They tell a nice story at Hoffenheim about how outsiders see the village club with outsized dreams. When the distinguished Brazil international midfielder Luiz Gustavo first went there, a young man with a fine career ahead of him, he apparently asked, after being shown around: “So, where are all the people?”
Just over 3,000 live in Hoffenheim. Over the past decade, football has made the place more than just a pinprick on the map, thanks largely to the generous funding of Dietmar Hopp, a former midfielder from what was then a lowly club who had made a fortune in software.
Hopp’s Hoffenheim rise celebrates a new chapter on Tuesday night, with a first-ever tie in the Uefa Champions League. The five-time European champions Liverpool are the visitors for the first leg of the play-off.
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They will not be asking where all the people are: The 25,000 capacity arena in nearby Sinsheim, where Hoffenheim have played since 2009, will, of course, be full.
Being so small, so short of long traditions and historic cachet, Hoffenheim, first catapulted into the Bundesliga’s top flight only nine years ago, have had be bold to make their impression on German football.
Hopp’s money – his investment, over the last 15 years in the stadium, in players and a training ground runs to over €350 million (Dh1.51 billion) – has been the driver, but Hoffenheim have also been innovative in scouting and cultivating talent.
Luiz Gustavo was an example. A decade after his puzzled landing in a quiet backwater, he has played at Bayern Munich, Wolfsburg and now Marseille, where he never needs to wonder where all the people are.
Liverpool’s stealthy forward Roberto Firmino also made his name at Hoffenheim, who bought the Brazilian as a teenager and sold him for over €30m to the Premier League club two summers ago.
But Hoffenheim’s most notable recent discovery has been their manager. The man who guided them to fourth place in last season’s Bundesliga did so in his first full season in charge of a senior club. He is implausibly young at just 30 years old, and there is a lot in Julian Nagelsmann that reminds Germans of Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp.
Klopp made his name as an unusually young manager in the Bundesliga too, with Mainz and then with Borussia Dortmund, who he led to two league titles and the final of the European Cup. Nagelsmann, who is tall and blond like Klopp, admires the charismatic "Kloppo", as he made clear speaking after Hoffenheim’s weekend win in the German Cup, a narrow 1-0 against third-tier Rot-Weiss Erfurt.
“I really like and respect Jurgen Klopp,” Nagelsmann said. “What I love in any coach is when they actually stand for something, and don’t just go which ever way the wind is blowing. He believes in his ideals and tries to make them work, and he always has the importance of development in his mind.”
Nagelsmann was talking about Klopp’s principles at a testing time for the Liverpool manager. The club say they will make a firm, principled stand on the future of their creative playmaker, Philippe Coutinho, wanted by Barcelona, who have offered €100m. Coutinho has submitted a transfer request. Klopp has said Liverpool will not sell him, although his position in that respect looks harder and harder to maintain, as the transfer window approaches its close.
Nagelsmann will not be preparing to tame Coutinho, unavailable for Tuesady night's leg of this high-stakes joust for a place in the group phase of the Champions League. But the bumptious manager, who has a reputation for meticulous planning, will certainly be preparing to probe Liverpool’s vulnerabilities.
The frailties of Klopp’s side defending from dead-balls was no secret even before Watford scored twice from set-pieces in Saturday’s hectic 3-3 draw against Liverpool to open the Premier League season. And Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim are the Bundesliga’s specialists in that area. A quarter of their league goals – 16 – last season came from set-pieces. No other club scored as many times from dead balls.
“Liverpool are a very strong team,” Nagelsmann said. “But I have some ideas about how we can get the right result."