By Ryan Fleming
Coming off the field just past 8:30 p.m. on May 23rd, the players of TSG Hoffenheim lifted their heads finishing an entertaining 3-2 win over FC Schalke coming from behind on two separate occasions on the last match of the season. Sure, the win was nice, but the real reason for such a positive aura is that they were alive, alive in the league that took them so long to reach.
Despite being on the top of the table at the winter break (35 points), ahead of German powerhouses like Bayern Munich and Werder Bremen, the forever-underdog team began struggling, not because of its play but because of the injuries that began to engulf the team. Ten players went down with injuries including Hoffenheim’s leading scorer, Vedad Ibisevic. During a friendly match against Hamburg (in the midst of winter break), the 24-year old tore his anterior cruciate ligament, sinking the hopes and dreams of his teammates and supporters in one swift motion.
The injury kept Ibisevic out for the rest of the year but the importance Hoffenheim puts on his shoulders is still recognized. Just days after the season ended Hoffenheim extended Ibisevic’s contract through 2012 – hoping the striker returns to the form he maintained prior to the injury.
To Hoffenheim and the small village of 3,200 that it represents, each goal means much more than a just a means to victory, but another chance and survival in a place where for so long even evaded their dreams.
Just over 20 years ago Hoffenheim was buried deep Germany’s eighth division, obviously having no real hopes of ever making it to the Bundesliga. Then, just like that, everything changed. Dietmar Hopp grew up in Hoffenheim and played for its youth team in the 1950s. Today he’s worth over $8 billion and fortunate for his hometown team, he likes them … a lot. Since 1989 Hopp has invested over $135 million into club, rejuvenating its players and supporters. Hoffenheim has a brand new, state-of-the-art stadium, the Rhein-Neckar-Arena, that holds just over 30,000, a significant upgrade from the old park that held just 6,500.
In Germany, clubs can’t be owned privately, so Hopp doesn’t own the team or is he involved with them in anyway.
In 2006, Hoffenheim wanted to procure players with Bundesliga experience and a manger that had experience within the league. The club hired Ralf Rangnick, former manager of VfB Stuttgart, Hannover 96 and Schalke 04. Hoffenheim, in a remarkable effort remained in the Bundesliga 2 for only one year, finishing in second place and automatically receiving promotion.
So, after Carlos Eduardo scored the winner on a penalty in the 89th minute, Eduardo and his teammates had a reason for being proud – they did it. They didn’t finish at the top of the table, they didn’t qualify for European play but they remained in one of Europe’s best leagues for another year.
With the success of Hoffenheim lately, I say to their supporters, continue to dream.
Ryan Fleming is a contributing writer and editor for The Soccer Guys. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.