The man who bankrolled Hoffenheim to the Bundesliga has become the object of such anger, that he has been repeatedly depicted in the crosshairs of a sniper’s rifle. Why is the 79-year-old such a figure of hate?
Who is Dietmar Hopp?
Dietmar Hopp is a very successful German entrepreneur. After graduating from university as a certified engineer, Hopp worked for several years as a software developer and system consultant at IBM. In 1972, he and four associates set out on their own, founding the SAP software company, where he served as chairman from 1988 to 1998. SAP would eventually become the world’s third-largest IT group after Microsoft and Oracle.
Hopp retired from the company in 2003, but as he still holds 5.52 percent of the shares in SAP, which is Germany’s biggest in terms of market value. The 79-year-old is a billionaire several times over and is one of Germany’s richest men.
In 1995, he established the Dietmar Hopp Foundation, which has made some €600 million ($664 million) in charitable donations, mainly in the fields of sport, medicine, education and social services. The foundation’s activities are concentrated in the Kraichgau region of southwestern Germany, where Hopp was born and resides.
What does Hopp have to do with the German Football League?
Hopp is best known for his involvement in TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, which he played for in his younger days, when it was still an amateur club and nobody beyond the Kraichgau region had yet heard of it. It was Hopp’s heavy investment in what was then a village club that saw it gain promotion from the eighth to the third tier of German football between 1990 and 2001.
In 2005, Hopp began really pumping money into the club as part of his plan to get it to the Bundesliga. A major part of that plan was his hiring of current RB Leipzig sporting director Ralf Rangnick as head coach. With Hopp’s financial clout, Rangnick was given access to players that no other team in the league could have afforded and under his guidance, Hoffenheim gained promotion to the second division in 2007 and the Bundesliga in 2008. Apart from bankrolling the roster, Hopp also built two stadiums and a modern training center. In total, Hopp is believed to have invested more than €350 million in the club. However, in part due to income from selling players, Hoffenheim haven’t been reliant on Hopp’s cash for several years.
What makes the opposing fans so angry?
Ultras and fans of other clubs reject Hopp as someone who has bought sporting success. Part of the reason he has been able to do so is that he was able to gain an exemption from German football’s 50+1 rule, which is designed to prevent a single investor from holding a majority share of any club.
For his detractors, Hopp personifies the commercialization of football. They see Hoffenheim as an artificial construct, which takes a Bundesliga spot away from other clubs with a longer professional history.
The fans of Borussia Dortmund have been particularly outspoken in their criticism of Hopp. It was in 2008 that some of them first displayed a banner with Hopp’s likeness in the crosshairs of a sniper’s rifle. BVB CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke sounded the warning against what he termed “test-tube clubs” and called on the German Football League (DFL), which operates the Bundesliga, to investigate Hoffenheim.
The conflict reached a new level in 2011 when it was discovered that during a match in Hoffenheim, visiting Dortmund fans had been subjected to artificial background noise piped in through the public address system. The idea was to drown out any chanting against Hopp. It was reported that a single club employee had been behind the move, but Hopp’s critics accused him of secretly supporting it. Anti-Hopp banners have been seen and chants heard at virtually every game between the two clubs ever since.
Why were there so many protests this past weekend?
This past weekend saw a number of anti-Hopp banners displayed, with the fans actually criticizing what they see as a breach of promise by the German FA (DFB) after it imposed a two-year ban on Dortmund fans attending matches in Hoffenheim over the repeated display of anti-Hopp banners. Then-DFB President Reinhard Grindel had pledged in 2017 to end collective punishments of fans over things like the unauthorized firing off of flares inside stadiums, although this was never formally adopted as a policy by the German FA.
One of the weekend’s protests saw Bayern ultras unfurl banners in Hoffenheim, one of which used a term that translates as “son of a bitch”. This came late in the game, with Bayern up 6-0. Bayern players and officials approached the corner of the stadium where the banners had been unfurled to try to get the supporters to take them down. The referee led the teams off the pitch, as part of the DFB’s three-point plan for dealing with abuse inside stadiums. When the game resumed, the players of both teams effectively went on strike for the last 13 minutes, passing the ball back and forth between them in the center circle.
Is a solution in sight?
No. If anything positions are hardening. Fearful of appearing to be ‘paper tigers’, the DFB and DFL have gradually been cracking down on any misbehavior in stadiums.
At Sunday’s game between Union Berlin and Wolfsburg, the first of the three-step plan was invoked, when the Union fans displayed a rather harmless banner, which didn’t personally insult Hopp. The game was suspended while an announcement was made over the PA system. Shortly before the halftime break, the Ultras unfurled another banner — this time with Hopp in the crosshairs and a personal insult to the Hoffenheim investor. The referee invoked step two and led the teams off the pitch. The game was only finished after a further appeal over the PA system and a warning that any further incident would lead to its cancellation.
The two sides are becoming increasingly entrenched; while the fans feel they are being criminalized and even put on the level of terrorists, the DFB and DFL are no longer willing to tolerate insulting banners and critical expressions of opinion. Talks aimed at resolving the conflict between the DFL, DFB and the supporters were broken off by the fans in late summer 2018. While the DFB and DFL want to see their premium product, the Bundesliga, run smoothly, the fans — especially those who see themselves as guardians of the true football culture — want their concerns heard and to be accepted as equal partners as opposed to just paying consumers.