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This City Of Three Thousand Are On The BRINK OF EUROPEAN FOOTBALL… Again

6 minute read Published January 9, 2024

In the rolling hills and ever black forests of the south west German state Baden-Württemberg lies a city so small you’ll be zooming forever to find it on a map. On the banks of the Elsentz lies a very picturesque village, Hoffenheim. It is home to less than 3200 people. Yet all of Germany knows it because it’s also home to the, currently, seventh best team in the Bundesliga.

Now in their 16th season in the top flight of German football, TSG 1899 Hoffenheim are an established Bundesliga club. 

How did a club from a little town in the German south west make it to the very top of European football?

Ozan Kabak playing for Hoffenheim. Photo: Vitalik Viitleo.

How did it all start?

Dietmar Hoff, co-founder and former CEO of software company SAP, was born in Hoffenheim. As a kid he played for the club and as an adult he was a supporter. In 1989, Hoff had enough of the constant disappointment he got from being a supporter and decided to use his immense wealth to do something about it.

Hoffenheim at this point played in the amateur tiers of German football and they had facilities thereafter. So the first thing Hoff started investing in was the infrastructure surrounding the club. Then, as a club practically without revenue he figured that the club's players should come through the youth team, since they couldn’t be bought or persuaded with contracts. So he started investing in their youth setup.

This investment started paying off in the early 90’s Hoffenheim started climbing through the German league system. By the start of the 00’s, they’d reached the top of regional football achieving semi-professional status, meaning players were actually getting paid. When the club were promoted to the third tier of German football, the Regionalliga Sud in the 01/02 season some players even got professional contracts.

Dietmar Hopp. Photo: Sven Mandel, via Wikimedia Commons

After making it to the third tier, progress stalled somewhat, which was what prompted the club to hire Ralph Rangnick. Rangnick had previously coached, among others, Stuttgart and Schalke, and was already an established figure in German football.

With Rangnick at the helm, Hoffenheim were finally able to make it not only to the 2. Bundesliga, but to the top tier, after getting promoted in consecutive seasons. Since then - the club has established itself as a Bundesliga club.

To this day, Hoffenheim places a big focus on their youth setup and a large part of their first team is made up of players that have come through the academy. Some players have come through the academy and moved on to fame in European football, such as Kevin Volland and Nico Schultz.

Julian Nagelsmann and European Football 

After 8 years as a mid- to bottom half team in the Bundesliga, head coach Huub Stevens had to step down due to health problems and the club decided to recruit from within. Julian Nagelsmann was just 28 years old at the time and had been at the club since 2010, leading their under 19s to a national championship. Now he became the youngest head coach ever in the Bundesliga.

How did he respond to this pressure? He started off by taking the club out of the relegation zone when he took over to a 15th place finish. The next season he took the club to its best ever finish and first ever qualification to European football. After two very successful seasons, he then went on to his crowning achievement at the club - third place and direct qualification to the Champions League. 

At this point, former manager Rangnick had been made sporting director at the Red Bull backed Salzburg and Leipzig. Having been the one to build out the professional sporting project at Hoffenheim and trying to do the same at the German and Austrian sister clubs, he thought Nagelsmann was perfect. Someone with nine years of experience from his setup at Hoffenheim. Nagelsmann left Hoffenheim. 

Hoffenheims focus on youth extends not only to players but to managers as well. Nagelsmann is just one example of a manager that has gotten his first big job with the club. Other managers include Hansi Flick, the former German national team manager and Sebastian Hoeneß, currently manager at Stuttgart.

Who are the fans?

So this club is from a city of just 3.000 people who are the 30.000 fans coming to the games? While the village is small, it’s situated in a pretty populous part of the country without a big team close-by. People from nearby Sinsheim, Heidelberg and even Mannheim have been enticed by the club's successes and the team now attracts fans from more than just the little country side village.

Hoffenheims home ground, the Rhein-Neckar-Arena holds 30.000+ fans

The German league system, unlike most European top leagues, have persisted the 50+1 rule, which, in short, means that clubs must be run by the members. In 2015 however, the Bundesliga gave an exception to Hoffenheim, called the “Hopp rule”. They decided that after more than 20 years of sustained investment into a club, one person could take majority control of it. 

The continued investment and the exception to the 50+1 rule doesn’t sit well with a lot of fans of other clubs in Germany and Hoffenheim is sometimes called a “plastic” club. 

It’s very clear though that there’s a big difference between what Hopp is doing and, for example, what’s going on at RB Leipzig, not to mention clubs like PSG and Manchester City. Hopp is very clearly doing it out of love for the club and his hometown, not to promote an energy drink or sports wash the sins of an evil regime.

To add to this, the exception of the 50+1 rule is personal, meaning if Hopp were to sell his part of the club, the new owner would have to get an exception of their own which practically means it can’t happen, that Hopp can’t sell the club.

This season

This season, Hoffenheim have had a decent first half. The club currently sit in seventh, even on points with Frankfurt in sixth and three points behind Dortmund in fifth. If the club keeps performing, this season could very well result in yet another European campaign.

Whatever you think of the methods with which they got there, Hoffenheims story is spectacular. Going from the amateur leagues to the top tier of German football and even European football in 20 years is an incredible feat. It’s also not something that can be accomplished by money alone, but through a well thought out and executed strategy and Hopp certainly deserves credit for this.


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