The Meteoric Rise of Hoffenheim’s Women’s Team

Most people will be keenly aware of the fact that TSG 1899 Hoffenheim are not a particularly popular team. The brainchild of sugar daddy Dietmar Hopp has enjoyed a rapid rise up the divisions over the last two decades, culminating in their becoming an established Bundesliga side despite hailing from a town whose entire population could fit into Bayern’s Allianz Arena – twice! What most people won’t know, however, is that Hoffenheim’s Frauen (their women’s team) have experienced an equally meteoric – although less controversial – climb up the leagues. They have now reached a level where they can go toe to toe with – and even thoroughly dominate – some of Europe’s biggest names.

Established in 2007, TSG took over and restructured the operation of local powerhouse SG Hoffenheim/St. Leon. However, this was more out of necessity rather than a concerted attempt at getting involved in women’s football. SGH had just won their regional Landesliga, but SGs (Spielgemeinschaften) are grassroots, amateur organizations focused principally on youth development and are thus prohibited from competing in the upper echelons of the pyramid. So Hoffenheim jumped in and gave this extremely talented batch of players the opportunity of continuing their development. And continue their development they did. Under their new name, the team picked up right where they had left off before the merger, storming through the divisions at a ridiculous pace.

After four consecutive promotions – winning the Landesliga, Verbandsliga, Oberliga, and Regionalliga in one fell swoop – their inexorable march was finally halted when they reached the second tier. They were still recording good finishes, but actually achieving promotion from the 2. Bundesliga proved to be a tall order. It wasn’t until season three that Hoffenheim – with the help of Germany’s greatest-ever player, Birgit Prinz, and Japanese international Mana Iwabuchi (now at Arsenal) – reached the promised land.

Unsurprisingly, the Bundesliga was a different beast altogether and Hoffenheim were unable to fully replicate their imperious form of seasons prior. That said, they did manage to survive their first year of top-flight football and subsequently meandered around mid-table. It wasn’t until the 19/20 campaign that TSG truly began making headlines. Spurred on by Austrian markswoman Nicole Billa, who enjoyed her first genuinely prolific Bundesliga season, the Kraichgau outfit really came into their own, finishing in a very impressive third, just five points off runners-up Bayern and twelve ahead of fourth-placed Turbine Potsdam.

This was down to three key factors: savvy recruitment, impressive youth work, and access to the same state-of-the-art training and medical facilities as the men. That 19/20 team was stacked with homegrowns and young players who had to cut their teeth with the reserves first before getting promoted to the senior side. Hoffenheim are utterly prolific in terms of developing and polishing talent. Whether it’s players that get snapped up from so-called ‘lesser leagues’ like Luana Bühler, Katharina Naschenweng, and, of course, Nicole Billa or local-ish prospects such as captain Fabienne Dongus, Tabea Waßmuth (now at Wolfsburg), and Franziska Harsch, TSG’s track record is quite frankly ridiculous.

There’s also the example of Lena Lattwein: picked up from second-tier outfit Saarbrücken, she was nurtured in Sinsheim and matured into a standout Frauen-Bundesliga midfielder who can also deputize in the defense. She’s now plying her trade at Wolfsburg, one of the best women’s sides in the world, as well as being a regular fixture for the German national team. It really is a rarity that Hoffenheim blunder when it comes to transfers.

While 19/20 marked the dawn of a new era – one of relative dominance – it simultaneously spelled the end of one because it was the final season with Jürgen Ehrmann in charge. Ehrmann, working in tandem with Ralf Zwanziger, managing director of the women’s football department, spent more than a decade overseeing the development of the club as they morphed from small, regional talent hub into a household name in the Bundesliga. Ehrmann moved into the role of sporting director while his former assistant, Gabor Gallai, took over head coaching duties. Despite this significant change in leadership, the goal for the upcoming campaign was to consolidate third and qualify for the revamped UEFA Women’s Champions League – which they duly did.

Although the gap to the top two widened substantially – a sign that Hoffenheim still aren’t quite ready to truly challenge the behemoths of the Bundesliga – third place was never really in doubt, even though Potsdam were hot on their heels and enjoyed a surprisingly impressive campaign. Qualification for the Champions League engendered something of a shift in transfer policy. Buying young and promoting from within was and still is, of course, a viable option as evidenced by the signing of Gia Corley, who has done exceptionally well since swapping Munich for Sinsheim, but Hoffenheim made a conscious effort of going out and getting more established, top-level players to replace their departing stars Lattwein, Waßmuth, and Maximiliane Rall, who were all snapped up by the aforementioned big two, Wolfsburg and Bayern.

Reigning Belgian Player of the Year Tine De Caigny was brought in from Anderlecht, Jana Feldkamp joined from Essen, and Petra Kocsán arrived from MTK Hungária off the back of a 16-goal season. While those players are far from old – De Caigny is 24, the other two are 23 – it is a noticeable change compared to what Hoffenheim’s business used to look like. Before, they had what can only be described as an aversion to signing players over the age of 21.

In fact, analyzing their current roster elucidates just how committed they were (and still are) to their scheme of developing talent. 8 of their 23 senior players are what I would categorize as homegrowns – players who have either spent their entire career at the club or who were signed at/before age 16 (you could also add Fabienne Dongus to that category seeing as though she has been there for over a decade now). 11 of their 23 players were signed after 16 but before passing 21. Only four were signed after 21, which obviously includes the trio that arrived this summer; the other one is Luana Bühler, who was 22 when she joined in 2018.

Signing more experienced players has certainly paid off so far in this still-nascent season – De Caigny has already chipped in with two goals and an assist, while Feldkamp has been imperious at the heart of the defense. As last year’s third-placed team, Hoffenheim had to go through a complex and grueling UWCL qualifying series that pitted them against Icelandic champions Valur, AC Milan, and record Damallsvenskan winners Rosengård. After brushing aside Valur and Milan, Gabor Gallai’s side had to travel to Sweden for the first leg of their tie against the powerhouse from Malmö. I was a bit surprised by the media’s portrayal of Hoffenheim as the firm underdogs. Yes, this was Rosengård, a club that has won eleven domestic league titles, but compared to the sides of years past, it was a comparatively weak team, with all due respect.

Hoffenheim showed that there was little to be afraid of and thoroughly dominated the Swedes on their own turf – and Nicole Billa was only a second-half substitute! They ran out 3-0 victors and went into the second leg with a comfortable cushion. The spectators at the Dietmar-Hopp-Stadion in Sinsheim witnessed a similar match, with Hoffenheim really taking it to Rosengård early on. The visitors eventually grew into the game but were mostly limited to half-chances by TSG’s stout defense. Funnily enough, despite conceding three goals, it was actually a really good defensive performance from Hoffenheim. The game finished 3-3 and Hoffenheim advanced to the group stages of the UWCL by a 6-3 aggregate scoreline.

With their focus fully fixed on one competition, Hoffenheim haven’t quite been able to replicate their European panache domestically, but they’ve still managed to start the Frauen-Bundesliga season successfully with two wins from two. Whether they have enough in the tank to actually challenge for silverware this season remains to be seen, but reaching the group stage of the UWCL is already a historic milestone that should be celebrated.

Hoffenheim’s development from provincial minnow to a side that can compete against anyone – they were the only FBL side to beat Bayern last season – has been nothing short of incredible. They are certainly not the most “organic” or popular club, but their meteoric rise has been very impressive to watch nonetheless.

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