"I made billions in software and then blew it all on the track" - Groundskeeper Willy
The A-Liga has a certain ring to it, doesn't it? Like A-Number One Ã¢ÂÂ the Big Cheese, the top dog! Australia's own top flight is called the A-League.
In Germany, however, the A-Liga is, or was, the eighth tier of competitive football Ã¢ÂÂ a sort of Ryman Division One South of Deutschland. And, in 1990 when West Germany were lifting the World Cup in Italy, the A-Liga was the resting place of TSG Hoffenheim, a small village club on the outskirts of Sinsheim, north of Stuttgart.
The year proved to be significant for the club that had spent most of its history providing nothing more than a pleasant sporting diversion for the village's inhabitants. Because in 1990, a prodigal son returned in the shape of ex-Hoffenheim youth-player-turned-software-billionaire Dietmar Hopp.
Slowly and steadily, Hopp began to lend his financial support to the club, and equally slowly and equally steadily they pulled themselves out of the doldrums and up the leagues.
Significant investment began in 2006 with the appointment of Ralf Rangnik as coach. The former Stuttgart and Schalke coach's image in Germany is one of an academic, a thinker, a strategist and a club builder. This was just as well, as that was exactly what he was called upon to do. By this time, Hopp was splashing cash at the club like it was going out of fashion, or as though some hideous banking crisis was in the offing and he may as well spend it while he still had it.
But Hopp's investment was not in the style of Jack Walker at Blackburn or Roman Abramovich at Chelsea. The SAP founder focused his money on the club's infrastructure. Yes, there were players coming in but they were players suitable for the task of climbing the football ladder. A new stadium was developed. The 30,000 capacity Rhein-Necker Arena is probably big enough to fit four or five Hoffenheims, which is probably why it was finally built in Sinsheim.
When TSG finally arrived in the top flight it was amidst controversy. Germany, like England and Scotland, has a strong cultural attachment to the game and a tradition that drives it. Hoffenheim were (and still are) seen as a plastic club, manufactured in a lab by a computer boffin with a weak supporter base. Some supporters went too far and Hopp received a number of death threats but despite their pariah status, there is much to admire about the way they go about their business.
Hopp - neither the German Walker or Abramovic
Despite all the controversy, Hoffenheim exploded onto the Bundesliga scene in 2008. With impressive wins over Borussia Dortmund, Hamburg and eventual champions Wolfsburg, Rangnik's team quickly earned praise for their crisp passing and buccaneering football. In one memorable encounter, the Hoff travelled to Werder Bremen and scored four goals at the Weserstadion only for the home side to score five.
Pretty soon, players like Demba Ba, Luiz Gustavo, Andreas Beck, Chinedu Obasi, Sejad Salihovic and Tobias Weis (who earned a call-up to the German national squad for the game against England) were earning reluctant plaudits from a cynical media.
However, the main man was Bosnian Vedad Ibisevic, who scored eighteen goals in seventeen appearances before the winter break.
In fact it was Ibisevic who scored the opening goal against the mighty Bayern Munich in the penultimate game before the Bundesliga broke up for the winter. The game proved pivotal as Hoffenheim looked to have earned a more than creditable point at the Allianz Arena that would have given them a psychological boost going into the hiatus.
That was until Luca Toni popped up for the then Champions in the dying second to steal the win. Hoffenheim had won the Winter Championship but that cruel blow set off a chain of events that led to a slide down the table. In the end, even European competition was denied them.
Unfortunately for Ibisevic, he sustained a knee ligament injury during the break and never returned for the rest of the season. Then the club finally moved to their new stadium in time for the season restart. Despite winning their first game, the team went on a twelve match winless streak that totally wrecked their chances of playing in Europe the following season.
The 2009/10 season was pretty anticlimactic, given the previous years of upward mobility for German football's yuppie club. Hoffenheim finished eleventh which, given their ambitions, seems disappointing; however, given how far the club have travelled in such a short space of time, it is pretty impressive. Despite that there were rumblings in the German media that Dietmar Hopp was losing patience with coach Rangnik and that Hopp was considering a staffing change.
Rangnik survives, however, and it's just as well too. His experience has guided the club's youth academy and scouting network to bring some cracking young players to the club, the benefits of which are becoming increasingly apparent.
Sebastian Rudy, Boris Vukcevic and the powerhouse striker Peniel Mlapa were starters for the Germany under-21 side and are all Hoffenheim players. Even when Rangnik spends big he does so on youth. Gylfi Sigurdsson may have raise a few eyebrows after his ÃÂ£6m move from Reading but he has raised a lot of voices with his impressive performances and four goals. Currently the club sits eighth in the table after an encouraging start which included a 4-0 thrashing of Werder Bremen.
Whether the traditionalists like them or not, Hoffenheim appear to be for real and are set to shape the future of the Bundesliga for years to come.
And if Fussball fans don't like Hoffenheim, wait until they get a load of the Red Bull-backed RB Leipzig that are scything their way through the lower leagues at this very moment.
But that is another story.
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