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Moneyed upstarts storm German football

Marc Young · 21 May 2008, 16:56

Published: 21 May 2008 16:56 GMT+02:00

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What do you get when pump millions of euros into a small amateur football club from a tiny village in Baden-Württemberg? First-class quality German football apparently.

Last weekend, TSG 1899 Hoffenheim were promoted to the Bundesliga after spending only one season in the second division. Prior to that, the club kicked for decades in regional leagues of varying degrees of insignificance.

The club’s meteoric rise began in 1990 after billionaire Dietmar Hopp, co-founder of German software giant SAP, returned as financial benefactor of the side he used to play for as a youth. His money had an almost immediate impact, and now Hopp is being mentioned in the same breath as the extremely wealthy Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich and Italian premier and media mogul Silvio Berlusconi.

The respective owners of England’s Chelsea FC and Italy’s AC Milan are largely reviled throughout the football world for supposedly “buying” success on the pitch, and the 68-year-old Hopp faces the same accusations in Germany for gifting a village of 3,300 souls their very own Bundesliga club.

Hoffenheim, not far from the southwestern city of Heidelberg, will soon have a 30,000-seat stadium to host Germany’s leading football powers including FC Bayern Munich, Schalke 04 and Werder Bremen.

"Hoffenheim versus FC Bayern - that's a match that will certainly take some getting use to," said footballing legend Franz Beckenbauer according to German news agency DPA.

And the club, TSG 1899, will travel to matches in Berlin’s grand Olympic stadium and Dortmund’s imposing Westfalenstadion filled with its 80,000 rabid fans.

But Hopp is confident of playing with the big boys: "I think we're ready. This kind of success can't come too early."

So is Germany's Bundesliga on the verge of becoming like England’s Premier League, a place where clubs have become the must-have plaything of bored billionaires?

It’s not likely unless the German Football League (DFL) suddenly decides to ditch its controversial “50+1” rule that keeps guys like Hopp from owning more than 49 percent of a club. Sure, keeping big spenders boxed out is partly why Bundesliga sides can’t buy the best players from around the globe like English, Italian and Spanish clubs do. But it’s also why going to a Bundesliga match can still be a lot more fun than in many other European leagues.

There might be a few top teams that dominate the Bundesliga, but it’s still far more competitive than the Serie A, La Liga and the Premier League. Stuttgart were champions last year, but they imploded this season. Newly promoted Karlsruhe competed with the Bundesliga’s best for much of season before fading at the end.

And a ticket to see Hertha Berlin in the German capital’s renovated Olympic stadium can go for as little as €10. Compare that to the £26 (€33) for the cheapest tickets for a Man U match next season. Of course, that’s not even considering the fact that you can still buy beer in the stadium in Germany.

Granted, you won’t see the fancy footwork of someone like Christiano Ronaldo in Berlin anytime soon. And German football clearly needs a serious infusion of cash if clubs want to be competitive internationally.

Bayern Munich, which cruised to the league title this season after splashing out €69 million on the likes of Luca Toni and Franck Ribery, were turfed out of the UEFA Cup in the semifinals. So the Bundesliga’s mightiest club can’t even win what is derisively known in Europe as the losers’ cup after spending record amounts of cash on new players.

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Hoffenheim’s success could ultimately make German league officials more willing to welcome investors with overflowing coffers like Hopp, who spent €25 million on players last season making the club's investments second only to Bayern Munich.

And TSG’s coach, Ralf Rangnick, gets prickly when people insinuate his boss bought a top club like Abramovich instead of essentially building something from scratch.

“Any wise guy who makes comparisons to ... Chelsea hasn’t figured out that we started out in the third division,” Rangnick, who previously coached Schalke, told DPA.

So who knows – maybe in a few short years Hopp could be joining Abramovich or Manchester’s own billionaire, US businessman Malcolm Glazer, in the VIP box to watch his Teutonic titans take on Chelsea or United in the Champions League final.

Marc Young (marc.young@thelocal.de)

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