Exclusive: Hopp breaks down Hoffenheim’s success

TSG Hoffenheim’s billionaire owner Dietmar Hopp will get his wish next season – to see his local team compete with Europe’s royalty in the UEFA Champions League.

At his sun-soaked golf resort near Heidelberg, the club’s meteoric rise, its continued importance to German football or their highly-talented, in-demand 29-year-old coach Julian Nagelsmann, aroused a meek response from Hopp.

However, one topic did spark some vitality from the 77-year-old – Brexit. Rather than exploring the political ramifications for Great Britain, Hopp spoke openly of his concerns for the future of the Premier League and its deep pockets as a result of the vast broadcasting revenues from Sky Sports.

From this year, Premier League clubs will share more than £1.6 billion in TV payouts, an increase of more than 70 per cent on the previous deal.

“You still don’t know how it is going to affect foreign players – foreign players who are coming in and those who are already there,” said the co-founder of the SAP analytics firm in an interview with Fox Sports Asia.

“It’s too early to say whether Brexit was a mistake for the country and what is going to happen from here. Football could be impacted.

“There is another very important point here – Can Sky UK still afford to pump in the type of money that it has done? I don’t want to be negative or sound negative. But there are potential pitfalls and dangers.”

Perhaps unfairly given the strategic nous behind his vision for Hoffenheim, Hopp is seen as the bête noire to supporters of the 50+1 regulation; the German fan ownership model which means the member association must hold more than 50 per cent of voting rights.

The emergence of RB Leipzig, with just 17 paid members, has intensified the backlash towards the eastern German club and Hoffenheim.

Yet as recently as last week, Borussia Dortmund chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke – an obdurate and long-term critic of Hopp’s involvement in the sport – reserved praise for the manner in which he had shaped the club.

But the advocates of 50+1 are increasingly able to point to the demise of clubs like Blackburn Rovers, the former English champions who have suffered hardship under foreign ownership and have dropped as low as League One.

“This is why 50+1 is an advantage and a situation like Blackburn can’t happen with 50+1,” said Hopp.

“Then again, you also have the importance of the European Law. Is this actually still practical? It’s debatable. I don’t think it will be good for football in general, if you have investors who push a lot of money in, then when it isn’t working out, they pull out and the club just sinks. This is the bad side of football.

“However you stand at 50+1 argument, I personally don’t think it will last longer. But that shouldn’t be the decisive factor because you also have other issues that are important. For example, you have Financial Fair Play, which limits investors to what they can put in, and should protect competition. But I have my doubts [about the effectiveness of FFP].”

What Hoffenheim have achieved this season, in their ninth successive Bundesliga season since promotion in 2008, aligns with the essence of Hopp’s vision.

At 77, the software mogul retains the InnovationsLust – literal translation, desire for innovation – which has come to define his success as co-founder and former CEO of SAP. Stylistically and strategically, Hoffenheim are pushing the boundaries.

“Innovation is something bred within me,” he explained.

Hoffenheim are the direct beneficiary from Hopp’s success at SAP; not through financial means per se, but the continued push to be trend setters in the game.

The club already benefits from the Footbonaut; a caged machine at the club’s training centre, which measures reaction speed, perception and high-speed contact with the ball. The Helix, which is a ‘cognitive training unit, developed by SAP, which aims to reproduce the player perspective as realistically as possible’is continuing to keep Hoffenheim ahead of the competition.

Then there’s a software package called SportsOne, also developed by SAP, which allows Hoffenheim to manage scouting, squad planning, training and player development under one digitalised unit. The stamp of Hopp’s ingenuity is all over the club.

This season, in particular, has felt like something of a seminal moment for the Kraichgau club after facing an impossible job of acceptance within German football circles. Nagelsmann has emerged as an artfully strategic coach who turned down an offer at Bayern Munich U19s to continue his acceleration up the ladder in Sinsheim.

Although he was fast-tracked into the position when Huub Stevens stepped down due to illness, Hopp had no doubts about his ability to manage a high-pressure situation with Hoffenheim joint-bottom of the Bundesliga.

“We knew him from U17 and U19, where he did great work and was very successful. He was also the assistant coach for two of our head coaches,” he said.

He has always done great work wherever we have employed him as a coach, so we didn’t see it as a great risk. You have to remember, at that time, we were at a stage where we were nearly relegated.”

Figures for the overall investment vary depending on the source, but Hopp has invested upwards of 350 million euros into the dorfsverein. Where others have failed (and the growing issues at Bayer Leverkusen and Wolfsburg encapsulate the pitfalls of chasing the dream of Champions League football) Hoffenheim are based on solid foundations; 17 years after Hopp started to support the club by financial means.

“We needed a lot and we needed three main things,” Hopp answers when asked how to build a successful football club. “One, is the infrastructure. Two, you have to build an organisation. Third, you have to put together a team that is capable of playing in the Bundesliga and do that over the changeover from third division. The most important factor is that we are getting a large number of players from our academy into the first team.”

Eight of Hoffenheim’s 24-man squad were nurtured, or partly-developed, out of the academy in Zuzenhausen. Sebastian Rudy and Niklas Süle, reared out of the region and polished at Hoffenheim, will move to Bayern Munich this summer.

But there’s no concern for Hopp about the future of the club – the system works. Even if German fans remain ardent opponents to Hoffenheim, Champions League football is vindication for Hopp’s perceptive ideas.

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