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(PHOTO: FUNKY1OPTI/FLICKR)

The Most Hated American Soccer Team Plays in Germany

• July 02, 2013 • 12:00 PM

(PHOTO: FUNKY1OPTI/FLICKR)

A tiny village team is now playing in the top level of German soccer—and nobody is happy about it.

My brother and I sat down on the stadium-bound train at about 1:00 and watched a legion of half-drunk Eintracht supporters file on. We were headed to watch Hoffenheim play their 2012-2013 German Bundesliga season opener at home against Eintracht Frankfurt. Hoffenheim’s stadium isn’t actually in the town of Hoffenheim—it’s next door in Sinsheim–and when the train passed through Hoffenheim, population about 3,000, the Eintracht supporters pressed up against the windows, snapping photos and snickering.

This was my first Bundesliga experience. I’d recently moved to Heidelberg, and Hoffenheim was the closest Bundesliga team—about a half-hour away by train. With two American national team players on the roster, it was also the team I knew best at the time.

The match ended up as one-sided as they come: a 4-0 annihilation by Frankfurt. On the train back to Heidelberg, a group of Eintracht supporters offered us beer. We toasted their victory, which they explained was sweetened by the fact that it came against Hoffenheim. It’s a “village team,” they told us. It has “Keine Geschichte,no history. Every German in earshot nodded his head and chuckled.

THE HOFFENHEIM “VEREIN,” OR club, was founded in 1899 as a gymnastics organization. In 1945 it merged with a local soccer verein, and by 1998 the soccer team was playing in the semi-professional fifth tier of Germany’s pyramid-like league structure. (Below Germany’s third tier, the national league breaks into regions, and below the fifth tier, sub regions. Depending on the region, there are between nine and 11 tiers, total; in Hoffenheim’s region there are about 900 teams below the fifth tier.)

In 1999, Dietmar Hopp, a former Hoffenheim youth player who later earned billions as one of the founders of the corporate software giant SAP, returned and bought about 49 percent of the club. Whereas other billionaire club owners—like Chelsea’s Roman Abramovich and Manchester City’s Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan—adopted strategies that consisted of buying the best players around, without regard for cost, Hopp initially took a more sustainable approach. He improved the club’s training facilities, and brought in the best back-room personnel he could find. He invested heavily in the club’s youth program, dreaming of one day fielding a Bundesliga team full of players from the Rhine-Neckar region. By 2001, Hoffenheim was already playing in the third-tier of German soccer.

“Nobody hates Bayern anymore because now everybody hates Hoffenheim.”

In 2007, Hoffenheim had advanced to the second Bundesliga. As the club made the final push to the first Bundesliga, Hopp took a step back from his regional approach and brought in a crop of excellent, young, mostly-foreign players. The change in strategy paid off. After only one year in the second Bundesliga, the team earned promotion. Hoffenheim had achieved four promotions in less than a decade.

Billions or no, what Hopp and his team accomplished is remarkable. Hopp was by no means the only wealthy owner of a lower-division European team. The long-term goal of every club is to earn top flight promotion. For most fifth division teams, whatever their finances, actually doing so is more fever dream than reality-based goal.

You’d think Hoffenheim’s achievement would have been celebrated across Germany, not least by those fans from the region, which prior to Hoffenheim’s promotion hadn’t had a top-flight team in about a decade. Hoffenheim seems like a classic American underdog story—and they are. But that’s why everyone despises them.

“NOBODY HATES BAYERN ANYMORE because now everybody hates Hoffenheim,” Timo Hagemeister, a friend and St. Pauli supporter, told me.

Opposing fans have long viewed Bayern Munich as the Yankees-like evil empire of the Bundesliga. It’s the Bundesliga’s winningest club—often referred to as “FC Hollywood”—and a team not afraid to flex its considerable financial muscle in pursuit of yet another Bundesliga title.

Germans most frequently criticize Hoffenheim for its supposed lack of history. What’s funny is that you rarely hear anyone criticize Bayern for lacking a truly historic identity—or even a contemporary one. When German soccer fans talk about “historic clubs,” they’re talking about teams that were dominant or had a large fan base prior to the formation of the Bundesliga in 1963. It may be all-conquering now, yet Bayern wasn’t even a founding member of the Bundesliga. And today, perhaps influenced by NFL marketing, Bayern is by far the most globalized, branded team in the Bundesliga, catering to bandwagoners the world over.

“All this [criticism of Hoffenheim’s] history or ‘tradition’ is unimportant,” Jürgen Wadlinger, a Hoffenheim season-ticket holder, told me via email. “When does tradition even begin?”

So while the criticism of Hoffenheim’s history is misguided, its rise through the league has nevertheless put it in a difficult spot. Fan culture in Germany doesn’t leave much room for rapid change. Hoffenheim doesn’t have Bayern’s international reach or even a built-in, Bundesliga-caliber fan base. In a way, this makes it a more genuine club than Bayern, but it’s also a problem.

The team plays its home matches at the Rhine-Neckar Arena, capacity 30,150. It was completed in 2008 for about 60 million Euros—Thanks, Dietmar!—and is a fine complex. But it’s also in Sinsheim, population about 35,000, which means that in addition to Hoffenheim’s original stock of dedicated supporters, the team needs to draw fans from the bigger cities nearby, like Heilbronn or Mannheim, if it has any hope of filling the place.

This is not an easy task. The lure of nearby Bundesliga football is no match for Germany’s long-held regional and community loyalties. Until 1871, Germany did not even resemble a unified nation-state but rather an amalgamation of hundreds of independent kingdoms, duchies, and free cities. Contemporary Germany remains a fiercely regional country. Sometimes just riding your bike to the next city over, or crossing a river, can mean hearing a completely different (and to a non-native speaker suddenly unintelligible) dialect. In other words, growing Hoffenheim’s fan base isn’t just about marketing and fielding a successful team, it’s also about geopolitics.

It goes way beyond soccer. Outside of work and school, the clubs are the main social outlet for people.

There are more localized hurdles, too.

“People follow [soccer] teams very differently here than in the U.S.,” Hagemeister said. “A lot of people in Germany make their entire personal life about soccer. That’s where they have their friends.”

Many German soccer fans are also members of their team’s verein, and every team in the German league is majority owned by its verein. This means the fans literally own their team. Vereins are as much fan club as they are governing body. Members vote on all kinds of club decisions. Some vereins are bigger than others—Borussia Dortmund’s verein is orders of magnitude larger than the 11th-tier team in my neighborhood—but the sense of ownership is the same.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of the verein system in Germany. It goes way beyond soccer. Outside of work and school, the clubs are the main social outlet for people. In Heidelberg, for example, in addition to a handful of soccer vereins, there’s a German Shepherd verein, several boating vereins, a hunting verein, and a couple of tennis vereins—and that’s just off the top of my head. Although not professional, many of these clubs have their own club houses, complete with bars and restaurants, where members spend much of their free time. And they’ve been doing so for generations.

Soccer vereins are a somewhat special case compared to, say, a knitting verein, because of the money involved. For each club participating in the German league setup, there is at least a theoretical possibility of professionalism and the money associated with it. In the 1990s, as European soccer began to see higher rates of outside investment, the Bundesliga imposed its now famous “50+1 rule,” which protects the rights of members by insuring that the verein maintains at least 51 percent ownership of its club.

This is where the German fans have a problem with Hoffenheim and Hopp. With the club’s small fan base, it certainly couldn’t have achieved what it did without Hopp’s money, and for many German soccer enthusiasts, that’s just the problem. The size of Hopp’s investment—north of 250 million Euros—represented more than 49 percent of the club’s initial worth. There is near-constant speculation that Hopp actually owns more than 49 percent, but putting that aside, the general feeling is that his investment undermines 50+1, and by extension threatens Germany’s democratic, stabilizing system of verein ownership altogether.

“Some people are scared, because you see the same thing in English soccer: you get an investor at your club,” Hagemeister said. “And then at some point they just lose interest, and you’re in bankruptcy all of a sudden.”

These are all fair points, I suppose, but what would Hopp’s critics do with his resources? How many of them would consider returning to their village with a plan and an open wallet? Wouldn’t doing so be an act of pure authenticity? Isn’t that what every verein member in Germany dreams of doing? Now what if I told you the whole country would hate you for it?

IN JUNE, HAGEMEISTER INVITED me over to his apartment to meet with some of his friends and watch a screening of Tom Meets Zizou—a Hoop Dreams-like documentary that follows a gifted, German youth player as he tries to make it in the professional gantlet that is the modern Bundesliga. As we chatted before the film, Hagemeister realized I’d now lived in Germany for a year and still didn’t support a German team. He asked his friends to help me pick a German club of my own. The suggested options included Hamburg, Werder Bremen, and Hannover, none of which are anywhere near Heidelberg.

Apparently as a foreigner, I’m free from the shackles of Germany’s regionalism, but nevertheless, I said I would feel silly supporting a team that wasn’t from the area. To do so would be inauthentic.

At that, an Eintracht supporter named Philip turned to me and said, “You don’t pick the team, the team picks you.”

As much as the Germans won’t like it, I think one already has.

Brian Blickenstaff
Brian Blickenstaff grew up in California, but now lives in Germany. He has written for Slate and ESPN, among other publications. Follow him on Twitter @BKBlick.

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