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Coach Rangnick's exit sends Hoffenheim into unknown territory

When Hoffenheim Chairman Dietmar Hopp decided to sell Luiz Gustavo to Bayern Munich, he had to know his coach Ralf Rangnick might quit as a result. Now he has to prove he knows where the club is headed.

Hoffenheim players cheering a goal

Before Rangnick, Hoffenheim was a tiny club in the regional league

It’s a story we’ve all heard before. Bayern Munich spends big to take a player off another Bundesliga club. It strengthens Bayern’s squad while weakening the other club’s, and unsettles the selling club in the process.

This time the selling club was TSG Hoffenheim, the player on his way to Bayern is Luiz Gustavo, the price 17 million euros. So far so good. But the story ended with a bombshell.

The village club’s coach, Ralf Rangnick, quit his post after the deal went through. It was one he had held for four and a half seasons, raising them up from the depths of the regional divisions in the process.

Rangnick complained that club chairman Dietmar Hopp didn’t inform him back in mid-December that he had sent Hoffenheim General Manager Ernst Tanner to begin talks with Bayern over Gustavo’s future.

"It’s a huge blow for a player to be sold without the coach being involved," Klaus Smentek, editor-in-chief at Germany’s leading sports newspaper kicker told Deutsche Welle. "Even though they had worked well together for four years, that was a decisive breach of trust."

Rangnick had made it clear in the press, when addressing rumors of Bayern’s interest in Gustavo, that he believed selling such a vital player in mid-season was tantamount to surrendering in the club’s fight for a European place. When the billionaire SAP founder went and sold Gustavo anyway, under Rangnick’s nose, the former Hanover and Schalke coach quit.

Good but not great

Hoffenheim's Luiz Gustavo

Gustavo came in 2007 for just one million euros

A bit odd, really, that such a big fight broke out over Gustavo. He is not a traditional marquee player, nor one about whom many observers, if asked a couple of months ago, would have predicted a 17 million euro sale anytime soon. What he is is a useful defensive all-rounder who can play in defensive midfield or as a full-back.

The real sticking point, Bundesliga analyst Paul Chapman told Deutsche Welle, is that Ralf Rangnick sees himself as "a man of principle."

Chapman, who has covered German football for two decades for the British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS), said "Rangnick had a contract, and he could have stayed at the club and picked up his money until the summer of 2012, but he felt that he’d been stabbed in the back."

One man’s man of principle is another man’s pain in the neck, however. Rangnick has a reputation for being loath to compromise, and his tenure at other clubs have been stormy. Rangnick famously rubbed the longtime Schalke Sporting Director Rudi Assauer the wrong way, a conflict that likely helped precipitate his exit at the Gelsenkirchen club. Rangnick lasted just one and a half seasons there.

In a way, it’s a surprise the relationship between Hopp and Rangnick, the two headstrong men at Hoffenheim, lasted as long as it did. Perhaps the visionary businessman once saw some of himself in the famously forward-thinking coach. But no longer.

Diminished expectations

It appears that Hopp, having seen his club in the top flight for two and a half seasons, has decided the sky is not the limit. The limit is, in fact, 30,000 seats and a catchment area with finite marketing potential.

Hoffenheim chairman Dietmar Hopp

Hopp might be ready to scale back his plans for the club

"Ralf Rangnick said he wanted to qualify for Europe this season, and perhaps Hopp just said that might be out of our league," said kicker editor Smentek. "That confuses me a bit, because Hopp is so ambitious and has been so successful in business."

Back when Hoffenheim were leading the league two years ago, Hopp "used to talk about taking the club to the top - even challenging Bayern Munich. Now it seems mid-table is enough," he added.

With these limited goals mind, Hopp has decided he will take good deals when he sees them. Hence Carlos Eduardo left before the season for an inflated 20 million euros, and Gustavo can go too - so long as he can find a buyer willing to pay a questionable 17 million for him.

"Hopp also had a negative experience in the summer of 2009, when he could have sold Demba Ba to Stuttgart for 10 or 12 million euros,” reminds Jonas Kleinert, a Hoffenheim beat writer for the club’s local newspaper, the Rhein-Neckar Zeitung.

Ba got injured and failed his medical at Stuttgart. “I think the risk that the prices for Eduardo or Gustavo might never be so high, or that they hurt themselves was too much for Hopp - he’d rather take the money."

The SAP billionaire is thus not at all what the traditionalist fans of clubs like Dortmund and Stuttgart have accused him of being in the past - an autocrat owner along the lines of Chelsea’s Roman Abramovich, out to buy success. Or…not quite.

"He actually is the autocrat they say he his," wrote Dirk Steinbach in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung. "But he’s keeping his sights on the balance sheets of the club, and he’s not prepared to force success at any price."

Coaching questions

Hoffenheim coach Marco Pezzaiouli

For now, the top job in Sinsheim is Pezzaiouli's to keep

It would appear too that Hopp is not going to spend any money on a new coach either, having promoted assistant coach Marco Pezzaiouli to the top job - even giving him a contract that runs through 2014.

It’s a plan Smentek thinks might work, considering Hoffenheim’s stated club policy of promoting youngsters.

"He’s mostly worked at the youth level, he coached the German U-17 national team to European title, he’s young - just 42 - and he might fit in well with the club’s philosophy.”

As for Ralf Rangnick, BFBS’s Chapman said, “He’s an excellent coach - he’ll certainly find another job somewhere else."

Indeed he might - perhaps even soon. Rangnick has never made a secret of wanting to coach in England, and rumors have begun to swirl already about his taking over at Liverpool. Now all that needs to happen is for another coach - Roy Hodgson, in this case - to lose his job.

Author: Matt Hermann
Editor: Nicole Goebel

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