TSG 1899 Hoffenheim 4 FC Köln 0 (3rd Dec 2016)
I’ve seen a fair few football grounds from the window of a plane, but Hoffenheim’s is the first I’ve seen from the windows of Concorde. True, Concorde wasn’t actually flying at the time, being perched on the roof (alongside the ill-fated Tupolev 144 “Concordski”, among others) of the Sinsheim Auto & Technical museum, just a five-minute walk from Hoffenheim’s Rhein-Neckar Arena.
It is a fine museum, even if the choice of location, in the small out-of-the-way town of Sinsheim is a little surprising. Even more surprising, to anyone who doesn’t know the background story, is that the area is also host to a team from a small village a few miles up the road, who were in the 8th tier in the 90s, and the 5th at the start of the millennium, who now play in a 30000 seat stadium in the Bundesliga.
In the 1970s, Dietmar Hopp, a former youth player of the Hoffenheim village team, decided to opt for a career in software instead. He’s now a billionaire, and his company, SAP, are apparently the 4th largest software company in the world. Around the year 2000, he decided to back his former club financially, aiding their rise up the leagues.
Hoffenheim’s hill-top ground got an upgrade, and by the mid 2000s was smart little 6500 capacity place. It would be the envy of most 5th tier English clubs, and many League Two ones as well, almost ideal for the third tier football they found themselves in. Hopp had bigger ambitions though, and wanted to build a team for the whole region – a sizeable catchment area with the nearest club of note (Karlsruher) being 40 miles away, and the nearest bigger clubs, Stuttgart and Kaiserslautern, more like 60.
With plans to merge clubs and play in Heidelberg thwarted, he opted to build a new ground in Sinsheim, a few miles down the road from Hoffenheim, instead. While some might applaud such generosity, it definitely got under the skin of many fans in Germany, where clubs are typically fan-owned member clubs, rather than the toys of rich men. Going from the 3rd tier to the 1st in straight seasons caused the resentment to grow, and referring to them as TSG €18.99 Hoffenheim became common.
While it’s easy to see why fans of established clubs having to live within their means would feel Hoffenheim’s rise is unfair, there’s no doubt that so far they have succeeded in creating a team for the region.
As it is, their lowest average in their nine Bundesliga seasons so far has been 26000, yet with a total population of just 16000 between them, the towns of Hoffenheim and Sinsheim alone would only just half-fill the Rhein-Neckar Arena. Given that their highest average two years earlier in the third tier was 3000, it would be easy to ask which clubs all those fans were supporting back then, as they clearly weren’t trekking up the hill to the Dietmar Hopp Stadion in Hoffenheim. That they are now wearing the blue of Hoffenheim now though is, to me at least, more important.
While Germany has sadly caught the bug for new more-or-less single tier bowl stadiums, they have at least managed to inject a little style to shake off the bland uniformity that makes English equivalents so dull. OK, maybe going a bright sunny day helped, but the Rhein-Neckar Arena, with a lightness an intricacy with the roof, and a style to the double-tier executive boxes of the main stand, meant details draw you attention away from the samey-ness of the seats on three sides. It also helps that the away corner and the home end are “safe standing” areas, effectively adding a terrace look to an all-seated ground.
Hoffenheim were also in my good books for refunding a ticket I bought by mistake online, somehow purchasing a ticket for a game for week earlier than planned. Maybe they were generous because I’d purchased (for this intended game) one of the worst seats in the house, being right next to a tv gantry, blocking the view of a quarter of a pitch. Luckily, being in the least popular end of the ground, I could just move along a find a better seat – one that didn’t provide me with a view of concrete to my right. In fairness, the edge of the tv gantry to make a good makeshift table for my beer and currywurst & chips pre-game meal, but I still prefer to see all of the pitch.
One of the things surprising about German football is the complete lack of restriction over who buys a ticket, and where. One consequence of this is that if the away team has more fans than the official designated away section holds, they just buy tickets for the surrounding home blocks, en masse, and nobody seems remotely bothered. The section to my left should have been for Hoffenheim fans, but when the Köln fans rose, scarves aloft, to sing their traditional fan hymn, it was clear the whole corner section was a sea of red. Rather than being annoyed, many of the home fans chose to film it instead on their phones. To be fair, it is quite a good song.
Köln’s fans would go on to win the singing battle all game against the disappointingly subdued home support, who only got going in fleeting moments, but that was about the only thing that went right for them all afternoon.
Both teams are having decent seasons in the top half of the Bundesliga. In fact, Hoffenheim are still unbeaten, and although neither team quite lived-up to their top-half billing, Köln were considerably more off the pace. Hoffenheim got off to a great start, going ahead after just eight minutes. A back post header from a corner was tipped onto the crossbar, but the Köln defenders stood and watched as Sandro Wagner nipped in to tuck in the rebound from three yards.
From there, Köln probably had their best spell of the game. Ex-Hoffenheim striker, Anthony Modeste, chipped a good chance over the bar, before another good chance was wasted, with a shot being stroked the wrong side of a gaping near post. A third good chance, this time a crossed ball was side-footed wide at the back post, to complete a hat-trick of missed equalisers.
If Köln fans were beginning to think it wasn’t their day, the point was hammered home shortly after. A defence splitting pass put Hoffenheim in behind the defence, and the ball was slid past the keeper for 2-0 after 39 minutes.
In truth, the only big difference between the two teams in the first half was finishing, but it was as if Köln took the field for the 2nd half looking to make their performance match their deficit. It’s not that they gave up. It was more that they seemed to content to sit on a 0-2 scoreline. Any hopes of doing even that were dashed when Wagner headed his second of the game, heading a set piece back across the keep for 3-0.
The Köln fans sung loudly in defiance, knowing the game was over. Unfortunately it wasn’t quite completely over. With the Köln team seemingly already mentally back in the dressing room, thinking about the bollocking they were going to get for this heavy defeat, a nicely worked move pushed the ball out wide, and when it was crossed in low to the near post, it was no surprise a Hoffenheim boot got their first. 4-0 in the last minute, which really was the last minute, with the ref seemingly deciding that injury time would be pointless, a blowing as soon as he could.
4-0. A great day for those in blue, but not such a great one for those in red, drifting away from the Rhein-Neckar Arena, with the moon and Venus shining away in the cloudless night sky above, shuffling past the museum towards the S-Bahn. I’ve seen Köln play twice now, and both games have ended in 4-0 home wins. They’d no doubt hope that if I see them again, it’ll be back at the RheinEnergie rather than the Rhein-Neckar stadium next time.
As for Hoffenheim, I know they are one of those clubs that “proper” fans are supposed to dislike, but everything about them, the surprisingly decent stadium, the way they play, the way they’ve opened up support for a whole region, being a friendly place, and not least some interesting surrounds for once for a new ground, make me view them sympathetically. If others choose to disagree, that’s up to them.