Monday, March 30, 2009
ESPNsoccernet: April 13, 12:39 PM UK
Germany's greatest village team?
The other day I got offered yet another assignment to write about Hoffenheim for a foreign magazine. The plug, I was told, would be: the greatest village team in the world.
That got me thinking. Are Hoffenheim the greatest village team in the world? In fact, are they even the greatest village team in Germany?
At the moment, yes. But quite a few Germans of a certain generation would contest the idea that there's never been anything remotely like Hoffenheim's rise. They would also point out that Hoffenheim, currently home to some 3,300 people, is a veritable metropolis compared to the original village team that captured the public's imagination. Finally, they would argue that Hoffenheim's patron Dietmar Hopp is not at all a unique figure, rather an up-dated and more monied version of Hannes Ruth.
Hannes Ruth played up font for Kaiserslautern during the war. You won't find his name in stats books, because he was by no means as talented as his team-mates who would shape German football in the 1950s, such as his friend Fritz Walter.
Ruth lived in the town he was born in - Enkenbach, less than ten miles east of Kaiserslautern. Enkenbach wasn't big by anyone's standards, but a lot bigger than the small village right next to it on the other side of the federal highway, Alsenborn.
After the war, Ruth married a woman from Alsenborn. Her family owned the Ullmayer building firm and Ruth went to work for that company. He also went to play for the local team, SV Alsenborn, because the Ullmayer family had been involved in the club ever since it was formed, in 1919.
In 1959, Fritz Walter (captain of Germany's 1954 World Cup winning side and the country's biggest footballing idol) was given his testimonial against Racing Club Paris and finished his career. He spent the next years playing for Kaiserslautern Old Boys and planning to build a house in Otterberg, three miles north of Kaiserslautern.
In 1962, or so goes the story according to Walter, he went to Amsterdam with his friend Hannes Ruth to watch Benfica play Real Madrid. It was probably the greatest European Cup final in history, but talk in the stands suddenly turned to a team representing a village of less than 2,500 people and playing in the 5th division.
Walter's goalkeeper with Kaiserslautern's Old Boys at that time was Willi Hölz, who was also along for the trip. Since Hölz was only 32 at the time, Hannes Ruth told Walter he'd love to lure the keeper over to Alsenborn, where he would play lowly but at least still competitively.
Ruth then said: ''We're building the club like you build a business: we'll start small and become stronger from year to year. Before the others realise what's happening, we'll be ahead of the pack.''
Fritz Walter later wrote about the Alsenborn miracle, and says his original reply to Ruth's vision was: ''Don't you know anything about football? Do you really think things will run smoothly according to some kind of plan?''
But Ruth must have been a man of no little powers of persuasion. By the end of this day, he had planted an idea in Walter's head and had convinced Hölz of joining Alsenborn. By the end of the following day, he had talked Walter into forgetting the house in Otterberg and building one in Alsenborn instead.
Before May was over, Ruth had secured the services of Otto Render, a 36-year-old former Kaiserslautern star who, like Walter and Hölz, was playing for laughs with Kaiserslautern Old Boys. And during the off-season, Ruth would for all practical purposes make Fritz Walter the new Alsenborn coach.
To give you an idea of what this was all about, Walter recalled that one of his first acts in his new post was to change the rules for the team meetings. Previously, they had been held every Thursday in the local pub and had mainly consisted of the players getting plastered behind thick clouds of cigarette and cigar smoke. Walter banned beer, wine and tobacco.
The presence of Walter at the sidelines and some locally known Kaiserslautern veterans on the pitch (at one point, there were seven of them!) made Alsenborn a major draw at home and wherever they went.
But, as if to foretell the Hoffenheim phenomenon, it also made for bad blood, in part simply because Alsenborn dared to do things differently. ''People came in throngs, but not to shower us with praise,'' Walter wrote. ''Instead, they came to see the 'stars' and 'show-offs' who warmed up before a game and whose goalkeeper wore gloves. 'You're actors,' the villagefolk jeered, 'you're film stars!'''
But the film stars could play a bit. They were promoted to the 4th division in 1963 and to the 3rd in 1964. By 1965, Fritz Walter, who held down a full-time job running a cinema, had decided to become less involved and was now referred to as an ''adviser'', while Otto Render was coaching.
On June 13, a 5-2 win over Ludweiler (a borough of Völklingen) in the promotion play-offs took tiny Alsenborn to the Regionalliga South-West. At that time, there were five Regionalligen in Germany, but since the only division above them was the Bundesliga, the 1965 promotion meant Alsenborn had now made it to the second tier of the pyramid.
The club's rise was not down to money. While Ruth was a great wheeler- dealer, he was no cash cow. Walter never saw any money until the 1965 promotion, when he was rewarded for his services of the past three years with 300 Marks (back then, that equalled a mere £28).
Incidentally, this was the same sum an Alsenborn player could now make per month in the Regionalliga.
The lack of remuneration does not seem to have been a problem. In 1966, Alsenborn came 9th. In 1967, they finished 8th. And in 1968, they won the Regionalliga South-West a whopping nine points ahead of Neuendorf and reached the promotion rounds to the Bundesliga for the first time.
On May 26, more than 35,000 fans came out to Ludwigshafen (Alsenborn's own ground was way too small) to see the village team taken on mighty Hertha Berlin. A 25-year-old striker called Lorenz Horr, born in Ludwigshafen, scored twice as Alsenborn won 2-1.
Despite this shocking defeat, Hertha eventually won promotion, Alsenborn finishing a more than respectable third in their group. But the minnows hadn't yet reached the cusp of their rise. One season later, Alsenborn won the Regionalliga again and this time came within a whisker of triumphing in the promotion rounds.
Even the death of coach Otto Render in a car crash a few weeks before the deciding games didn't seem to rattle the players. It was only on the final matchday, when the village team suffered a surprising loss at the hands of Zehlendorf, that their run ended. Alsenborn finished just one point behind Oberhausen, who were promoted.
After that season, Horr went to Hertha Berlin for what was then a record transfer sum in Germany, Fritz Fuchs (later a well-known coach and father of Uwe Fuchs) joined Kaiserslautern and Alban Wüst signed for Schalke. But the dream wasn't over yet.
In 1970, Alsenborn made it to the promotion rounds for the third time running and beat well-known teams such as Tennis Borussia Berlin and VfL Osnabrück. But it was Bielefeld that made it to the Bundesliga, and now Alsenborn lost more and more players to bigger clubs.
The end of the fairytale came in 1973, in a highly suspect manner.
In the wake of the big bribe scandal, the German FA (DFB) announced the formation of a second fully professional league, the 2nd Bundesliga, that was to start in 1974. Of course, teams would qualify for this new league based on their past results, a hurdle Alsenborn would have taken with ease. But there was a hitch. The DFB could withhold a licence for professional football for economic reasons.
And it did so in the case of Alsenborn, claiming the club's general conditions did not meet the requirements.
The ruling caused an uproar, as the village club, once denounced and derided, had become very popular in Germany. Even three years later, the noted sportswriter Wolfgang Tobien would say Alsenborn had been ''taken for a ride by the powers that be''.
Though some of the club representatives the reporter spoke to harboured no ill feelings. ''In the long run,'' vice chairman Eugen Müller told Tobien, ''the 2nd Bundesliga wouldn't have been right for us for financial reasons.''
When he said that, Alsenborn were already back in the fourth division. Today, the team plays in the Kreisliga. Which is the lowest tier.