Date: 30th January 2009 at 9:23am
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You may or may not have noticed a distinctly unfamiliar name at the top of the German Bundesliga this season: 1899 Hoffenheim.

For genuine fans of football both in the UK and further afield, this is a name bound to provoke such questions as ‘Who are they?’ and ‘where do they come from?’. Well, Vital Hearts’ serial-globetrotter Ken Fruish has done some fine investigative work to help answer a few questions about Germany’s answer to Gretna, and compares and contrasts the German authorities’ approach to the beautiful game with that of our own…..

Hoffenheim, a sleepy village with 3200 inhabitants in which nothing ever happens? Not quite true. A football revolution is taking place that has turned the Bundesliga on its head.

It all started in 1990 when ex-player Dietmar Hopp, the co founder of SAP, decided to invest in the football club. The business model he adopted has turned a regional club into a team that may now compete in the Champions League.

Over the years Hopp has invested in training facilities and established a youth academy. The importance of the youth academy cannot be under-estimated and is reflected in the team they have today where the average age of the team is twenty three years old. State-of-the-art training facilities and a youth academy should be part of every professional football club, even in Scotland. In Germany all Bundesliga teams and many regional teams have them.

Hopp allowed his club to develop at a sensible pace moving through the regional divisions until they gained promotion to Bundesliga 2. For 2006/7 in this division, Hopp appointed Ralf Rangnick as manager at the start of the season on a five-year contract. He had experience at SSV Ulm 1846, Vfb Stuttgart, Hannover96 and Schalke04, and he brought in a number of experienced players. Incredibly they won promotion in their first ever season in Bundesliga 2 and their climb to the top of the Bundesliga where they now sit during the German winter break has been remarkable- Herbstmeister (fall champion) title.

This is not the story of an owner having an expensive play-thing. He is originally from Hoffenhiem and so is also a fan. Do similarities exist between Hoffenheim and the now-defunct Gretna? Well, they are both from rural settings and have (or sadly had in Gretna’s case) a rich owner. Gretna also had a remarkable season reaching the Scottish cup final in 2006 where they lost to Hearts and also gaining promotion to the Scottish Premier league. Unfortunately though, their ground did not meet the SPL requirements: a roofed stadium for no less than 6000 spectators, which contained adequate winter pitch protection. The SPL rules did allow them to ground share though. Unfortunately the ground that they found to share was in Motherwell – 75 miles from Gretna.

Due to the costs of sharing and the inability to attract adequate numbers of fans the Gretna dream was never likely to be long term. But Hoffenheim have already planned for this. They moved out of their humble 6000-capacity Dietmar Hopp stadium and are now playing their home matches at the 26,000 capacity Carl-Benz stadium in the nearby town of Mannheim, in which they regularly sell out……and at the end of this month they will move into a brand new 30,000 capacity stadium, the Rhine-Neckar Arena in nearby Sinsheim. Yes Dietmar Hopp is paying for the building of the new stadium, but its completion and the increased fan base should enable the club to support itself without his money. Note that they always played at a stadium close to their roots.

To understand the Hoffenheim model you have to look more closely at the culture and league structure. Football is by far the most popular sport in Germany and most teams within the Bundesliga will play to near capacity crowds. As we enjoy a pie and bovril and going to games with family and friends, German fans also have that tribal instinct and love nothing better at a game than a bratwurst washed down with a bier. The Germans enjoy tradition, and in Hoffenheim local festivals will have been well attended and celebrated for generations, with the importance of local identity being developed over those generations. Therefore there is no reason why TSG 1899 Hoffenheim will not develop – the local community would not forgive itself if it did not continue to grow and prosper in the region.

The league is operated by the German Football League Ltd (known as DFL) jointly hosted by the German Football Asssociation and the league association. In my opinion there are a couple of key rules in place: firstly Germans must own the majority of shares in a club. In effect this is not just a ban on foreign ownership – no German can buy more than 49% of the club (the exact amount that Dietmar Hopp owns). The president of the DFL, Reinhard Rauball stated at a press conference that the ‘stability and continuity` of the Bundesliga was important to ensure that no club had a competitive advantage, football must be related to its local and cultural roots not just a business operation. Secondly German clubs operate a strict solvency criteria – the result is that it is one of the most profitable leagues in Europe.

An independent report for the season 2006/7 showed that the 18 clubs in Germany`s top league earned a profit of 250 Million Euros. German clubs’ prudent approach has kept players’ salary levels as a percentage of turnover at around 45%. Compare it to the SPL model. We allow foreign investment – for example Vladimir Romanov at Hearts, who effectively owns over 90% of the club yet is not required to have a position within it. He has allowed the debt to spiral and only recently Hearts have appeared to have cash flow problems with players’ wages being paid late on a couple of occasions. He has also had a number of altercations with the SFA and SPL.

But Hearts are not the only club subject to foreign ownership. How long before Rangers are sold? It appears that David Murray the Rangers chairman is looking for a buyer for his club. I can only summise that the value he has placed on the club means that the new owner will be foreign. It must be difficult for any foreigner to grasp the cultural and business differences inherent within a football club in another country. Hopefully for Hearts Vlad has been through that learning curve!

Additionally the profits earned by SPL clubs would struggle to fit into the pocket of a pair of lederhosen. Worringly the last Deloitte and Touche Comparative Review of Sports Finances states that the average wages/turnover ratio for clubs in the SPL was 91%. Don Jones, Director of Deloitte & Touche Sport observed ‘Those charged with the operation of clubs have many obligations and responsibilities – and it isn`t an easy life. The most over-riding business imperative remains ‘Only spend what you can afford”.

Scottish clubs must and can adapt. The SPL has introduced rules ensuring that clubs nurture youth football and this must be developed – we can no longer afford for a club to buy expensive imports that fail to live up to expectations.

Clubs have attempted to reduce debts and increase or reduce losses, but is it enough? Having over-spent over a number of years there must be a lengthy period where costs are cut and debts are reduced. This is common sense not a lack of ambition.

In these harsh financial times the people charged with running the game must ensure that generations to come can see their chosen team playing in their local area. Yes it will take time but the benefits to the club, community and country far outweigh the reasons for not doing it. Whichever teams get it right may well be competing with the Old Firm for the league title within ten years…..a bit like Hoffenheim are with the likes of Bayern Munich in Germany.


5 Replies to “A Jambo On The Hoffenheim Sensation”

  • Very interesting reading, Ken. It is a pretty remarkable rise to prominence – will be amazing if they do actually win the league this season. The Germans certainly seem to be doing something right as far as selling their game is concerned – for a start the prices for match tickets are much more affordable than they are here. We could do worse than take many leaves out of their book…

  • Pateince is most definitely a virtue. All this talk of CL football in 3 seasons etc was never a reality – slow but steady progress has to be the only way forward to maintain and sustain ourselves. Incidentally, I understand that it’s Hoffenheim who have been reportedly showing an interest in Berra.

  • Very interesting and informative stuff !! It sounds as if the Germans have put some thought into providing a sustainable future for a competitive football industry – but then, they are probably not blighted by having 2 relatively mega-rich clubs whose income is bossted as a result of a poisonous and deep-rooted bigotry within a section of their supporters. The concept of rearing home-grown players isn’t rocket science – and as you say, it could mean that clubs outside the OF stand a better chance of challenging them in the future. Lets hope that Hearts really are one of the best at developing skilled youngsters for many years to come. With Germany setting an example in sustainability – and having a reputation for producing technically superior players to us – we should be glad that our management team have a strong German background.

  • The Germans are a great example to follow in many respects for a country like ours when it comes to football. Did you know that 1860 Munich, who were in the second division there last season, still had an average gate of 46,000? And pretty much all the top league games are sold out? It’s not as if the standard of player is any higher than the likes of England or Spain either, but the crowds are unbelievable. Why? Well, average price of around £15 a ticket might have something to do with it.

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