Focus on German football

Hoffenheim, Rock City

April 5, 2011
By Uli Hesse
(Archive)

Was it really just two years ago that Hoffenheim were the only Bundesliga club apart from Bayern Munich everybody had an opinion about? This season, they seem to be the only team in the league nobody is even mildly interested in.

Hoffenheim's players are no longer the storied underdogs of not so long ago
GettyImagesHoffenheim's players are no longer the storied underdogs of not so long ago

If Hoffenheim's aim was to become an established Bundesliga club, they have achieved their goal faster and more thoroughly than they bargained for, because the club is now more than merely established - Hoffenheim have become so normal they are boring.

Saturday's dull scoreless draw with Hamburg epitomised the situation. The result left Hoffenheim with a record that is the definition of mediocrity, namely nine wins, nine losses and ten draws, plus the prospect of long weeks with little excitement ahead.

Alright, I can hear you wisecrack, if nobody will waste breath on Hoffenheim these days, then why this column? Well, the reason is that a Swedish magazine has asked me to review a documentary. It won the audience award at the Berlin football film festival "11mm" last year, is called "Life is No Home Game" and covers the years of Hoffenheim's unlikely rise.

The film is unusual for a football documentary in that the two directors were granted comprehensive access by the club - in no small part because Hoffenheim were in the third division and still regarded as little more than a cute oddity by most people when filming began.

It is also unusual for a football documentary in that such films' normal ingredients - the goals and the games, the players and the coaching staff, even the club's bankrolling patron - have but supporting roles here.

The true stars are the simple but lovable people of the village, the club's not so simple and not quite so lovable managing director plus an array of wheat fields, cow pastures and meadows.

This led the local newspaper "Heilbronner Stimme" to say that the film is "primarily a 'Heimatfilm" (literally, homeland film - a German genre that wistfully uses idealised regional settings). It also said that the film is "unique, exceptional" in this approach.

Yes. And no. For as unusual as "Life is No Home Game" may seem, I had an overwhelming feeling of déjà vu while watching it.

Almost exactly four years ago, just as the two directors were about to begin filming in earnest in Hoffenheim, I watched a very similar film in a cozy cinema in Bochum. It's called "Full Metal Village" and deals with a place even smaller than Hoffenheim, a hamlet by the name of Wacken.

Wacken is a settlement of 1,800 souls some 50 miles northwest of Hamburg. Every year, this one-horse-town stages the world's biggest open air heavy metal festival. Last August, more than 82,000 headbangers convened on the cow pastures to greet headliners Iron Maiden and Slayer and about 100 other bands with the sign of the horns.

Ralf Rangnick
GettyImagesRalf Rangnick: Life is No Home Game contains the story of his glory years in charge

Just like "Life is No Home Game", "Full Metal Village" isn't really interested in its ostensible subject matter. The films runs for well over an hour before you finally hear some feedback, in much the same way in which you have to watch more than twenty minutes of the Hoffenheim documentary before you get to see a goal.

Both films move at the leisurely, considered pace you associate with their essentially rural settings. Both love to intersperse the development of the story with medium long shots that show cornfields and have no sound save for the wind in the wheat. Both have no commentary but let the village folk tell the story in their own words.

Both have one central character who is a forward-looking, enterprising businessman: the club's managing director in the Hoffenheim film, the shrewd farmer who rents out his large fields in the Wacken documentary. Both have another central character who was there from the beginning and is now struggling to come to grips with the change. In the football film, it's a guy known as Torro, the founder of Hoffenheim's first fan club, in the Wacken film it's one of the founders of the festival who walked out when he felt the money had become more important than the music.

Both films also have vociferous masses intruding on a perceived idyll. As if to worship, people are drawn towards the middle of nowhere by man-made edifices, as the football fans flock towards the shiny new ground, the metal fans make the pilgrimage to the tents and the tall stages, reminding you of the central line in "Field of Dreams": build it and they will come.

There are even some strange and unexpected cross references connecting the two documentaries. For instance, most people agree that Wacken changed from a cool, local thing into today's monster event in 1996, when the notorious, controversial and non-metal German band Böhse Onkelz headlined the festival. In "Life is No Home Game", Torro and his closest sidekick, a man who looks like he used to roadie for the Grateful Dead, slightly incongruously wear Böhse Onkelz shirts and sweaters.

Or how about the fact that the Wacken documentary was directed by the Korean-born filmmaker Sung-Hyung Cho? When she is talking about the kinds of films she makes, she will often use the term "Heimatfilm".

And now she's been asked to document this year's Women's World Cup in Germany to produce a companion piece to Sönke Wortmann's 2006 film "Deutschland. Ein Sommermärchen". In March, she sat on the jury panel at "11mm", the very festival where the Hoffenheim film won a prize last year.

So there are parallels between Hoffenheim and Wacken, between two tales of a local thing initially attended by only a few hundred members of a close-knit community which then - and within only a few years - snowballs tremendously.

But of course there are also differences. Such as the fact that becoming accepted and going mainstream has boosted the popularity of the festival and its attendance figures, whereas a similar development will in all likelihood hurt the football club.

Hamburg's fans seek excitement during a dire draw with Hoffenheim
GettyImagesHamburg's fans seek excitement during a dire draw with Hoffenheim

The example of St. Pauli has shown that the most important thing a small to medium-sized club has to have these days is an identity, something you stand for. If you're just a smaller version of the big dogs, you'll soon become as inconsequential as once-proud clubs like 1860 Munich, Fortuna Cologne or Kickers Stuttgart.

Which is why clubs like Mainz and Freiburg try to be different and offer an alternative. In the past, Hoffenheim didn't need to do this.

The club was different by definition during the years "Life is No Home Game" covers, late 2006 to early 2009, when a young and thrilling team paid for by a patron and assembled by Ralf Rangnick played attacking football, won promotion and climbed into first place in the Bundesliga.

All that seems ages ago now. While the timing of the documentary's actual filming was stupendous, that of the its theatrical release was not. "Life is No Home Game" finally reached German cinemas three months ago, when interest in Hoffenheim was already dwindling rapidly.

The film opened in 22 theatres around the country, yet drew a sad total of only 3,640 viewers the first week. It will be a coincidence, but that's about the population of Hoffenheim.