From an external perspective, Germany’s footballing landscape – despite garnering four world titles, producing three individual clubs victorious in Champions League/European Cup campaigns, and a further trio ousted at the final stage – seldom receives the inspection it merits. Few recognise the nation for its subordinate professional ranks, nor its thriving semi-professional, right through to amateur scene, unless tasked with acquiring reason for its global dominance; for which comparison – culturally intertwined in its subconscious rhetoric – is broadly devoid with South American, nor even Mediterranean brethren. Prior focus, and plaudits, have been fixated from a journalistic angle on the prudent, nationally ubiquitous academies that, if not prophesised by former Deutscher Fußball-Bund (DFB) president Gerhard Mayor-Vorfelder, were certainly enacted as such in 2003 – and now extend to 366 sites across all regions – and the continentally omnipotent multiplicity of exclusive UEFA-standard coaches available within a coherent and visionary system. Undoubtedly, the symbiotic relationship between the DFB and the Bundesliga – operating the two major professional tiers of the sport in Europe’s predominant non-transcontinental economic and residential force – upholds the values of co-existence and mutual beneficiary; striving to achieve a common ambition of authority, yet it is fundamental to the introspective analysis of both entities, and their proficiency, to maintain the role of the scourge of both the Premier League and La Liga in our comprehension. Elitist entrepreneurs, rarely portrayed in British media with the best interest of their chosen vessel at heart, permeate the Bundesliga’s ranks, however romanticised the common image – moulded by the much-hailed 50+1 ruling – may be.
Accepting the rather unfavourable converse view, then, the presence of geographical disparities – including, most prominently, a Hoffenheim outfit presently led by Julian Nagelsmann, yet also comprising the relatively miniscule towns of Sandhausen, Aue, and to a certain extent Heidenheim, in the 2. Bundesliga – is called into distinct ethical question. Comparable with the environmentally-prophesising, establishment-defying and generally inimitable revelation of Forest Green Rovers, now of League Two, alongside Fleetwood, Burton, Morecambe and the cult furniture piece of Accrington Stanley in English contexts; the nigh-28,000-strong city of Eibar in La Liga and rough 39,000 residential resources of Soria-based Segunda División side Numancia of Spain’s professional ranks; Sassuolo’s 41,000 or so inhabitants, alongside the 60,000 and 62,000 of recently-promoted Benevento and Crotone respectively, in Serie A; the rather ambiguously-titled Cittadella, of whom 20,000 citizens habituate, or Virtus Entella, of the 28,000 of Chiavara, in Serie B, yet entirely polarising in the context of industrial Deutschland’s 82 million citizens, this cultural trend far outweighs any other in economically privileged Western Europe. As such, it is certainly quizzical that a nation deemed as the least unsustainable, liable to entrepreneurial influence or immoral – at least in sporting contexts – of global, let alone continental, superpowers plays host to the highest standards of rural football, notably breaching the realms of elite professionalism, in the continent’s economically imperious districts.
Fundamentally, socio-economic factors have a significant resonance on such status. The 75.51% of Germany’s total population residing in urban areas – or 24.49% in rural regions – compares favourably, in analysis of the aforementioned trend, to the mere 20.25 and 20.20 respective urban percentiles posed by French and Spanish administrations, and 17.16% present in the United Kingdom, while also recording results of unerring similarity to the 24.97% of the entire European Union, according to 2016 World Bank statistics. Comparatively, sparsely populated Italy’s considerable 30.88% rural populace is offset by the perennial sporting pre-eminence of Milanese, Roman, Neapolitan and Turinese outfits – victorious in 83 of 116 domestic championships, while only six external conquerors have come in the post-war era, the last being a Gianluca Vialli-inspired Sampdoria in 1990-91 – and the evidential prevalence of retirement in rural national regions; the eleven states with population densities lower than Napoli’s Campania, Milan’s Lombardy, Rome’s Lazio and Turin’s Piedmont returning age averages of 45.68 years per citizen, while the quartet of city states were found to have citizens with the average age of 44.5. Factor in that Germany – belying its modest rank as only the seventh largest European nation, and fourth in the EU – dominates the Union’s metropolitan landscape while contributing 18 of the 100 largest cities (three more than the next nation, the UK), including effectively the dominant city in Berlin, seven of Europe’s ten lowest unemployment regions, arguably the continent’s second financial hub in Frankfurt and its third busiest port in Hamburg, and you begin to realise the economic stability and regional diaspora of the German populace, thus enabling sporting prowess at all geographical levels.
Yet the circumstance of Hoffenheim is scarcely plausible as a mere consequence of socio-economic opportunity. Nestled in the Rhein-Neckar region – from which the club’s stadium moniker is derived – of the nation’s densely-forested, French-bordering south-west, the village, on recent records, boasted fewer than 3,500 inhabitants, while comprising the vast amenities of a petrol station, an Italian restaurant, a school, a joint bus and train station, and the precursor to a 30,150-capacity, state-of-the-art football stadium. Respected locally as one of twelve constituent villages of the broader town of Sinsheim – whose population, at around 36,000, still defies the continentally-encompassing circumstance of the club, and where the aforementioned ground is based – its modesty was enlivened by Heidelberg-born software entrepreneur and billionaire Dietmar Hopp, who, alongside fellow former IBM employees, co-founded, in 1972, what is now the world’s third-largest company in the software industry; SAP SE. Immediately recognisable as a brand for attentive Premier League viewers – courtesy of a lucrative presence as official “Cloud Software Providers” to Manchester City, as visible on pitch-side advertisement – the company also collaborated with the DFB during its “SAP Match Insights” scheme to collate and present data from national team training performances prior to the 2014 World Cup campaign, and has featured in involvements with associations and clubs in sporting industries as diverse as ice hockey, sailing, golf, Formula 1, cricket, American football, baseball, tennis and basketball in the past. And yet 77-year-old Hopp’s greatest achievements – regardless of a reputed $6.3 billion personal worth – will remain those closest geographically to his Walldorf-based establishment and personal concern in Hoffenheim, while leading them, throughout the entirety of the 21st century, from the fifth national tier to an astounding continental magnitude.
The now-defunct – in respects of senior male exploits – Dietmar-Kopp-Stadion stands to this day as a functional, 6,135-capacity testament to his unparalleled contribution across the transcript of German club exploits. Reportedly ‘gifted’ to a club he subsequently engineered his way into, to mark the 100th anniversary of the existence of the entity officially referred to as Turn-und Sportgemeinschaft (TSG) 1899 Hoffenheim, the ground lasted only a decade before accomplishments exceeded its dimensions. Graced with an immediate consecutive duo of promotions at the turn of the century, the eponymous stadium – then with a capacity closer to 5,000 – captured only fleeting memories of Verbandsliga Baden and Oberliga Baden-Württemberg divisions prior to a six-year consolidation at Regionalliga Süd, or third tier, level, and reminiscence of prior exploits amidst successive runners-up performances worthy of elevation in both the Süd and 2. Bundesliga. Fortune, perhaps, favoured their ascent in avoiding the overpopulation-enforced introduction of the 3. Liga in 2008, and requiring only a historically unrivalled four promotions compared to five, yet the achievements of Hansi Flick and Ralf Rangnick – two visionary tacticians mentioned regularly in reflections of German football’s cutting-edge present prowess, yet at respective stages of appointment a former Bayern Munich midfielder-turned coach of Oberliga Baden-Württemberg side Victoria Bammental, and an inconsistent former Stuttgart, Hannover and Schalke helmsman – in mutual five-year tenures laden with two league titles, two further promotions and three DFB-Pokal Quarter-Final appearances, cannot be underestimated. Posed with financial resources worthy more of the Rhein-Neckar region – 5,637 km2 of technological heartland that, while largely devoid of sporting legacy itself, a trio of national league champions have hailed from nearby, in 1908-09’s Karlsruhe Fussball Club Phönix, 1909-10’s Karlsruhe FV, defying cultural norms of the amateur era in appointing Englishman William Townley as coach and producing 14 of the goals scored in a 16-0 1912 Olympics thrashing of Russia, and 1949’s Mannheim – than of even a town of Sinsheim’s modesty, the institution ensured that Hopp’s commitments wouldn’t be spurned in sporting achievement.
Executing the progressive platform Hopp would’ve demanded required vision the billionaire could not merely purchase, but nurture and enrich. As heralded previously, Germany’s network of regionally devolved fragments working to an evident pattern and mutual ambition is fundamental to the nation’s international success, and Hoffenheim in no way deceive such trends. Investing, financially and emotionally, equally in the similarly unassuming academy upon arrival, Hopp witnessed three promotions in the first decade of involvement in TSG 1899 Hoffenheim II, with sixth-tier Landesliga Nordbaden II competition rapidly evolving into the Regionalliga Süd and remodelled Regionalliga Südwest at the fourth rung of organised football, alongside senior sides from Trier, Mannheim, Koblenz and Worms and academies from Mainz, Frankfurt, Freiburg and Kaiserslautern. Registered amongst their historic products, and as testaments to the platform offered to a previously untapped regional pool of talent, are Brighton midfield maestro Pascal Groß, German Olympic Silver Medallists and defenders Jeremy Toljan and Niklas Süle – retailed for utmost profit to Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich respectively –, current under-21 international midfielders Nadiem Amiri and Philipp Ochs, under-19 German representative Dennis Geiger and Swiss under-21 goalkeeper Gregor Kobel, thus defining the Hoffenheim-Hopp venture as sustainable and constitutionally compliant, if not exceeding for their geographical subservience.
Yet throughout their Bundesliga occupation, Die Kraichgauer’s fortunes have fluctuated. The later fortunes of Flick and Rangnick – having ushered in two phases of effectively uninterrupted and extraordinary development, the five-month 2006 tenure of Lorenz-Günther Köstner aside – as Joachim Low’s national team assistant and Sporting Director, following an earlier managerial role, at RB Leipzig, respectively, entail courses adapted and refined to decidedly sheltered environments, while Hoffenheim themselves have since employed seven separate managers, including Nagelsmann, in six years. Has Hopp’s institution radically altered the face of management in Germany? It is difficult to gauge, yet from the few examples of their professional history, disillusion with the cityscapes and continuity usually professed has appeared to emerge.
Employment, and its tribulation, pleads less of the duo at institutions renowned for their proven success of appointment – the DFB – and of flouting the 50+1 rule – RasenBallsport Leipzig’s Salzburg-based board, so has Kopp’s influence proven to be ethically irresponsible for the fate of German football? Certainly, its close successive parallels in the story of Leipzig – originally a fellow fifth tier club, SSV Markrenstädt, in 2008, with a license purchased from the 15,000-strong town 11km southwest of Leipzig and an ambition, as Red Bull’s fourth sporting enterprise, to reach the Bundesliga within a decade – dispel the myths of club football within the realms of Die Mannschaft as a thoroughly honest, politically autonomous and idealistic institution. Liable to the economic influence and systemic manoeuvre of the Austrian-based energy drinks brand, Leipzig flout the broadly successful 50+1 rule by inserting key company directors into club positions and preventing the constitutional voting rights of public members; of whom, defying fundamental ethics, the regulation of is meticulous, and to an extent reminiscent more of Joseph Stalin’s Communist Party than Jeremy Corbyn’s modern Labour.
As for the 15,000 constituents served by fellow Rhein-Neckar side SV Sandhausen – statistically recognised as the smallest professional German outfit, and housed at the Hardtwaldstadion, with a capacity 414 larger than the town’s populace itself – 18,000 Saxon citizens of the former mining town represented by FC Erzgebirge Aue, who, if so desired, could burst the Sparkassen-Erzgebirgsstadion, carved elegantly into the local Ore Mountains, and 1. FC Heidenheim’s 48,000-populated minor city on the border, from Baden-Württemberg, of Bavaria, however, the comparisons are certainly drastic. Equipped, rather modestly, with stadiums constructed, in their modern forms, in 1950 and ‘51, Aue and Sandhausen respectively exist broadly as the determined exponents of small-scale industry amongst a scene of communal high-rises; having exploited the lucratively untapped nearby urban populaces of Baden-Württemberg’s Heidelberg, alongside Hanover as a seldom-recognised aspect of German sporting culture – a rugby city – and Saxony’s Chemnitz and Zwickau.
Dominant, when provided with the requisite resources by an image-conscious Communist state, for almost a decade in East German competition, Aue – the established locals to Chemnitz, which was renamed, rather unequivocally, in 1954 as Karl-Marx-Stadt, and thus selected as the similarly rechristened SC Wismut Karl-Marx-Stadt – were victorious in four national championships and an East German Cup campaign between 1955 and 1959, while subsequently representing the apportioned nation in European Cup to various degrees of late-1950s success. Eliminated by Ajax in the 1958 First Round, having suffered a conspicuous floodlight failure at the imposing neutral site of Berlin’s Friedrich-Ludwig-Jahn-Sportpark – where within three years the Berlin Wall would stand – 100 minutes into a third qualifying leg with Polish champions Gwardia Warszawa and passing through by virtue of a coin toss; qualifying again with a third leg that ended, fortunately, in an indisputable 4-0 against Romanians Petrolul Ploiești and defeating IFK Göteborg before being ousted by Swiss opponents Young Boys in a Quarter-Final third leg, the year after; and recollecting their fervour for a third leg, or play-off, in 1960-61 when being eliminated by Austrians Rapid Wien in a First Round reached courtesy of Northern Irish opponents Glenavon’s refusal to travel to East Germany, nor a neutral venue, amidst diplomatic collapses during the construction of the infamous wall, Aue’s tale is certainly not of small-time serendipity – regaining independence in 1963, holding the record for the most elite-level East German matches played and embracing reunification, while adopting their current guise in 1993. Regaling their extensive and markedly turbulent history, however, threatens to derail focus from current exploits, with the same to be said of Sandhausen – established in the midst of World War One, while boasting records as twelve-time North Baden Cup holders, twice German Amateur Championship victors in 1978 and 1993 and six-time Oberliga Baden-Württemberg champions, last in 2007, and involved in protracted mid-2000s negotiations alongside Hoffenheim and Astoria Walldorf, under Kopp’s prerogative, to form a united FC Heidelberg 06 side that would never come to fruition.
Concerning ethical inspection, the histories of our dastardly duo of small towns appears entirely credible and worthy of highly coveted 2. Bundesliga positions mounted with every effort of consolidation in previous seasons, amidst the introduction of sides including Köln, Stuttgart, Freiburg, Nürnberg, Ingolstadt, Darmstadt and Kaiserslautern. Rendering analysis to mere mitigating cultural fixations of empathy deters from the systemic threats of, and to, a nation’s footballing establishment, and thus compromises objectivity. Inherently, as the 50+1 rule remains solely applicable to professional entities under the influence of either Bundesliga tier – controlled by the Deutsche Fußball Liga (DFL) – the impact of single purchase parties can impact on the proceedings of a season, a highly-coveted promotion and the future of many entailing clubs, led by an economic powerhouse or espousing communal, sustainable proprietorship. The aforementioned Heidenheim, despite its prime position on the Bavarian border and nigh-50,000 population, established a 10,000-capacity, yet thoroughly modern, stadium in 2010 for the foreseeable future; the ambition of contemporaries unremarked and unheralded in such an example, but for what reason? Misleading, in itself, is the club’s historically much-altered moniker – 1846 far from the year of official footballing inception, considering Sheffield F.C. were but 11 years from personal establishment, and in fact the instigation of gymnastics organisation in the city, while 1911 was the date of football’s introduction – yet the figure of 10,000 remained applicable only to minimum 3. Liga regulations, before another 5,000 seats had to be added to the tune of €4.5 million in 2014, following elevation to the 2. Bundesliga. Loyal to home-grown manager Frank Schmidt throughout a decade of broadly upwardly mobile exploits, the outfit require the financial injections of local corporations – including locally-owned mechanical engineering firm Voith, of whom the Voith-Arena is currently dedicated – to sustain proceedings in such an economically imposing amphitheatre as either stage of the Bundesliga.
Yet the pattern is replicated in every German professional constitution. The relationship between corporation and community – in this example, portrayed by a conglomerate membership in a football club – is as intrinsic in Deutschland, as Europe’s principal economic behemoth, as the role of the auto brand, stability of politik or regionally-defining wurst. Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkusen – or rather their ownerships and directorial panels –, as institutions intertwined with globally-renowned sponsors Volkswagen and Bayer for more than two decades, even earned the constitutional right to defy the 50+1 rule and enable their corporations to control greater capital, while only four of 18 present Bundesliga grounds remain untainted by sponsorship-imposed guises; Borussia Mönchengladbach’s Stadion im Borussia-Park, Hamburger SV’s Volksparkstadion, Werder Bremen’s Weserstadion and Hertha Berlin’s Olympiastadion. Of the remaining fourteen sides, four have sacrificed their stadium identity to banking or insurance firms, three carry automobil sponsorships, two have adopted titles each from the pharmaceutical, beverage and energy industries and another – Freiburg, from the isolated extreme south-west of the nation – sports the interests of a tourism firm promoting the Black Forest. Yet unlike undemocratic and callous English commercial panderings, each and every single example is localised and specific to the thriving economies of regions from Berlin to Munich, Hamburg to Stuttgart, Dortmund to Frankfurt and Mainz to Bremen; discounting Red Bull – based in Fuschl am See, a village at equal parameters between cosmopolitan Salzburg and the Austrian Alps – and Leipzig’s nigh-600km geographical disparity, of course.
Fundamentally, these relationships – as opposed to the influence of multinational corporations in potentially breaching the regulations of the heralded 50+1 rule – garner the eternal respect of economically-mindful, yet ferociously regionally competitive German citizens in a socio-economic circumstance and sporting culture entirely divided from the external expanse of Western Europe, and highly industrialised EU area. It is this loyalty to locally-forged, and regionally-fixated brands – reminiscent of philosophy amongst any capitalist global economy, yet far protracted to the circumstance of a decidedly individual psyche – that empowers multi-billionaires, and their corporations, to reinvest and reward their local community by means of balance, both in respects of diplomatic responsibility and democratic influence, with mass membership bodies. Far from naïve, the Bundesliga, and DFB, fully comprehend the progressive responsibility of individual financial contributions in the continual competition of constituent clubs, both on domestic and continental scenes. Such was the intention of their October 1998 amendment; ensuring that, appeasing the critics of an institution that had produced only a single European Cup finalist – 1996-97 champions Borussia Dortmund – in its reunified guise, not-for-profit membership schemes were now an illogical economic option rather than the undisputed status quo. Subsequently, Allianz, Audi and Adidas-funded Bayern Munich appeared in 1998-99 and 2000-01 finals – defied, in iconic circumstances, by Manchester United’s late surge in the prior, yet victorious in the latter, when ousting Valencia on penalties – while Bayer Leverkusen lost to an equally famous Zinedine Zidane thunderbolt at Hampden Park in the 2001-02 final, thus validating this eventual compromise as mutually beneficial, even to this day.
To reach the true pinnacle of the nation’s domestic sporting spectrum, then, has required, certainly, the fortunate influence of a neighbouring, and constructively ambitious, billionaire for Hoffenheim. Yet what they personify, alongside subordinates Aue, Sandhausen and perhaps even Heidenheim, is a decisive and visionary fervour for resilient inspiration; projecting creativity on a landscape of great adversity, while exploiting a significant local discrepancy. Ethical caveats permeate effectively all tales of overriding romanticism, and often are beyond alleviation; such is the circumstance of our lauded villages and towns mired in suburban, industrial obscurity. Quashing the romanticism of portrayals of fiercely independent and overachieving municipalities – more akin, in international comparison, to Burnley’s second dawn, as a town of merely 73,000 inhabitants, at present times in the Premier League – the dispelled myths of German football are rife within national confines, yet for foreign mainstream press on perennial proverbial tenterhooks for sensationalism, the trend has translated only gradually, and through imperceptive filters at that. Clarity, and justification in the juxtaposition with amoral British commercialised landscapes, is demanded by the culturally inimitable entity that is the German footballing colossus. In a nation where democracy and collective trajectory is paramount, not just to internal proceedings, but upon union-wide and global economic exploits, it may be the circumstance that fortune can glean social elevation from rural obscurity; yet, in the ultimate testament, to ascend the elite ranks an adept poise of both commercial subservience and communal empowerment prevails as the fundamental factor. Heroic towns, when depieced under microscopic journalistic inspection and objectively reassembled, return, rather hearteningly, under exactly such a defiant and inspirational status guise, and few other such honesties asserted by the German institution can be as intrinsically candid.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!