Many German football fans groaned when Hoffenheim just managed to escape relegation last season. Now the challenge for the team everyone loves to hate is to reverse their recent downward spiral.
Not everyone is assiduous about keeping his personal website up-to-date, but the faux pas to be found at www.tim-wiese.de is pretty crass. There the former Germany keeper, who’s still under contract with Hoffenheim, answers a question as to his remaining sporting ambitions with: "Win a German title with Bremen."
One thing’s for sure: Wiese’s not going to win that title with Hoffenheim any time soon. Brought in last season on what was rumored to be around three million euros a year to spark a run at European competition, Wiese failed to deliver on the pitch, got embroiled in a series of scandals off it and ended up watching matches from the stands.
This summer, he and other high-priced flops have been shunted off to an unprecedented "training unit B" – players Hoffenheim considers too disruptive to morale to train with the rest of the squad. There they wait to move elsewhere, quarantined white elephants, until some other squad agrees to take on their inflated contracts – or they agree to pay cuts to make themselves more attractive on the market.
The irony of the experiment is obvious: Hoffenheim are trying to restore a sense of team spirit by dividing the squad into good guys and bad guys. Extreme measures, though, are called for after a season in which the club lost million euros assembling a squad that was supposed to storm into Europe and instead ran through three coaches and only avoided relegation by the narrowest of margins.
Now, low-profile coach Markus Gisdol is charged with steering the Hoff in a new direction. The question remains: Which one?
What to do at the top?
The "Gymnastics and Sporting Association 1899 Hoffenheim," to cite the team’s misleadingly old-fashioned-sounding full name, is a bit like a mountain climber who’s scaled nearly to the top of the tallest peak around, only to discover that he doesn’t know what he’s doing on such slippery ground at such a severe elevation.
For three seasons, from 2006 to 2009, Hoffenheim was feted as a Cinderella as the team went from the third division to the top of the Bundesliga, ahead of Bayern, over the winter break. Since then, though, they’ve been reviled as an unholy monster - an artificial corporate creation whose rise was solely down to mighty checkbook of their patron, billionaire software entrepreneur Dietmar Hopp.
But for all the flak Hopp catches as someone whose riches threaten the competitive fairness of the beautiful game, it was his insistence that Hoffenheim operate at a profit which triggered the slide that almost landed the team in the second-division last season. In 2011, the architect of Hoffenheim’s promotions - coach Ralf Rangnick - abruptly quit when the club sold off midfielder Luiz Gustavo to Bayern against his will.
Hoffenheim is now on its sixth coach and fourth sports director since then. What Rangnick no doubt knew when he bolted from the small southern German town of Sinsheim, where the Hoff makes its home, is that the team depended on luring other club’s young talents with out-of-scale wages in order to make up for its own lack of an established youth program.
Without Rangnick’s guiding hand, the quality of Hoffenheim’s signings declined to the point where, last season, the squad was little more than a pack of quarreling, affronted divas. Fans were turned off – average home attendance declined by nearly 2000 despite the excitement that comes with a relegation battle. Supporters complained that some squad members didn’t seem to care about the club, but in a way that was understandable.
Hoffenheim had gotten what they paid for.
Building on the Houdini act
If Hoffenheim are to break out of their current malaise, they may want to look back at the end of last season. On April 2, Gisdol - a former youth coach at Hoffenheim - took over the top job with the team in second-to-last and with nary a hope of escaping the drop. The Hoff would finish the season with a jaw-dropping 67 goals conceded - dead last in the Bundesliga.
With 75 minutes gone on the final day, Hoffenheim were 1-0 down in Dortmund and had only created a single clear chance in a match they had to win to stay up. Then, the impossible happened. Dortmund gifted Hoffenheim a pair of penalties, and the visitors managed not to concede for a change.
That meant the hated Houdinis squeaked into the end-of-season playoff, where their superior individual quality proved too much for second-division Kaiserslautern.
In retrospect Gisdol deserves credit for switching the focus from expected results to playing solid football. That seems to have taken enough pressure from his players for them to seize the opportunity when it presented itself. And Sejad Salihovic, the man who converted both of those crucial penalties, showed that some loyalty to the club did exist. The Bosnian playmaker has been with Hoffenheim since 2006 - the longest of anyone in the squad.
Time for rejuvenation
The fact that Gisdol is a former youth coach suggests that the Hoffenheim pendulum has swung back toward young talents, and the squad has a couple of fine ones to build around. Forward Kevin Volland - barely out of his teens - was the only new acquisition last season to live up to hopes, scoring a respectable six goals. And maddeningly inconsistent 21-year-old Brazilian midfielder Roberto Firmino is the sort of player who could be ready for a quantum leap if and when he matures.
In any case, Hoffenheim may not have any options other than reviving their youth kick. The exaggerated salaries the club handed out in seasons past will make it hard for the Hoff to shift their dead weight. And any potential quality transfer targets are going to think twice about moving to Sinsheim after last season’s festival of farce.
But Gisdol and Hoffenheim may want, of their own free will, to forgo high-profile transfers for a while. If they need to be reminded why, all they have to do is go visit Tim Wiese as he leads the B-team through its bizarre training ritual.