Hoffenheim is one of the Cinderella clubs in modern football. Based in a community of about 3,000 people, the club has risen within five years from the German Fourth Division football to the UEFA Champions League, living with a budget that defies understanding in a game where money rules.
It is one of those fairy tale stories that push the romantic to want to start dreaming of what can be achieved when the heart, body and soul are in a project.
In recent times, the League Management Company (LMC), which is the Nigerian equivalent of the German Football League (DFL), have been preaching community ownership of clubs, where football enthusiasts and investors from a given city can pull resources together to run lucrative teams.
This way, the LMC believes clubs would have the power and/or freedom to decide the way they want to go.
This model, according to the LMC, would ensure that the clubs are free from political influence and the tendency by government to appoint stooges, who in most cases know little about sports management, as heads of the government-owned clubs.
Although not many Nigerians seem to understand how the community ownership of clubs works, the Hoffenheim example clearly spells out what happens when people pull resources together to drive a given cause in organised societies.
The Chief Executive Officer of Hoffenheim, Dr. Peter Gorlich, told a visiting group of African journalists sponsored by satellite broadcasting outfit, StarTimes, to observe how the Bundesliga works, that the Hoffenheim example is a clear indication that a determined and passionate people, no matter how little their resources are, can achieve great heights if they put their collective energy into that project.
He said: “From the beginning, we had a very clear idea about football and the business behind or beside football. We enter every season with a very clear business plan… We know what we need from the transfer market and exactly what we will get from the television rights and the rest is a free flowing capital for us, and then we can make quick decisions. But all our focus is on what will benefit us.
“Our history is completely different from Borussia Dortmund or Bayern Munich, but we have our own way that has worked for us. At the end, we compete against all the big clubs and to be successful, we must manage our resources well.”
The team is based in a community of 3,000, yet, it has a stadium that can accommodate over 30,000. And the stadium is almost always filled to capacity. How can that be?
Gorlich explained that even though Hoffenheim FC is in a small village, the club has been able to spread its appeal to all the cities in its region, adding: “We are in a region of over 600,000 people. We had to create something special to make our people interested in the club.
“We had to create a brand new infrastructure for the people in the region and also for the development of football, because we had the opportunity to build not only a brand new infrastructure, but also a new history and a new way of thinking for youths endowed for professional football. That is the club’s USP (Unique Selling Point).
“We look on one part a little bit different from Dortmund and Bayern, but at the end, we are in the same competition. We believe we can develop football in every region under different cultural influences if we have a good strategy.
“We played for the first time in the Europa League last year and now we are in the Champions League, where we want to stay forever.”
Gorlich revealled that Hoffenheim has developed community-based projects that ensure that members of the region, young and old, always identified with the club one way or the other.
“We have so many programmes for small kids and young children. We have the Hoff club, which is our own mascot, where we create holidays, summer camps and football schools, kick and read and so many special things for our fans.
“The kids don’t only come to play football, but they also come to read books together and play games together.
“We have our own Hoff Express, which organises so many things in the region, not only during matches, but also during the week. We have alliances with companies in this region to give them that sense of belonging that makes them feel they are part of the club.”
Gorlich believes that a club does not have to have huge money to compete favourably in the game, adding, however, that the purpose must be clear from the onset.
“Football clubs derive their revenues from television, endorsements, fans and transfer fees. And then we have about 20 per cent of sponsorship. The focus is on television revenue. We have been progressing every year in the business sense.”
In Europe, teams like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, etc, are in debts, but that is not so with Bundesliga clubs.
Gorlich explained why it is so: “We do it in a very serious way. At the end, it is a business model. Clubs have to choose to continue their businesses in the right way without running into trouble. You need some business skills, otherwise you run into trouble.
“For us, we cannot buy high-cost players, like Ronaldo or Neymar, so we have to develop our own players. This is much more sustainable for us.”
Gorlich said other serious-minded clubs could replicate the Hoffenheim story if they have stable football governing bodies, noting: “We have the very good situation that we have a very crazy investor in Hoffenheim, a very emotional alumnus of the club, Dietmar Hoff. Apart from that, we had the challenge to develop a clear business model. He wanted to build something for the future and not only for the moment. So, we already know what the things we do now will bring to us in the next five years or so.
“At the moment, we have a good youth development structure, which gives us good quality players. But that is only one step. You need talented players in the first team; therefore, you need a good coach, who is interested in developing players and not concerned with his own personal success.
“This is a good situation for us. We are now in the Champions League and we have the challenge of making the youth players better than they were in the last five years. The challenge in the Champions League is much higher than in the Bundesliga that we have to ensure we have 18 year olds who are better than anyone we have had in the last five years.”
Playing in big competitions also come with its own peculiar problems, including advances from bigger teams that want to poach their players. But Gorlich thinks it is a good problem to have. “We have to fight to keep our players here to avoid losing them to bigger clubs. We do not only want to keep them here, but also to keep them mentally here. Even when we are selling we ensure we have adequate replacements.
“We also have a policy of developing players, who end up bringing money to the club. One good example is Roberto Firmino, who fetched us more than €40 million.”
Gorlich advises African leagues and teams to adopt administrative patterns that best suit their situations.
He adds: “I think the best is to build youth leagues and create competitions for age groups. It is the biggest special thing that Germany has done by starting youth leagues that churn out young players. Then you can develop players with the right mentality. You also need good coaches, who earn good money because they have influence on the players.
“Africa has so many opportunities and a very good pool of young players. But the challenge Africa must surmount is to keep the players in Africa more. Then, they must find a way of improving the technical aspect of African football.
“We know that African players are good physically. They are so fast, but they are lacking in the socialisation process. We want not only fast players, but we also want tactical and technical players. The German teams are looking for complete players, not only fast players.
“They want players with open minds and very quick brains in match situations. Our experience with African players is that we have to give them time to develop in a new country and a new culture, a new way of thinking.
“We are a little different from Premiership or Italian clubs, as we want the boys to play football all the time. They have to do things around the ball beside the physical situations they can develop.”
He reveals that Hoffenheim is working with the DFL to increase its presence in Africa. This has been a difficult project, but according to Gorlich, there are encouraging signs from the small interventions already done in some parts of Africa.
“Together with the DFL we set up the first football schools in Namibia and South Africa. But these are small steps. We have to look for real partnerships that want to work with us in the new idea of football from the Hoffenheim philosophy.
“After that, we can talk about the fan base in Africa. We will like to make some money from shirt sales in Africa, but this is not the most important thing to us. We want to give something from these things we learnt in the last few years in youth development and bring them to Africa. That is our focus for now.”
Also speaking on Hoffenheim’s rapid rise in German football, Sebastian Becker, who is in charge of the club’s football education, says the team is built on a strong combination of youth development, education of the players and giving back to the society.
According to Becker, “We have time to ensure that every single player has a degree that he can hang on to after his career. We focus on the individual development on and off the pitch. Our academy has a holistic and innovative curriculum involving the soccer school and personal development. We have developed more than 64 professional players since 2006. Our main focus is on the development of our talents, but once in a while, we have youth players from abroad and other parts of Germany.”
Apart from the senior team, Becker explains that Hoffenheim has youth sides every step of the way.
He says, “We have about 52 matches a year in the youth stadiums, from the U-9s to the U-19s. The team has about five training pitches for the different teams. “The U-23s is the last step to the professional league. We bring the U-9s to U-13s in every two days to give them additional training, but the first real academy stars from the U-12s. The first officials contract starts from the U-16s, who also sign the educational contract.
“We try to teach the youngsters the TSG mentality. We try to teach them authenticity, how to behave the same way, learn to control themselves and be able to express themselves and resilience, they have to go the full hug.
“They have to know how to manage all the different parts of their lives, home work, training, family life etc. They have to motivate themselves.”
Hoffenheim, according to Becker, have six different partner schools that meet the needs of each of their players individually. They also have media classes, which teach the boys how to relate with journalists.”
While it is seen as a very efficient way of getting and managing club’s resources, many Nigerian stakeholders believe the Hoffenheim way cannot work in the country because of the nation’s peculiar situation.
Chairman of Mountain of Fire Ministries’ Sports Club, owners of MFM Football Club, Godwin Enakhena, said it would take a miracle for the system to work in the country.
“There is hunger in the land. Members of the communities are looking for money to do roads, feed their families and the rate of joblessness in our country is such that people have more pressing needs. The last thing an average Nigerian can think of now is to put money in a football club when there is hardly anything working here.
“The American system has provided everything for its citizens and therefore it can ask the citizens to think of what they can do for America. But that is not so in Nigeria. People will rather sit in pubs to watch the EPL on television than to invest in clubs where they are not sure of the returns at the end of the day,” he said.
Although Enugu Rangers’ General Manager, Davidson Owumi, agrees that it could work, he, however, believes it is only possible given certain conditions.
He says, “The truth is that the government must provide the necessary facilities.
“Communal ownership is what is prevalent all over the world. Arsenal, Manchester United, Tottenham and many other clubs are owned by ordinary people and not governments.
“At a time in Nigeria, Raccah Rovers, Asabatex and even Enugu Rangers were owned and run by private individuals.
“So, if it well-coordinated, Enugu Rangers can draw its membership from those living around Enugu and then expand to other neighbouring communities.
“But there must be viable and stable football culture for it to work. The league managers must make fans and investors believe in the system. When there is a good football structure and defined policies that would be very constant, peoples’ interest will grow in the game. But followership is reduced because of inconsistent policies.
“When the competition is not even, policies are not constant, people will lose interest in the game. A situation, where today we have 20 teams, tomorrow 28 and such unstable situations cannot help communal ownership of clubs.
“I am saying that I believe in the growth of football in Nigeria. I am not criticising anybody. What I am saying is that things must be done right for the communal ownership of clubs to thrive.”
To Akwa United Chairman, Paul Bassey, Nigeria is not ripe for community ownership of clubs in whatever guise. The veteran journalist confessed that he was among those who believed that government had no business owning clubs until he became a club manager.
He asks: “How many people, either in a community or as individuals can spend N4 million in one match?
“I spend close to that amount to prosecute a match in Maiduguri. We fly from from Uyo to Abuja and from there to Maiduguri. I do the same when we are going to Kano, Kwara and other far-flung venues.
“The problem is systemic because the economy is in a terrible shape and you cannot remove football from the economic realities of Nigeria.
“The league has not started because there is no economic back up. Since SuperSport pulled out of sponsorship, clubs are not getting anything from sponsors. I commend Ifeanyi Ubah, Go Round FC for their efforts.”
He argued that an economy that cannot guarantee N30,000 minimum wage for workers cannot sustain community ownership of clubs.
“What is the earning power of the average Nigerian? With government football sponsorship is a social service. The clubs make no money from either gate takings or jersey sales.
“Akwa United cannot fill the stadium even against Enyimba. We struggled to sell 3,000 shirts last season and 90 per cent of the clubs has no shirt branding. The economy does not support it. The top companies cannot do anything because they are battling for survival.”