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Making it look easy

A week ago, there was an irate reader's letter in the Monday edition of Kicker magazine that scolded the publication for naming Franck Ribéry its Man of the Year. The logical choice, said the letter, would have been Ralf Rangnick.

Well, I concur with that.

In fact, when an Israeli magazine asked me in December to contribute three names to a list of potential Men of the Year from any sport, Rangnick's was among those I submitted. (The other two were Lewis Hamilton and Viswanathan Anand.)

My main reason for picking Rangnick was not so much the fact that Hoffenheim went into the winter break as shock table-toppers, I'd have nominated him even if his team had been in second place or in fifth. Rather, what I was looking for was a man who was indeed a man of the year - meaning the whole year, in contrast to somebody who achieved something great over a relatively short period of time during those twelve months.

Sure, you could say that Ribéry falls into this category as well. In the summer, he was named Germany's Footballer of the Year for his performance in the 2007-08 season, meaning he was also awesome during the first half of the past calendar year. And he then played another strong twelve weeks at the tail end of 2008. After all, he was undoubtedly instrumental in Bayern turning things around following their sub-par start to the current campaign.

Still, there were the disappointing European Championships, capped by that injury and the lengthy lay-off which followed. Rangnick's achievements, on the other hand, covered exactly the whole year.

On December 16, 2007, Hoffenheim were soundly defeated away at Greuther Fürth and ended their year in eighth place in the Second Bundesliga, a solid eight points (and twelve goals) behind a promotion spot. But as soon as football returned in 2008, Rangnick's team was virtually unbeatable.

Hoffenheim's combined record for league games in 2008, in the First and Second Bundesliga, reads: played 34, won 23, drawn 4, lost 7. Their goal tally for that period reads: scored 78, conceded 36. That's a stunning run, and despite all that talk about how cosy and quiet it is at Hoffenheim, it wasn't achieved under the easiest of circumstances.

If you (rightfully) presume Hoffenheim are widely reviled as both stinking rich upstarts and hicks from the sticks now that they are playing in the Bundesliga, think how much worse it was in the lower flight. In Augsburg, club patron Dietmar Hopp was abused so ruthlessly that he fled the stands and sought shelter in the VIP area.

Later, visiting Kaiserslautern fans tore down the protective net in front of their stand, including the poles that supported it, brandishing banners that read ''The mob hates Hopp''.

So it wasn't easy for Hoffenheim, but they made it look easy, which is always the hardest thing to do. And this, like so many aspects of the Hoffenheim phenomenon, is indeed mainly Rangnick's work. While the importance of the coach generally tends to be overrated, this is one case where the man at the sidelines has quite obviously made the main difference.

''Everything changed when Rangnick arrived,'' says midfielder Selim Teber, who joined Hoffenheim in January of 2006, six months before Rangnick did. ''That's when we became really successful.''

Rangnick's arrival for the 2006-07 season initially left many observers bewildered, since here was a coach who'd seen Champions League action with Schalke and who was now joining a team that had just come fourth in the third division.

''The main reason I made this choice were the working conditions,'' Rangnick says today. ''If the set- up at Hoffenheim had been the same as at so many other clubs, I wouldn't have considered the offer for a second.''

What he means by ''set-up'' were not so much the financial conditions, because there had also been money at Schalke. (While Rangnick was coach there, he bought Kevin Kuranyi for 7m Euros and lured Fabian Ernst away from Bremen.) Rather, he was given free rein and didn't have to answer to anyone, least of all Hopp.

One can understand why this prospect appealed to Rangnick, considering his time at Schalke was curtailed, despite decent results and support from both the fans and team manager Andreas Müller, because of a feud with powerful business manager Rudi Assauer.

Assauer seems to have instantly disliked Ralf Rangnick, famously referring to him as ''Rolf'' during the press conference when Rangnick was presented as new Schalke coach. Actually, I can understand why Assauer felt irritated because I can't say I'm too fond of Rangnick, as a person, myself.

He sometimes reminds me of Otto Rehhagel, in that there's a certain sophisticated gruffness about him and a touch of arrogance. But while Rehhagel's arrogance is grounded in the belief he's seen more and learned more than you did, Rangnick's arrogance is harder to stomach, particularly for an overachieving working-class man like Assauer, because he seems to believe he's smarter than you.

Rangnick himself says this is just an image he acquired in late 1998, when he explained modern football tactics on a popular sports TV show. He was only 40 then and had never coached in the top flight and so his performance rubbed a few veterans the wrong way, particular since Rangnick's explanations of the pressing game or the flat-back four (then highly unusual in Germany) were taken to imply that most of his colleagues were teaching outdated methods.

Rangnick seems to feel he painted himself into corner he can't get out of with that performance, the more so since it also became known in the wake of this TV show that his players called him ''the Professor''. And indeed, many people appear to feel the same way about Rangnick that I do - just the other day, Bayern's Uli Hoeness called him a ''smart aleck''.

But I don't think that has anything to with 1998. It's just the way that Rangnick is, and I can't say I really mind. Despite daily evidence to the contrary, I don't think sport should be a popularity contest. As Dizzy Dean said, it ain't bragging if you can do it, and Rangnick has certainly done it, has proven that if you leave him alone he'll build a team that plays exceptionally well and has success.

Perhaps it's just that Rangnick is a trained school teacher. (My grandfather was one, so I know that a certain know-all manner comes with the territory.) Which, incidentally, is also the reason he never played professionally. He quit VfB Stuttgart's reserves when he was 22, studied sports and English and went to live in West Sussex for a year to improve his language skills.

''I knew that if I wanted to finish my studies and one day be able to read the 800 pages of Charles Dickens's Hard Times, I needed to have lived in England for a longer period of time,'' he said. Surely not a line that would've ever crossed the lips of Rudi Assauer.

Still, make no mistake, Rangnick is a football man. During his stay in England, he played for Southwick FC in the Sussex County League, division one. ''In my second game, away at Chichester, I broke three ribs and punctured my lung,'' he says. ''I spent three weeks in the hospital and was out for four months.'' So this guy can take some knocks. Such as being cold-shouldered by Kicker.


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