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Sports

Hoffenheim must pull together or risk total disintegration

German Bundesliga side Hoffenheim got off to a wretched start to the season. And many German soccer fans are relishing the prospect of them going down - precisely because of the nature of their past ascent.

Hoffenheim could be on the verge of falling victim to the club's own recipe for quick success.

Yesterday's darlings lost 4-0 to both a fourth-division team in the German Cup and then to newly promoted Frankfurt at home.

Ryan Babel must be pretty pleased. In the final days of August, the Dutch winger took the unusual step of buying out the remaining three years of his contract with Hoffenheim, facilitating a return to Ajax Amsterdam.

Referee Thorsten Kinhöfer (l) shows Hoffenheim's Ryan Babel a red card in last season's Bundesliga game against Hertha Berlin in May.

Ryan Babel was so keen to get out of Sinsheim that he dipped into his own pockets

It's been a long time since Ajax was one of European football's hotspots. So things must have been pretty bad in Southern Germany from Babel's perspective for him to pay to be able to return to the Eredivisie.

By bolting, Babel spared himself any involvement in the humiliation of getting crushed twice in a row in matches in which his former teammates looked as though they simply gave up.

Ironically, the man whose head is now nearing the chopping block is the Dutchman's near namesake, coach Markus Babbel. A less than compelling performance against fellow southern German strugglers Freiburg on Sunday would likely mean the end for the former Bayern Munich and Liverpool standout.

It will be an intriguing clash. Freiburg are a relatively cash-strapped outfit known for  a long history, passionate supporters and a squad of homegrown players willing to eat dirt for the team colors. In other words, they're the exact opposite of Hoffenheim.

Artificial insemination?

In the eyes of many German football fans, Hoffenheim is a Retortenverein, a derogative term loosely translatable as “test-tube team.” The club's traditional-sounding full name, TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, inadvertently calls attention to the fact that it was originally a gymnastics association that didn't even have a football squad. And Bayern Munich Chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge once sarcastically asked: “If this club was founded in 1899, how come no one ever heard of them for a hundred years?”

Dietmar Hopp

Dietmar Hopp's SAP fortune helped Hoffenheim leap up the leagues

There's some truth to this. Hoffenheim may not have been bred in some laboratory, but it is the result of massive cash infusions from a single patron, software billionaire Dietmar Hopp.

At the start of the millennium, Hopp's money in hand, Hoffenheim began playing premium wages and marching up divisions. With the arrival of Ralf Rangnick as coach in 2006, the club pulled off the unique feat of getting promoted twice in two years, from the third to the first division, and spending the winter break atop the table in their debut season in the Bundesliga.

In some respects, the style of football they played presaged that of current champs Dortmund.

The village club that was taking on the big boys and winning proved an irresistible storyline for sportswriters in late 2008.

But it was a myth.

Hoffenheim may be merely a district of the small city of Sinsheim (pop. 35,000), but Hopp - a co-founder of the SAP software multinational - was luring big-city talent to his footballing province with inflationary salaries.

His employees' sense of identification with the club was commensurately weak.

Several Hoffenheim players celebrate a goal against Hamburg in a Bundesliga match last season

Can the Bundesliga's in vitro outfit find some togetherness and team spirit?

Hoffenheim were unable to maintain their form in 2009 and finished seventh. In 2010, Hopp called for the club to start balancing the books, and Rangnick resigned. Since then the team has lacked direction, running through three coaches and three sports directors. Babbel currently hold both posts. The team finished eleventh in each of the past three seasons.

The performers that took Hoffenheim to the summit of German football are long gone. Demba Ba is now wowing Premier League crowds in Newcastle, while Vedad Ibisevic, who scored 18 goals in the first half of the 2008-9 season, forced a transfer to Stuttgart last winter.

Unrealistic goals?

Markus Babbel is a coach who stylizes himself less as a tactical mastermind than an apostle of old-school footballing virtues and someone who knows what it takes to win. Multiple Bundesliga, German Cup and UEFA Cup titles from his playing days lend credibility to that image.

Having been appointed in the middle of last season, his task this campaign was to get Hoffenheim contending for international competition. Verbally, Babbel came out swinging, declaring that his side had more talent than any club in Germany other than Dortmund or Bayern.

Pronouncements like that are things of the past - at the very latest since Babbel saw his squad reduce itself to nine men and then get pummeled by Frankfurt in their second league match of the season. It was a sad spectacle, vaguely reminiscent of one of Mike Tyson's later fights - only there was no opponent's ear to bite off to put a premature end to the beating.

Hoffenheim coach Markus Babbel directs from the touchline

Babbel is no stranger to clubs with a legacy and success, though he's not at one just now

On paper, Hoffenheim should be at least decent in attack. Strikers Eren Derdiyok and Joselu, late of Bayer Leverkusen and Real Madrid Castilla respectively, are promising players, and if focused, Roberto Firmino and Sejad Salihovic are dangerous midfielders.

But Hoffenheim look vulnerable at the back, and they lack any natural team leader. None of the regular players on their current roster came up through the club's own youth ranks. And in the summer, Hoffenheim swapped Tom Starke for Tim Wiese in goal.

On paper this move looked like an improvement, since Wiese is a former German national and a veteran of international competitions, but it's also a risk. Starke was by all accounts a clubhouse leader, whereas Wiese has the reputation of being something of a prima donna and is prone to the odd spectacular gaffe.

After two games, in any case, Hoffenheim sat seventeenth in the table with a minus-five goal difference. Only the fact that Stuttgart got absolutely hammered by Bayern Munich two weeks ago stood between Hoffenheim and dead last.

Hoffenheim can forget about Europe in the medium term and concentrate on mere survival in the top flight. And it is anyone's guess whether a “test-tube” team, many of whose players likely came to the club in the hopes of attracting attention and moving elsewhere, have the stomach for a season-long relegation battle.