Bundesliga Buzz: Hoffenheim’s rise and the reasons for their success

German flag graphic for "Frauen-Bundesliga Buzz" by Helene Sophie Altgelt

TSG Hoffenheim were not a household name to many women’s football fans for a long time until they suddenly went from a mid-table Frauen Bundesliga club to a Champions League side.

In fact, Hoffenheim didn’t even have a women’s team until 2007. Now, 14 years later, they play on Europe’s biggest stage.

To the surprise of many, they beat Swedish runners-up Rosengard in the UWCL qualification, scoring six goals across two legs. In a group of death with the reigning champions Barcelona, plus Arsenal, they have little chances to reach the quarterfinals. Nevertheless, they impressed many with their empathic 5-0 win against HG Køge. How did this rapid rise happen?

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A rapid rise to the top

It may have taken until 2007 for Hoffenheim to form. women’s team, but when they did, they were serious.

After overtaking the players and youth teams of two local clubs, they got promoted four years in a row. By 2010, they played in Germany’s second tier, the 2. Frauen Bundesliga. Three years later, they had arrived in the Frauen Bundesliga.

Establishing themselves in the highest league was perhaps the biggest challenge on their way to the top. The gap between 2. and 1. Frauen Bundesliga is not to be underestimated.

Many promoted teams have struggled with the increased intensity, speed and physicality. So did Hoffenheim, but after a tough 2013/14 season, they finished ninth and avoided relegation. 

From a mid-table club to the UWCL

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It first looked like Hoffenheim would become a normal mid-table club. The side from a village with only 3,000 inhabitants finished sixth, eighth seventh, eighth and sixth in the following years. 

The next year, in 2019/20, to the surprise of many, they made the jump to third place.

Three different teams – Potsdam, Frankfurt, and Freiburg – have claimed this spot in the last couple of years. So finishing third once by no means meant that they were already a serious competitor for Bayern Munich and Wolfsburg.

However, the club could convince their best players of staying instead of taking the next step somewhere else. Isabella Hartig and Tabea Waßmuth both racked up 12 goals and Nicole Billa scored 18, but despite having offers from bigger clubs, they didn’t leave. 

Last season, they proved their success wasn’t a one-time-wonder, by qualifying for the UWCL and beating Bayern. Even though they seemed to face a difficult season, having lost top players, they managed to beat Wolfsburg.

Within 14 years, Hoffenheim went from playing against the likes of TSG HD Rohrbach, SC Klinge Seckach, and ASV Hagsfeld II, to facing Barcelona in the Champions League. What are the reasons for this extraordinary rise?

The reasons for Hoffenheim’s success

The three main factors for Hoffenheim’s success are a professional infrastructure, good scouting and consistency. These three key ideas go hand in hand. However, none of this would have been possible without considerable financial support.

Money, money, money…

The first and most obvious reason is financial backing from the club. Without the necessary resources, the club couldn’t have hired analysts, coaches, and constructed a modern training centre for the academy. 

A women’s team to polish Hoffenheim’s reputation?

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TSG Hoffenheim is supported by the corporation SAP, the world’s largest non-American software company by revenue. This has earned them the unflattering reputation of being a ‘plastic club’ – a club that is nothing more than a marketing project.

That’s why Hoffenheim have tried to improve their reputation for quite some time by supporting social projects, sustainability – and women’s football. While some in the club may genuinely care about women’s football, it is likely that polishing Hoffenheim’s image was one of the aims too. 

Support from the club doesn’t mean the women’s department has unlimited resources, though. They still have a budget, and it’s much smaller than that of Bayern or Wolfsburg.

Hoffenheim’s rise is a good example of how much can be achieved with little means.

Professional infrastructure

Hoffenheim started building a training centre just for the women’s teams in 2009.

The first team was still in the third tier back then. Having well-maintained pitches, a roofed turf pitch for the winter, a physiotherapy room and training rooms is not a matter of course in the third league. Neither is it in the Frauen Bundesliga, where most teams can only dream of Hoffenheim’s facilities. 

Ideal opportunities to thrive in Hoffenheim

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At St. Leon-Rot, youth and senior players can combine football and education. The club cooperates with four schools and four universities in the region to help them to find a balance. Youth players go to the training centre after school and Hoffenheim provides tutors to help them with their schoolwork. This attracts players from other clubs and promotes the development of young players. 

Hoffenheim are also more professional than most Frauen Bundesliga clubs when it comes to the staff. Among the nine members of the staff, there is Birgit Prinz, three-time FIFA player of the year.

Retired as a striker, she is now working as Hoffenheim’s sport psychologist for the men’s, women’s, and academy teams. Having a psychologist on the team is also a rarity in the Frauen Bundesliga, which can give Hoffenheim a mental advantage. 

Excellent scouting

No matter how modern the training centre is, it would be of no use if it was not combined with good scouting. Hoffenheim have several junior national players that came up from their academy or were scouted as teenagers. 

Young players can develop in Hoffenheim’s second team

A key factor for their development is Hoffenheim’s second team. Competing in the 2. Frauen Bundesliga, the team consists almost entirely of academy players. The step from youth teams to senior level is a difficult one, and many talents struggle to adapt to the higher intensity, speed and physicality.

In the second team, Hoffenheim’s future stars have ideal opportunities to thrive. They get enough playing time and experience on a high level while training with the first team.

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There are several examples proving that this way works well. Jule Brand, probably Hoffenheim’s most exciting offensive player, joined the club when she was 15. Goalkeeper Martina Tufekovic, who recently impressed in the UWCL, has even been at Hoffenheim since 2009. 

Playing time and experience for talents

At Wolfsburg and Bayern München, the breakthrough into the first team is very difficult, which is why many of their promising talents go on loan or join other clubs. In Hoffenheim, players like Gia Corley are more likely to get a chance.

The talented 19-year-old No.10 made the move from Bayern to Hoffenheim this summer to become a starter there and develop further. The move seems to pay off, as she is on the way to becoming one of Hoffenheim’s most important players. In an interview this summer, she said:

“I am very happy that I took the step and switched to TSG. I’ve settled in really well, the team fits, the team behind the team also fits and I feel totally valued here. I’m really looking forward to the rest of my time at Hoffenheim, because I feel good all around.”

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It’s a win-win situation for Hoffenheim and Corley. The club gets a technically gifted player that has received an excellent football education, while she gains experience and the chance to prove herself. 

Looking at Hoffenheim’s squad, it is obvious that they are targeting the Austrian and Swiss league, as they have six players from these countries.

Hoffenheim seems like the perfect environment for them because they can make the step to a stronger league and are not too far away from their home country. The strategy has proven to be successful – and Nicole Billa and Katharina Naschenweng are now standout players.

Continuity and consistency

Last but not least, Hoffenheim prioritised continuity and solid development over rapid success. They developed a concept ten years ago and stuck to their plan, even if they didn’t seem to progress for some years.

Their head of women’s football, Ralf Zwanziger, has been in charge since 2008. Until 2020, Hoffenheim had the same coach, Jürgen Ehrmann, for 12 years and went all the way up with him. Ehrmann did not leave because he was fired, but because he had a second job and he wanted Hoffenheim to have a coach who could fully focus on the team.

Instead of looking for a high-profile coach, Hoffenheim appointed former assistand Gabor Gallai and gave him a contract until 2025. According to Ehrmann, Gallai was “involved in developing the concept for the team and he maintains our playing style.”

A unique playing style

Hoffenheim’s playing style has not changed very much over the years and they stayed true to their philosophy. Gabor Gallai’s side is known for always playing out from the back, patiently passing and creating space, overloading the left wing with Naschenweng and Brand and defending as a collective.

Hoffenheim have also scored two goals after set pieces against both Freiburg and Frankfurt. 

However, as they play with a high backline, they leave space for their opponent. The matches against Bayern and Arsenal have shown the limits of this young team. When they play against a team that has a solid defense and players who find and exploit the spaces, Hoffenheim struggle.

The next step for Hoffenheim

If they can continue their good development of the last few years, however, there is nothing to prevent them from becoming a real top team. The next step for the team would be to become fully professional.

As for now, most players have a part-time job or study, unlike in Bayern or Wolfsburg. This would allow them to fully realise their potential and consolidate their status as one of Germany’s three top teams.

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