Moneyed upstarts storm German football

Football powerhouses Manchester United and Chelsea FC will meet in Moscow on Wednesday evening in the Champions League final – but could they soon face Teutonic titans TSG Hoffenheim?

Moneyed upstarts storm German football
Dietmar Hopp celebrates with his team. Photo: DPA

What do you get when pump millions of euros into a small amateur football club from a tiny village in Baden-Württemberg? First-class quality German football apparently.

Last weekend, TSG 1899 Hoffenheim were promoted to the Bundesliga after spending only one season in the second division. Prior to that, the club kicked for decades in regional leagues of varying degrees of insignificance.

The club’s meteoric rise began in 1990 after billionaire Dietmar Hopp, co-founder of German software giant SAP, returned as financial benefactor of the side he used to play for as a youth. His money had an almost immediate impact, and now Hopp is being mentioned in the same breath as the extremely wealthy Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich and Italian premier and media mogul Silvio Berlusconi.

The respective owners of England’s Chelsea FC and Italy’s AC Milan are largely reviled throughout the football world for supposedly “buying” success on the pitch, and the 68-year-old Hopp faces the same accusations in Germany for gifting a village of 3,300 souls their very own Bundesliga club.

Hoffenheim, not far from the southwestern city of Heidelberg, will soon have a 30,000-seat stadium to host Germany’s leading football powers including FC Bayern Munich, Schalke 04 and Werder Bremen.

“Hoffenheim versus FC Bayern – that’s a match that will certainly take some getting use to,” said footballing legend Franz Beckenbauer according to German news agency DPA.

And the club, TSG 1899, will travel to matches in Berlin’s grand Olympic stadium and Dortmund’s imposing Westfalenstadion filled with its 80,000 rabid fans.

But Hopp is confident of playing with the big boys: “I think we’re ready. This kind of success can’t come too early.”

So is Germany’s Bundesliga on the verge of becoming like England’s Premier League, a place where clubs have become the must-have plaything of bored billionaires?

It’s not likely unless the German Football League (DFL) suddenly decides to ditch its controversial “50+1” rule that keeps guys like Hopp from owning more than 49 percent of a club. Sure, keeping big spenders boxed out is partly why Bundesliga sides can’t buy the best players from around the globe like English, Italian and Spanish clubs do. But it’s also why going to a Bundesliga match can still be a lot more fun than in many other European leagues.

There might be a few top teams that dominate the Bundesliga, but it’s still far more competitive than the Serie A, La Liga and the Premier League. Stuttgart were champions last year, but they imploded this season. Newly promoted Karlsruhe competed with the Bundesliga’s best for much of season before fading at the end.

And a ticket to see Hertha Berlin in the German capital’s renovated Olympic stadium can go for as little as €10. Compare that to the £26 (€33) for the cheapest tickets for a Man U match next season. Of course, that’s not even considering the fact that you can still buy beer in the stadium in Germany.

Granted, you won’t see the fancy footwork of someone like Christiano Ronaldo in Berlin anytime soon. And German football clearly needs a serious infusion of cash if clubs want to be competitive internationally.

Bayern Munich, which cruised to the league title this season after splashing out €69 million on the likes of Luca Toni and Franck Ribery, were turfed out of the UEFA Cup in the semifinals. So the Bundesliga’s mightiest club can’t even win what is derisively known in Europe as the losers’ cup after spending record amounts of cash on new players.

Hoffenheim’s success could ultimately make German league officials more willing to welcome investors with overflowing coffers like Hopp, who spent €25 million on players last season making the club’s investments second only to Bayern Munich.

And TSG’s coach, Ralf Rangnick, gets prickly when people insinuate his boss bought a top club like Abramovich instead of essentially building something from scratch.

“Any wise guy who makes comparisons to … Chelsea hasn’t figured out that we started out in the third division,” Rangnick, who previously coached Schalke, told DPA.

So who knows – maybe in a few short years Hopp could be joining Abramovich or Manchester’s own billionaire, US businessman Malcolm Glazer, in the VIP box to watch his Teutonic titans take on Chelsea or United in the Champions League final.


Putellas becomes second Spanish footballer in history to win Ballon d’Or

Alexia Putellas of Barcelona and Spain won the women's Ballon d'Or prize on Monday, becoming only the second Spanish-born footballer in history to be considered the best in the world, and claiming a win for Spain after a 61-year wait.

FC Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas poses after being awarded thewomen's Ballon d'Or award.
FC Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas poses after being awarded thewomen's Ballon d'Or award. Photo: FRANCK FIFE / AFP

Putellas is the third winner of the prize, following in the footsteps of Ada Hegerberg, who won the inaugural women’s Ballon d’Or in 2018, and United States World Cup star Megan Rapinoe, winner in 2019.

Putellas captained Barcelona to victory in this year’s Champions League, scoring a penalty in the final as her side hammered Chelsea 4-0 in Gothenburg.

She also won a Spanish league and cup double with Barca, the club she joined as a teenager in 2012, and helped her country qualify for the upcoming Women’s Euro in England.

Her Barcelona and Spain teammate Jennifer Hermoso finished second in the voting, with Sam Kerr of Chelsea and Australia coming in third.

It completes an awards double for Putellas, who in August was named player of the year by European football’s governing body UEFA.

But it’s also a huge win for Spain as it’s the first time in 61 years that a Spanish footballer – male or female – is crowned the world’s best footballer of the year, and only the second time in history a Spaniard wins the Ballon d’Or. 

Former Spanish midfielder Luis Suárez (not the ex Liverpool and Barça player now at Atlético) was the only Spanish-born footballer to win the award in 1960 while at Inter Milan. Argentinian-born Alfredo Di Stefano, the Real Madrid star who took up Spanish citizenship, also won it in 1959.

Who is Alexia Putellas?

Alexia Putellas grew up dreaming of playing for Barcelona and after clinching the treble of league, cup and Champions League last season, her status as a women’s footballing icon was underlined as she claimed the Ballon d’Or on Monday.

Unlike the men’s side, Barca’s women swept the board last term with the 27-year-old, who wears “Alexia” on the back of her shirt, at the forefront, months before Lionel Messi’s emotional departure.

Attacker Putellas, who turns 28 in February, spent her childhood less than an hour’s car journey from the Camp Nou and she made her first trip to the ground from her hometown of Mollet del Valles, for the Barcelona derby on January 6, 2000.

Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas (R) vies with VfL Wolfsburg's German defender Kathrin Hendrich
Putellas plays as a striker for Barça and Spain. GABRIEL BOUYS / POOL / AFP

Exactly 21 years later she became the first woman in the modern era to score in the stadium, against Espanyol. Her name was engraved in the club’s history from that day forward, but her story started much earlier.

She started playing the sport in school, against boys.

“My mum had enough of me coming home with bruises on my legs, so she signed me up at a club so that I stopped playing during break-time,” Putellas said last year.

So, with her parent’s insistence, she joined Sabadell before being signed by Barca’s academy.

“That’s where things got serious… But you couldn’t envisage, with all one’s power, to make a living from football,” she said.

After less than a year with “her” outfit, she moved across town to Espanyol and made her first-team debut in 2010 before losing to Barca in the final of the Copa de la Reina.

She then headed south for a season at Valencia-based club Levante before returning “home” in July 2012, signing for Barcelona just two months after her father’s death.

In her first term there she helped Barca win the league and cup double, winning the award for player of the match in the final of the latter competition.