Germans love to hate Hoffenheim but the village club backed by a billionaire mogul provide unparalleled entertainment on and off the pitch.
Internal disputes, miraculous escapes and eight-goal thrillers are all par for the course at the Bundesliga’s smallest club.
Any football coach has to manage players who feel they are too big for their boots, but few opt for Hoffenheim’s radical solution this season. Fed up with the egos of some of his players, coach Markus Gisdol set up a so-called ‘‘Training Group 2,’’ banishing most of his biggest names to training away from the rest of the first team squad.
Internationals like Tim Weise, the club’s biggest earner, and Eren Derdiyok are barred from contact with the other players in a grown up version of a playground ‘‘you’re not playing with my football’’ tiff.
Last week a fed-up Derdiyok took his employers to a Mannheim labour court for breach of contract. For many, including former Hoffenheim sports director Andreas Mueller, the player had a strong legal case so the club were probably grateful to offload the Swiss international to former club Bayer Leverkusen on loan.
But Hoffenheim are left with multimillion euro problems in the shape of goalkeeper Weise, who reportedly earns €3.5 million a year, former German international Tobias Weis, experienced Frenchman Matthieu Delpierre and Dutchman Edson Braafheid, who only three years ago played in the World Cup final.
Indeed, clubs who think that they had a tough transfer window can look to Hoffenheim for consolation: the Sinsheim outfit moved heaven and earth to find clubs for their star names, but found none willing to pay anywhere near their current salaries. Weis and Braafheid, however, are still hoping to get transfers to Turkey, where the transfer window is still open.
To be fair to Gisdol, he built authority to wield the axe after his spectacular success since taking over the team in April after the disastrous reign of Marco Kurz.
Hoff looked doomed to relegation, but Gisdol’s first match in charge ended with a 3-0 win against Fortuna Dusseldorf. Then came the most remarkable Houdini Act in Bundesliga history: on the last day of the season Hoffenheim needed to win at Champions League finalists Borussia Dortmund and see Dusseldorf lose at Hannover. Outplayed for 75 minutes, Hoffenheim got two late penalties, won 2-1 and stayed up. Gisdol had pulled off a near miracle.
Many Bundesliga neutrals would have been delighted to see relegation for Hoff, who are bankrolled by billionaire software entrepreneur Dietmar Hopp. Massive funding saw two consecutive promotions to the top flight in 2008 for a club whose stadium can seat more than the entire village of Sinsheim.
The late escape couldn’t disguise a miserable season.
Weise and Weis had already been fined by the club for inappropriate behaviour at a party. Attendances, already low by Bundesliga standards, dropped by 2,000, and even Gisdol admitted the club was in danger of losing its connections to the local community.
Disastrous form had not been helped by chaos behind the scenes: Since 2011 Hoffenheim have had six coaches and four sports directors.
So ahead of his first full season in charge, Gisdol vowed to exclude players who he insisted were at the root of the team’s problems, and instead concentrate on young talents hungry to make a name for themselves. The purge was thorough: even signed Wiese postcards and shirts have even been removed from the club shop.
So has Gisdol’s experiment worked? The jury is out.
The 44 year-old-coach is banking on youth and Kevin Volland has been in fine form. With the German national team short up front, Volland has even been tipped as a future international. The official Bundesliga site wrote last week that the forward should ‘’refrain from booking a summer holiday next year just yet.’’
Early signs this season were good. Had technology been used, Volland’s opening day ‘goal’ against Nuremberg would have been given and probably resulted in victory. Matchday 2 saw a 5-1 humiliation of Hamburg, with a rampant Roberto Firmino scoring twice.
Since then, the roof has fallen in. A madcap match against Freiburg saw Sejad Salihovic sent off for slapping an opponent within the first ten minutes. Two Freiburg players, as well as coach Christian Streich, received red cards but Hoff could only muster a 3-3 draw.
Last week Hoffenheim, who conceded a staggering 67 league goals last campaign, again proved an opposing attack’s dream, losing 6-2 to a Stuttgart team who had not won a point all season. This time, Weise and the other players banished to ‘’Training Camp 2’’could not be blamed, with Belgian keeper Koen Casteels not doing his World Cup chances any good with a performance to forget.
For a coach who has seen his team concede nine goals in two matches, Gisdol is remarkably composed: ‘‘We do not have a defensive problem. It’s just that all the cogs in the machine have to work together.’’Those cogs worked well in Gisdol’s first five months as a Bundesliga coach. But Hoffenheim are nothing if not unpredictable and suddenly the pressure is on. Any more away days like the one at Stuttgart and Gisdol too might find he is persona non grata at the club.
Deputy Head, Eurosport2