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Ox's Liverpool carpool karaoke

Toe Poke
By ESPN Staff

Germany's anti-Abramovich

Last weekend, there were six draws in the nine games played in the southern branch of the two-tiered German third division, including the two league leaders. However, that wasn't much of a problem as they have already reached the stage where simply keeping the dogs at bay should be more than enough.

Two clubs will get promoted to the 2nd Bundesliga at the end of the season, and after roughly half of the campaign, SV Wehen and TSG Hoffenheim sit atop the standings, already six points ahead of the team in third place. Yet that isn't even the real lead, for the team in third place is VfB Stuttgart reserves, followed by Bayern Munich reserves (these teams used to be called Stuttgart or Bayern Amateurs and are these days referred to as Stuttgart or Bayern II in Germany.)

The reserve teams of the professional clubs cannot get promoted beyond the third division. Thus Wehen and Hoffenheim really only have to look at Ingolstadt in fifth place. And Ingolstadt are already ten points off the pace!

Why am I telling you this? Because the story of one of the clubs which appear to be only a few months away from the 2nd Bundesliga is a quite interesting one - Hoffenheim. It's not even a proper city, just a borough of another place you probably haven't heard of: Sinsheim. Sinsheim is close to Heilbronn. And if that draws another blank from you, I could add that Sinsheim is also not far from Heidelberg.

There are 3,000 people living in Hoffenheim, which means that it is no problem whatsoever for the whole community, including all relatives who may have moved elsewhere, to watch the team - as the ground holds 5,000. For the time being, we should add, because there are plans at TSG Hoffenheim to build a new stadium, one that could host Bundesliga games and would accomodate 30,000 people.

'I can realistically imagine, with the possibilities we have, to get promoted to the 2nd Bundesliga and then to the Bundesliga in the not-too-distant future,' says Hoffenheim's coach. 'Two years per promotion, that would be realistic planning. But that doesn't mean our ambition doesn't exceed that. I mean, we can hardly go into a season and say we do not want to win promotion this year, only next year.'

This man is Ralf Rangnick. His previous job was at Schalke, and before that he coached Hannover and Stuttgart. One of the men working together with him is the former coach of Germany's national field hockey team, Bernhard Peters. If you have been reading this column on a regular basis you should be familiar with him, as Peters is the man Jürgen Klinsmann wanted to have as the German FA's director of football, until the traditionalists intervened and installed Matthias Sammer.

'Peters is here to develop, organise and optimise what is done during the training sessions, from the six-year-olds to the first team,' says Rangnick. He has also hired the psychologist Hans-Dieter Hermann, who worked with the national team during the World Cup. Hermann spends up to two days a week in Hoffenheim to prepare the players mentally.

I take it for granted that you have by now guessed what lies at the root of this strange story, either a fairy tale or a morality play about delusions of grandeur - it's money. It's not only money, as we'll come to see, but since everything starts with money, let us begin there.

The money comes from a man called Dietmar Hopp. He was born in Heidelberg in 1940 and played youth football for TSG Hoffenheim, as a centre forward. Later he got a job working for IBM, and in 1972 he co-founded a company called SAP. Today, SAP is Europe's number one producer of software, and the world's number three. The main reason you probably don't know much about the company is that they, like Oracle, specialise in business software, not games where you mow down zombies or stuff that helps you open a Word document.

According to Forbes magazine, Hopp's personal wealth amounts to 2.5billion Euros. That's more than you can gamble away in Monte Carlo, and so Hopp decided to put some money into sports instead. But he is very different from the Russian billionaires, American investors or Australian media moguls we have been reading so much about in the past.

When Hopp was looking for an enterprise that needed some cash influx, back in 1989, he wasn't thinking glamour or silverware, he wasn't thinking Milan or Manchester. He turned towards his roots, Hoffenheim. And what he did there, over the years, is also quite different from what people you could compare him to did at much bigger clubs.

'I am the exact opposite of Roman Abramovich,' he says whenever he's accused of buying success. 'I invest money to build structures for the future. As far as I'm concerned, youth football comes first.' And he can't resist another jab at you know who: 'Rich people who do nothing but cruise around on their yachts are just egotists.'

On the one hand, he's been true to his words. Hoffenheim did not rise through the leagues because of expensive, foreign signings. Over the past seasons, the squad was mainly made up of young German players, many from the region. Of the 31 footballers who are currently in or on the fringes of the team, only five are non-Germans, and one of those, the former Bundesliga player Francisco Copado may have a Spanish passport but was born in Kiel.

'The youth set-up is excellent here,' Rangnick said with some admiration when he arrived at Hoffenheim this summer. 'The club's aim is to produce one or two players per year for the first team. No matter if we're talking third division football or, in the future, about the second or the first Bundesliga. But when we school players, our approach is holistic: we also teach them that football isn't everything.'

But as nice as all this sounds, you have to wonder where the road paved with good intentions will take Hopp and Hoffenheim. The dissenting voices are growing louder, claiming that small Hoffenheim is becoming too big for its own good. During the first weeks of the season, the club's games were regularly featured on national television - mainly because Hoffenheim failed to win any of the first four matches.

That, you see, was a nice occasion for the media to come up with gleeful remarks about software entrepeneurs, field hockey coaches and psychologists. It's become much quieter now that Hoffenheim have hit their stride, though. I guess the tradition-laden word of football has become a bit anxious the experiment at Hoffenheim could actually work.

  • Uli's seminal history of German football, Tor!, is available online.

    Also available: Uli's new book Flutlicht und Schatten for all you German scholars to gen up on the history of the European Cup.

  • Any thoughts on this article? Email us.