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Sep 16, 2008

If you're reading this, Jürgen...

Being a football writer is not the glamorous job it's made out to be. Most of the time we just sit at a desk rather morosely, drink way too much coffee and surf the internet to find something useful. Just like everyone else, really.

But sometimes you do exactly that - sitting and surfing, I mean - and suddenly there's glamour by association, so to speak.

Take this past June. I was drafting the piece on the rise of Hoffenheim for a UK newspaper I have mentioned in passing in an earlier column. Looking for quotes I might use, I googled some key words, among them 'Hopp', and 'Abramovich'.

That's how I came across a piece from the Berlin newpaper Der Tagesspiegel, published in mid-March. It was a longish profile of Dietmar Hopp, the German entrepreneur whose money has been used to such great effect at Hoffenheim.

Towards the end of the piece, the reporter who did the interview mentions that, at one point during their conversation, Hopp pulled out a piece of paper and said: "This is something Jürgen Klinsmann has sent me from the US. It's an article about our club and me and it is headed: Germany's Anti-Abramovich. Anti, you get it? In America, they understand what we are doing."

If you don't know why I raised my eyebrows upon reading those lines, just google for 'Germany's Anti-Abramovich' and you see what I mean. The long and the short of it, dear Soccernet regular, is that Jürgen Klinsmann is, or was, a member of your community.

Now, the fact that Klinsmann, a football man, a computer fan and at that time a resident of California, would check this here website is perhaps not too surprising. But that he then printed out a piece and sent it all the way across the Atlantic to Dietmar Hopp (who, understandably, presumed it was of American origin) ... now that's at least interesting.

Why would Klinsmann do that? I guess it's because he figured Dietmar Hopp was in trouble and needed moral support.

You might wonder why a man who's probably worth around 6bn Euros and has taken his tiny hometown club to the Bundesliga needs a reassuring pat on the shoulder. But such people, I have it on pretty good authority, have feelings, too.

In April, for instance, a month after Der Tagesspiegel article, some travelling Aachen fans sported t-shirts at Hoffenheim that bore Hopp's name and a suggestion I can't reprint here as minors and ladies could be present. And last month, when Hoffenheim contested their first home game in the top flight, Gladbach supporters hurled such abuse at Hopp that Borussia Mönchengladbach later felt forced to send a letter of apology to both Hoffenheim and the German FA.

That led the editor in chief of our most important football magazine, kicker, to publish a column that said the Gladbach fans' "bawling" was an expression of "nothing but envy. Because most of them would love to have a responsible financial backer like Hopp." The piece also said Hopp "should be met with the deepest respect everywhere", not with thinly-veiled hatred.

Which in turn earned kicker a bagful of readers' letters, the majority of which echoed this one, written by somebody from the Frankfurt region: "Why you should have respect for the signing of good players with the help of millions of Euros is known only to the kicker columnist."

Wow. It looks as if the question of this season won't be who wins the whole shebang and who gets relegated but: Are you pro or contra Hoffenheim?

It's not an easy question to answer. It was only some six weeks ago that I complained many foreign readers and writers took things about Germany for granted that are simply wrong, and said column was barely online when I got an issue of When Saturday Comes in which it says Hopp is the "owner" of Hoffenheim and that he has "bought the club".

So, let's first recap. Under the current rules, you cannot buy German clubs and you cannot own them. Hopp has sunk an estimated 100m Euros into Hoffenheim over the last twenty years, but he isn't on the board of directors and isn't even the club's president, let alone the owner.

What he is, then, is a patron. This is not at all a new role in German football. Over three decades, the businessman Hans 'Jean' Löring spent 15m Euros of his own money to keep Fortuna Cologne in professional football, and Klaus Steilmann did pretty much the same at Wattenscheid 09. In contrast to Hopp, these men also ran their clubs in official capacities. But like Hopp they never even thought about material profit.

This led some people to point out that Hopp is no Abramovich because he can never actually benefit in a monetary sense from whatever Hoffenheim achieve. But then again, it's not as if that seems to be Abramovich's main motivation. The Russian will have to sell Chelsea for an outrageous sum one day to at least recoup his investement.

No, the difference between Hopp and Abramovich - and also between Hopp and Löring/Steilmann - is that Hopp has not invested in a sleeping giant or helped keep a well-known club afloat. When he became involved at Hoffenheim, their football team had just been relegated to the 9th division. He started out by improving the facilities, and from then on it was one step at a time.

Actually, for many of those steps people quite liked Hoffenheim. "My aim is to produce a top-class side with as many homegrown players who have their roots in this region as possible," Hopp once said. It was no hogwash. In 2003, in the third division, every man in the squad carried a German passport. Between 2004 and 2006, the only Hoffenheim player not born in Germany was a Bosnian who'd grown up in Switzerland. And in 2007, when the team was promoted to the second division, just three members of the squad came from abroad.

But it seems that things changed once the Bundesliga became a real option. In the summer of 2007, Hoffenheim spent at least 18m Euros on the 20-year-old Brazilian Carlos Eduardo, the 21-year-old Nigerian Edu and the 22-year-old Senegalese Demba Ba. That is, indeed, not the same as signing an 18-year-old Uli Stielike, a 19-year-old Allan Simonsen and a 22-year-old Henning Jensen for exactly zilch - as Gladbach did in 1972.

Gladbach enter the picture here not just because their fans abused Hopp so mercilessly. Borussia was once a small club, too. (Though not as small as Hoffenheim, of course.) They became one of the teams that virtually defined the 1970s, both domestically and in Europe, by delivering the blueprint for the Hoffenheim model - have capable men in important positions, find young talents and nurture them, play attacking football.

The difference, of course, is that Gladbach never had any money. (For big games, they even relocated to Düsseldorf's large ground to make some cash.) Which was the main reason it all went downhill in the end, as Gladbach always had to sell their self-produced stars. The other day, I talked to Horst Wohlers, back then a player and today the coach of Gladbach's reserve side. I asked him whether we'd ever again see such an unlikely rise as Gladbach's in the 1960s and 1970s.

"In modern football," he said, "it's impossible for a small club like Gladbach to stay at the top for as long as we did." Then he added: "The Hoffenheim model is something totally different. They, too, rely on young players. But their talents have been bought for five or ten million Euros."

There is an air of bewilderment to these words, and it's echoed by opposing fans who have taken to calling Hoffenheim 'Nouveau Riche Hicksville'. It may be just simple envy, as the kicker columnist claims. But I think there's also an element of confusion.

Ever since the professional game came to these shores, there have been small clubs fielding young talents and there have been rich clubs then buying these talents. That appeared to be the natural order of things.

But now we have a small club that is rich. And not only that. We have a very small club that is very rich.

Saying this makes people uneasy because they are envious is a tad too simple. Especially a magazine as storied and as conservative as kicker should at least understand why quite a few people feel there is something inherently unnatural about the Hoffenheim phenomenon. It just doesn't fall within the parameters we all have grown up with.

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