Inside German Football: Hoffenheim put the building blocks in place
A billionaire’s investment and a top-class academy ensures the Bundesliga club can compete in the top flight
Jannik Vestergaard of TSG 1899 Hoffenheim celebrates a goal during the Bundesliga match against SC Freiburg at Wirsol Rhein-Neckar-Arena in Sinsheim. Photo: Matthias Hangst/Bongarts/Getty Images
The last leg of the journey to Hoffenheim provides a pretty clear early indication that you are going to a different type of Bundesliga club. Mannheim is no great metropolis but the rail line that heads east has a distinctly regional then rural feel to it while the train is a far cry from the ones that pass through the place on their way to and from Germany’s biggest cities.
The station you reach around 40 minutes later is tiny by Deutsche Bahn standards but still seems more than adequate for the amount of traffic it receives. Even at rush hour there is scarcely more than a train every half an hour and barely 20 or 30 passengers commuting from a town that boasts a population of roughly 3,000.
You can see the club’s old football stadium from the platform; well, the floodlights at least. They tower above the surrounding trees on a hilltop that overlooks the town and immediately seem at odds with the surroundings. That ground, though, is only used for the youth team these days; the main stadium is a 10 minute drive away in Sinsheim, population 35,000, more than 80 per cent of whom would fit into the impressive new Rhein-Neckar Arena.
It, the club’s various training bases and quite a lot besides have been paid for by local billionaire Dietmar Hopp who, having played for the club as a kid, made his fortune with software giant SAP. He decided to put a few quid in after watching the team struggle in a relegation battle before one thing, as they say, led to another.
Hopp’s initial commitment, around 2000, was to get the club to the third division. He then tried to engineer a merger with some neighbouring clubs that might create one capable of pushing onwards and upwards but when things didn’t work out he decided to press ahead anyway. Established Bundesliga coach Ralf Rangnick was lured down to the third tier and a five-year plan drawn up to reach the top flight. In the end, it took just two and TSG Hoffenheim 1899 have been there ever since, competing with the big boys and irritating their fans.
Club officials acknowledge this antipathy which stems from a perceived lack of tradition and the club’s continued access to Hopp’s money. Their reaction is to argue that the club should be allowed to “create our own tradition,” as clubs like Bayer Leverkusen and VfL Wolfsburg had done after making their way to the top with outside funding.
The practicalities of the situation, however, are daunting. The club must spend substantial sums just to avoid relegation with anything beyond that requiring much more investment. Hopp may be rich, but he sets a lot of store by the idea that the club should ultimately be at least somewhat representative of the region and so developing new, ideally local players is a priority, to an even greater extent than is required under the various DFB youth academy regulations.
Hoffenheim’s main academy is in the town itself. It used to be the training base for the senior team but they have since moved out to a new facility up the road at Zuzenhausen (population 2,000) which must be quite something given what they have left behind. The improvements continue with funding provided by Hopp directly as well as the charitable foundation, Anpfiff-ins-leben (roughly, starting ‘whistle into life’), he founded in order to support a range of local projects.
Much of the planning was done by Bernhard Peters, the former hockey coach Jürgen Klinsmann wanted the DFB to hire when he was national coach (they wrestled with the idea for a while then declined). He has since departed but Hoffenheim press on, laying firm foundations, they hope, for a future built on home-grown talent.
There’s a lot of catching up to do. It’s only in the last few years that Hoffenheim have even been subject to academy requirements that come with being in one of the top two divisions but they are learning fast. A national under-17 title in 2008 was achieved mainly with players who arrived en masse from another club and although none ended up progressing to the first team, similar success at under-19 level last season prompted a good deal of optimism.
German youth international Niklas Süle is now the club’s first home-grown first team regular but there will, academy press officer Terence Träber is confident, be more: “If Bayern München has Thomas Müller or Holger Badstuber or Philip Lahm (all products of their academy), I say that’s right, it’s a great achievement but they’re doing it professionally for over 30 years. We’re doing it for five years so don’t expect us to bring in each year three players. If, in 10 years, Süle is the only one, then people can say we have done something wrong.”
Hopp’s money is key to making it happen, Träber acknowledges, but the owner’s high standards also help to ensure that everyone strives to make the project succeed. “Our job in the academy is to create professionals for the first team. Of course, it’s the same at every academy in the world but Mr Hopp keeps a close watch, he demands it.”
He might well feel entitled to. Just about everything has been laid on to aid the development of the players. The work starts by supporting recreational play for kids as young as two. The first underage team at Hoffenheim is at under-12 level but by then they hope to have built firm ties with a promising player, his family and his coaches. Club visits are undertaken, coach education provided and practical support of various types offered. The relationship is mutually beneficial and local clubs, he says, are both happy and proud to see their young players get the opportunity to take the next step on the road to a professional career.
Once in the academy, the players receive high quality coaching as well as support from medical staff, social workers and teachers. There’s even a “footbonaut”, one of only two in the league.
This is an impressive machine used to develop the reactions, control, passing and finishing of the club’s players, including the professionals, by firing balls at them from all angles of a purpose-built setting. Each one costs around €1.5 million plus the wages of a trained technician to operate it.
The “Eliteschool” status of the country’s leading academies means that the club has an arrangement with at least one local school that allows players to continue their education in a flexible way.
Hoffenheim has arrangements with six schools that offer a range of educational possibilities. Each receives €30,000 per annum to facilitate morning and other training sessions for players who make up for the missed classes at the academy and sit exams when their football schedule allows. University courses are offered on a similar sort of basis under a programme being developed at Heidelberg University.
Some of the older players live at the academy (where there are 13 bedrooms, one reserved for trialists and other visitors) or with host families in the area. The academy accommodation is comfortable and very well equipped for teenagers who could, if required, sleep, eat, train and study without ever leaving the centre.
That, in a way, touches on one of the potential downsides of all of this: “They have very little time for anything else,” Träber acknowledges. “Training, school; learning, school, training . . . some people ask: ‘What about the real life of an adolescent’. But what is real life? Is it discos or alcohol. No. They have this sort of life and they enjoy it. I’ve talked to enough players and they say they don’t miss anything.”
The goal, he reiterates time after time, is to produce good footballers but the club recognises that many, almost certainly most, won’t succeed.
“So best case scenario,” he says, “is that the person becomes a professional footballer; if not, then a great person who has achieved his potential.”
On the day The Irish Times visits the first team is to play Freiburg and nearly 25,000 turn out on a chilly Tuesday night to see what is considered a derby game despite the two towns being almost 200km apart.
In a league table made up of average attendances, only Freiburg and this year’s Bundesliga debutants, Paderborn, would lie below Hoffenheim but in terms of youth development, the latter are currently miles ahead. Süle starts the game for the home team, as does Freiburg academy product Oliver Baumann who plays in goal.
The visitors have quite a decent strike rate of their own, neatly illustrated last season when they came from behind to draw with Bayern Munich and ended the game with “seven or eight” academy products on the pitch, one of whom, Nicolas Höfler, got the equaliser.
Freiburg blazed something of a trail for small German clubs harbouring big ambitions, showing that it was possible to field a competitive team, the backbone of which was homegrown, by prioritising their academy system before the DFB made it mandatory or their rivals saw it as advantageous.
The club made much the same journey from lower league obscurity as Hoffenheim under now Cameroon coach Volker Finke who, during a remarkable 16-year reign, and with the support of an understanding chairman, prioritised youth development even during bad times.
“We opened up the academy in a year where we got relegated to the second division,” explains Sebastian Neuf of the club’s academy. “That showed the strength of belief in an idea which some people might regard as stupid, others smart. Either way, it was a vision, a way of thinking that showed the situation in Freiburg cannot be compared to the situation at other clubs.
“That was the biggest spending of the club ever, to build up the academy. You cannot do this in Hamburg or Stuttgart . . . say, ‘right, I’m the coach and I have decided to do this now in a year where we are threatened with being relegated.’”
Freiburg, though, became celebrated for their pioneering approach with then Bayern president Uli Hoeness amongst those who came and hailed their new facilities as groundbreaking before returning to ensure something similar was done at their own club.
Now, Neuf says, the club’s academy seems rather run- -of-the-mill by Bundesliga standards but under current coach Christian Streich, the commitment to giving young players a chance is at least as great as ever and as it benefits from a prolonged stay in the top flight.
Neuf eschews the suggestion that they box a little smarter than their bigger rivals in order to compete, observing everyone is boxing pretty cleverly these days. “What we needed to find, though, was a niche within the game and to know who we are.”
The club’s relatively remote location was a help as well as a hindrance. It is sparsely populated making their large catchment area difficult for younger kids and close co-operation with a network of feeder clubs is essential. But ultimately, Neuf says, “the disadvantage that we have in terms of low population density is compensated for by the fact that within the lake we are fishing, we are the only ones fishing.”
The club, he says, simply can’t compete financially with bigger rivals for the brightest prospects and so it doesn’t try. What they do find, though, is that the players who do sign are more committed because they have decided “that I don’t want to earn more money as a 16, 17 or 18- year old if I can increase the percentage of the likelihood of becoming a professional player by 10 per cent or 15 per cent”.
Their record of bringing through a succession of young professionals, most notably of late Baumann and the Dortmund defender Matthias Ginter, certainly helps when it comes to coaxing targets.
None of it comes cheap, of course. Nobody at the clubs is willing to talk numbers but outsiders put Freiburg’s annual academy spend at something around €4 million, Hoffenheim’s at more, perhaps €6-7 million. But then Ginter was sold for €10 million plus performance -related bonuses while Träber suggests Süle is now worth upwards of €5 million.
Träber recalls visiting Blackburn’s new academy and being told that it cost €20 million “but we just sold Damien Duff to Chelsea for €20 million”. One player, in other words can make this all worthwhile to a club while Freiburg fans, says Neuf, “are not necessarily the typical football fan; they want to see something they are proud of and they are not necessarily judging us simply on Saturday afternoon.”
The national team, they both agree, can only benefit from all of this. Träber cites the example of Ümit Davala, who slipped through the net in Mannheim before embarking on a remarkable journey that took him to the World Cup with Turkey.
Neuf, whose club has strong ties to their locally-born former star Joachim Löw, who still lives in the town, agrees. “It comes up now more and more,” he says of the apparent overlap between national coach’s philosophy and that of his old club, “but it’s true. The way of thinking, the style, the way he approaches football . . .
“He won the world championship but in the end it was the product of a huge development over years and it was not him but a team, a team of players and a team of coaches. He got lucky as well,” he adds. “He did an outstanding job, don’t get me wrong on that one. He also continued a very good development within German football but he was not the only one behind it, it was the federation together with the clubs. The clubs had been obliged to spend a lot of money on the academies and that was a great idea.”