Pushed over the edge when Brazilian midfielder Luiz Gustavo was sold to Bayern Munich without his knowledge during the winter break, Ralf Rangnick’s decision to walk away from the Hoffenheim coaching hot seat undeniably augurs ill for the south-western club’s future.
Hoffenheim may have lost the man who, after taking over in 2006, needed just two years to steer them from the third tier to the top flight and then turned them into a respectable Bundesliga force with seventh and 11th finishes, but even more alarming for supporters is the subtext to his departure: the drying up of the sugar-daddy funds which bankrolled this fascinating rags-to-riches story.
After pumping in £200million since 2006, billionaire backer and software tycoon Dietmar Hopp has suddenly become a fan of balanced books and is taking a leaf from the financial fair-play lexicon of UEFA chief Michel Platini. Hopp now insists that the operating losses of the last few seasons are a thing of the past.
The once cash-rich upstarts have morphed into a selling club, offloading Gustavo, Brazilian playmaker Carlos Eduardo to Rubin Kazan for £14m last summer and Demba Ba to West Ham United in the recent transfer window for a fee that could reach £6m.
In autumn 2008, when Hoffenheim led the Bundesliga at the halfway point in their first campaign, Hopp’s vision for a club he used to play up front for in the youth team knew no bounds. Shooting for the moon was the order of the day, and too bad if traditionalist critics lambasted them for their nouveau-riche ways and lack of footballing heritage.
But with the economic wheels now coming off, and ex-general manager Jan Schindelmeiser in the dock for allegedly handing out too many overly generous contracts to players, the gold rush has ground to a halt and Hopp seems content to count his blessings – such as Hoffenheim’s elite status and the new Rhein-Neckar-Arena and training complex.
“Realistically the only goal we have is to be part of the Bundesliga,” says 70-year-old Hopp. “The important issue is to remain in the top flight. Of course, I wouldn’t refuse the title or a spot in the Champions League, but they are not our primary objectives.”
Hoffenheim are not only on shaky ground financially; by downgrading their ambitions they will find it more difficult to attract the young and thrusting talent on which they have built success, while supporters could quickly become disaffected. Although not in immediate danger of demotion, they are on the slide and it may be harder to shift out of reverse than Hopp and his management team believe.
Certainly new coach Marco Pezzaiuoli has much to prove. Brought in as Rangnick’s number two last summer, the 42-year-old has next to no experience in charge of a professional club: just a handful of games with lower-league Karlsruhe and Eintracht Trier. And while he did excellent work with several Germany youth squads, notably winning the European Under-17 title in 2009, there have to be legitimate questions as to his suitability at this level.
The one bright spot in the south-west is the remarkable form of Black Forest club Freiburg, who back in August were everybody’s tip for relegation but now sit pretty in sixth place. What they lack in budget – at £12.8m, theirs is the smallest in the top flight – and big names, they more than compensate with coach Robin Dutt’s tactical nous and the finishing of Senegal striker Papiss Cisse (see Six of the Best, page 66), who has scored over half their league goals this term.
Most unfashionable clubs would erect a statue in honour of the boss who, against all odds, had led them as high as second in the table – but not at Hannover, where general manager Jorg Schmadtke has not wasted an opportunity to minimise Mirko Slomka’s part in the club’s totally unexpected rise to prominence.
Slomka had, understandably, been in two minds about staying, but eventually signed a contract keeping him at the club until 2013, saying: “I’m staying out of a deep conviction. The team has developed fantastically and I want to build on that.”