not just to be a Bundesliga club, but to compete on the European stage. And, even though Hopp shared the vision, he couldn’t shake off his business background and saw the sense the deal made financially.
Since Rangnick – who took the club from the Regionalliga to the Bundesliga in three years – left the club so dramatically at the beginning of 2011, TSG Hoffenheim have had six managers, and have recently appointed their seventh, 28-year-old Nagelsmann. The appointment sees Hopp and the club return to a key part of their original remit: to be vanguards for youth. Credit must be given to Hoffenheim for the faith placed in Nagelsmann, who started coaching junior teams in 2008 after persistent knee problems ended his playing career at the age of 20.
Before joining the Hoffenheim, Nagelsmann was well known as a talented coach. He had worked as Thomas Tuchel’s assistant at Augsburg, aged just 21 and Bayern Munich were apparently very keen for the young coach to join them last summer and take control of their U17 outfit, undoubtedly with a long-term future in mind. To their credit, Hoffenheim were aware of the young coach’s talent and have given him a three-year contract. When he takes his examinations over the coming weeks, it will be in the knowledge that, in the eyes of the people who matter, he has already made the grade.
As for the club, it remains to be seen to what extent Hopp’s dream will be realised. But one thing is for sure: the appointment of Nagelsmann has the potential to lay the foundations for the tradition he and the club have craved.