TSG Hoffenheim – The village club mixing it with Europe’s elite

Picture this – you go down to watch your local amateur team playing in front of crowds barely more than a few hundred, umpteen tiers down in the football pyramid. Now fast forward eight years and imagine that very same team playing top division football.

Even if that was not enough, imagine another ten years down the line, that very same team lining up for a Champions League encounter. Scarcely believable? Not if you’re a Hoffenheim supporter.

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In 2000, Hoffenheim were just an amateur club playing in one of the 12 regional leagues in the 6th tier of German football. However, they were lucky enough to have had a soon-to-be billionaire playing in their youth ranks in the 1950s.

Dietmar Hopp, co-founder of German software company SAP (unsurprisingly the club’s shirt sponsor) and a native of the village of Hoffenheim, home to little more than 3000 inhabitants, has been financially backing the club since the turn of the millennium.

After two new stadiums, ten years of top flight football, and ventures into European Football, Hopp now has a majority stake in the club and if it was not for him, anybody outside Germany, or even outside the town of Sinsheim where it is located may have never even heard of them.

After Hopp’s finances came in, they had quickly risen to the third tier and were an established side in the division in the mid-2000s playing at their new Dietmar-Hopp-Stadion, solely funded by you know who.

This in itself was an exceptional achievement as no side who had ever competed in the Verbandsliga Baden (sixth tier in Hoffenheim’s region) had made it as high as the third tier. One more team has done since then, Hoffenheim II (the reserve side). This just magnifies how meteoric the rise through the divisions was.

Despite this, Hopp still had loftier ambitions. For the 2006/07 season, proven Bundesliga manager Ralf Rangnick, now in charge at RB Leipzig, took the reigns and by 2008 they had shot up to the Bundesliga with back-to-back promotions finishing runners-up in both the third and second tier.

The club’s fans will have spent five months pinching themselves in disbelief as they catapulted to the summit of the Bundesliga before the winter break in their debut season, attracting global recognition for disrupting the natural order of events.

A club with no history, no tradition, and a small fan base backed by a billionaire entrepreneur caused outrage amongst German football fans who are fanatical about tradition like no one else.

The superpower clubs often originated from the working class, for example Bayer Leverkusen were formed by employees who worked for the pharmaceutical company for which it shares the same name while Schalke were formed by many of the miners from Gelsenkirchen in the early 1900s.

But the derailment of their season coincided with an ACL tear suffered by the league’s top scorer Vedad Ibisevic during the season’s intermission and they duly slipped to 7th, still more than respectable for a maiden season in the top flight though.

The first real spanner in the works came midway through the 2010/11 season when Rangnick resigned after one of his standout buys, Luiz Gustavo was sold to Bayern. He saw this as a lack of ambition and selling the club’s best players did not fit well with Rangnick’s target of a European spot.

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Seven managers in five years followed and Hoffenheim flirted with relegation twice in 2013 and 2016. But they broke the mould, instead of looking for a survival expert, they took a punt. With the club 17th in the February of the 2015/16 season, Huub Stevens stepped down due to health problems.

Julian Nagelsmann was already in line to take over from the start of the following season before Stevens had even left his role, but instead of looking for an experienced coach to drag them to safety, they put their trust in a 28-year-old Nagelsmann to keep them up, for which he obliged, finishing a place above the relegation playoff spot.

What happened next was truly remarkable. Nagelsmann instilled a fast paced attacking mindset into his squad. They have averaged almost two goals per game over the last two Bundesliga seasons finishing in the top four in consecutive seasons.

They have been terrific against the top sides, notably Bayern as Nagelsmann has won both home encounters against the serial runaway champions in the league, as well as earning a draw in his first visit to the Allianz before succumbing to a 5-2 defeat last season despite leading 2-0.

The club has seen exciting players come and go such as Roberto Firmino, Sejad Salihovic and Kevin Volland but the team as a whole now was clicking perfectly.

They are not always stout defensively, but their attacking prowess was to be feared with World Cup finalist Andrej Kramaric, Mark Uth who tied third in the top scorer rankings last season and Serge Gnabry and Sandro Wagner who are German internationals in their ranks but they have now both gone to Bayern.

The Bavarian club also snatched promising duo Niklas Sule and Sebastian Rudy away from the Rhein-Neckar Arena, the latter on a free transfer, Bayern’s notorious method.

Their first European adventure did not go to plan, a humbling 6-3 aggregate defeat to Liverpool who would go on to reach the final nine months later in the Champions League playoff, could have been so different had Kramaric not missed an early penalty in the first leg.

They dropped into the Europa League and subsequently dropped out of that too rather quickly, finishing bottom of a group consisting of Braga, Ludogorets and Istanbul Basaksehir, winning just one of the six group games.

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For next season though, they will get a shot at the big time. New UEFA rules mean the top four from the highest ranked nations get automatic access to the Champions League group stage without the need of a playoff round.

This may have removed some of the pressure as they secured third spot on the final day anyway.

Nagelsmann has been a wanted man for a while. It looked certain he was on his way to Bayern especially after they parted company with Carlo Ancelotti last September but after stints in charge for Willy Sagnol and Jupp Heynckes, Croatian Niko Kovac was given the role on a permanent basis after a great season with Eintracht Frankfurt.

But managing the second most hated club in Germany clearly was not enough for the youngest manager in Bundesliga history as from the 2019-2020 season, he will take charge at the most hated, RB Leipzig, who have seen Red Bull’s riches launch the through the divisions, almost identically to Hoffenheim.

The club’s name, badge and stadium practically being an advert for Red Bull has infuriated the traditionalists, even though they are actually called RasenBallsport Leipzig and not Red Bull Leipzig thanks to German FA rulings against clubs from becoming literal brands.

But Nagelsmann and all of the Hoffenheim faithful will be praying for one last fairytale season before the two part ways. Champions League football after Christmas and another European place in the league would surely be the pinnacle of a magical couple of decades for this tiny village club.

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Andrew Delaney

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