Following on from my Easter Saturday visit to Luxembourg, as reported in our last home programme, and before returning to Whaddon Road to see us beat Orient on the Monday, I was in Germany on the Sunday to see Mainz play Hoffenheim. German football loves initials and dates, so to be official, I saw 1. FSV Mainz 05 play TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, that is 1st Fussball und Sport-Verein Mainz 05 against Turn und Sportgemeinschaft 1899 Hoffenheim. The dates 05 and 1899 gives dates of the foundation of the sports clubs (almost certainly sometime before they turned to football – generally the earliest possible date, as the clubs tend to be mergers at some time. Both Sport-Verein and Sportgemeinschaft basically means Sports club, while Mainz add the word Fussball, and Hoffenheim add Turn (meaning at one time, gymnastics were more their thing). In fact, one of the teams in the Mainz combination was founded as a football club in 1905 – quite early for football in Germany – although the use of the prefix 1, is taking a bit of a liberty – there was a club formed in 1903 as well which had gone bust before this one formed. I believe no club in Germany has 2. as a prefix. In Hoffenheim’s case, football was not played until 1921, which is when football was coming to the fore in Germany, and many athletics and gymnastics clubs were taking to the sport.
I have always thought of Mainz as a solid, second division club. This is because I started to watch football on the continent at the end of the 1980s, and Mainz were in the second division then, and managed to avoid changing divisions for 15 seasons. However, historically, that was not the case. Germany only formed a national league in 1963, and Mainz as a moderate team in the regional leagues before that date were not founder members. They did join the second division when it was formed in 1974, but despite two mid-table seasons, they pulled out on financial grounds. So in fact, when I first started to watch in Germany, they were new boys to the second division having won promotion in 1988, they were relegated as season later, returning for the long stay only in 1990. From then on they stayed at the level. I attempted to visit them in 1995, but it was one of those days when it was best to let fate decide. I struggled to achieve the speeds required in driving from the Swiss border in extremely wet weather, and decided to give up the idea somewhere near Stuttgart. I was not in a hurry, really – Mainz had been selected due to its proximity to the Airport, but I was not flying until Monday morning. So, instead of Mainz, I went to Reutlingen, a third division side (situated somewhere near Stuttgart). Oddly, as soon as I stopped the car, the weather front, which I must have been chasing up the motorway passed on ahead of me, and I saw a good game of football in good weather.
In 2004, Mainz surprised everyone and won promotion to the Bundesliga for the first time in their history. Visiting them now became very difficult, as they stayed in the top division for three seasons, and during this time, the stadium was full to capacity more often than not. This season sees them back in the second division, but now with plans to open a new stadium in the near future, I needed to make a trip if I was to ever visit the old one.
By comparison to Mainz, the name Hoffenheim would not have come up back in 1990 – they then played at the seventh level of the German pyramid. By the end of the decade, they had moved up two levels to the Verbandsliga Nordbaden – which meant they were in the listings book published annually by German groundhoppers. At about this time, Dietmar Hopp, who had made a lot of money in the software industry, decided to return to the club where he once played as a youngster. He immediately decided to build a new stadium, good for 5000, which must have been seen as something of a joke in the area – few clubs at that level exceed 100 fans. But Hopp was not content to see the Dietmar Hopp Stadium, (as he named it) lie empty, and he also financed the team, winning the Verbandsliga in 2000, and the Oberliga in 2001. The club had now risen to the Regionalliga Sud, the third division of German football, which is a good level, some teams being professional, others part time, and also including the reserves of some of the biggest top division sides. I went to a game there in 2004, and 2,250 people saw them lose to Augsburg.
Last season, the average crowd at Hoffenheim was about 3,500 and with Hopp’s money, they had a squad that finished second in the league and won promotion. The champions, last season were Wehen – from an even smaller town and also dependent on one man’s finance. Wehen have moved some 10km to Wiesbaden, where a new stadium was quickly erected, and they have played in front of an average just under 9,000 this season. This still leaves Wehen as the third smallest crowd in the division – Hoffenheim have increased capacity to 6,500 and are near full most games, while Paderborn who are also about to open a new stadium struggle at the bottom of the league table and attendance list.
The answer to Hoffenheim’s stadium, as the location of the Dietmar Hopp stadium is such that further expansion is not possible, is now a 30,000 seat stadium in neighbouring Sinsheim. Sinsheim is only about 3 km from Hoffenheim and is a larger town – at least it has a hotel, (I had to stay in Sinsheim when visiting Hoffenheim). You may even be familiar to the place if you have driven down the motorway in that part of Germany, as its transport museum includes some quite large planes parked next to the Autobahn. For Hopp, this is the go-it-alone solution, as other ideas, such as merging the club and moving it 30km to Heidelberg have been rejected. Whether this creates a solution remains to be seen. For the club to survive on its own, it surely needs to exceed 10,000 regular spectators if in the second division, and twice that if it wins promotion to the top league.
Which brings me back to Mainz, on a chilly afternoon which fortunately was dry but for the odd flurry of snow. Repeated phone calls in the week before had found me a ticket in the full stadium, (none were available on the day). The good news is that this costs only €17 (about £14). The bad news is I am in an uncovered corner stand, with the view inhibited by the supporting pillar of another stand. The stadium has clearly been drastically refurbished – but only one stand uses concrete in its construction. All the others, three sides and two corner fill in, are built on top of a maze of scaffolding poles. Only the corner sections have been left uncovered. Mainz are eager to return to the top division, and are third in the division behind leaders, Borussia Moenchengladbach, and visitors TSG Hoffenheim.
In Germany, colours and particularly scarves are still popular, even in the VIP sections, and before the game, everyone raises their scarf for that well known football hymn “You’ll never walk alone”. During the game, there is always a lot of chanting mainly coming from the far end, when they chant “F-S-V”, the rest of the stadium responds “Mainz-0-5”.
Hoffenheim were the stronger side in the first half, with the Ivorian striker Demba Ba being particularly impressive, but also prone to the over theatrical dive. Ba headed in from a corner after 37 minutes, but the referee found fault with it – I have watched the TV replay, but never found the problem, and ‘Kicker’ magazine said it was unexplained. Mainz did better second half, going ahead when a Gunkel took a free kick from the left. Although Spilacek beat Pekovic to the ball, his header went into the net as an own goal. Ba’s diving eventually got him a yellow card a few minutes later – by my reckoning, he should have had more than one, but he stayed on the pitch to turn and shoot low to level the scores after 83 minutes. Hoffenheim’s Hungarian international defender, Zsolt Löw received his second yellow card in the final minutes.