Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


hoffenheim-stadium

(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.

More From Brian Blickenstaff

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.