Hoffenheim's defeat to Borussia Dortmund on SaturdayF extended their current winless streak to 13 games, a run which has seen them slip from fourth to 16th in the Bundesligaand exit the German Cup.
But as precarious as the situation is on the pitch for head coach Pellegrino Matarazzo, who only replaced Andre Breitenreiter in February, it's off the pitch where the club from the rural Kraichgau region of southwestern Germany has been making headlines.
On March 1, benefactor and majority shareholder Dietmar Hopp announced his decision to give up his majority voting rights in the limited company which operates Hoffenheim's professional men's team and return them to the parent club.
In doing so, Hopp, 82, is voluntarily relinquishing his exemption from the German Football League's (DFL) 50+1 rule and returning majority control of Hoffenheim to the club's approximately 11,000 members.
Dietmar Hopp: 'It was never about power'
Most Bundesliga clubs operate their professional football divisions via separate limited companies, making them more attractive to investors than the democratically run parent clubs. However, DFL regulations stipulate that 50% of the voting shares in these companies – plus one share – remain in the hands of their members, preventing majority takeovers by external entities.
Exemptions are made for investors who can demonstrate that they have supported a club "substantially and uninterruptedly" for 20 years, and apply to Bayer Leverkusen (owned by pharmaceutical giants Bayer), Wolfsburg (Volkswagen) and, since 2015, Hoffenheim – until now.
"It was never about power," Hopp said in an official statement issued by the club.
"We have always conducted ourselves in the spirit of the 50+1 rule, both before and since being made exempt, a privilege I have always viewed an appreciation of my engagement by league and members. The special status afforded to me was never intended to circumvent or undermine the 50+1 rule, of which I have always been an advocate and which has great value in German football."
What does this mean for the 50+1 rule?
Great value for some, but a ball and chain for others.
While advocates insist that the 50+1 rule protects German clubs from the sort of dubious takeovers seen abroad, while encouraging a vibrant, active and engaged fan culture, critics argue that it discourages external investment on a scale necessary to allow German sides to compete with Bayern Munich domestically or top European sides abroad.
After one of the rule's most prominent critics, former Hannover 96 president Martin Kind, failed in an attempt to take majority control of the second division side in February 2018, a move which could have signaled the end of 50+1, the DFL passed a motion to commit to the rule in its current form. It also requested that Germany's Federal Competition Regulator (Bundeskartellamt) review the 50+1 rule to determine its legality.
The Bundeskartellamt returned a preliminary appraisal in May 2021, which found the rule to be "unproblematic" in terms of German competition law. However, it did criticize the exemptions to the rule and demand action, prompting Leverkusen, Wolfsburg and Hoffenheim to write to the DFL voicing concerns over their future status, requesting solidarity from the league and calling for a retention of the status quo.
Current interim DFL chief executives Oliver Leki (SC Freiburg finance director) and Axel Hellmann (Eintracht Frankfurt board member and spokesman) have promised a final decision "early” in 2023. According to German media, a likely solution could see representatives of the parent clubs given permanent seats on company boards in order to exert more control, with a further stipulation that the financial accounts of exempt clubs be naturally balanced and losses not simply covered by owners.
Whatever is decided, Hoffenheim have already felt the consequences, with Hopp in his statement referring to the whole process as the reason for him "wanting to relinquish the special status afforded to me."
Asked what effect Hopp's decision could have on the remaining two exemptions, Bayer Leverkusen Chief Executive Fernando Carro told the DPA news agency "It is an individual decision by Mr. Hopp and TSG Hoffenheim which won't alter the current ongoing process or its necessity. We are confident that the topic will soon be dealt with satisfactorily for all involved."
What does this mean for Hoffenheim?
Even with Hoffenheim once again part of the 50+1 fold, the club is unlikely to regain popularity among supporters of rival clubs, whose objections have been based less on the legitimate – if unpopular – exemption from 50+1 but more on the fact that Hoffenheim owes its very place in the Bundesliga to disproportionate financial backing not available to other clubs.
This remains the case, even if net revenue from transfers has made Hoffenheim more self-sufficient in recent years. The sales of Joelinton (€44 million, $46.7 million) to Newcastle United), Kerem Demirbay (€32 million to Bayer Leverkusen), Nico Schulz (€25 million to Borussia Dortmund) and most recently Georginio Rutter (€28 million to Leeds United) are among the most prominent examples in recent years.
The treatment of critical opposition supporters by Hoffenheim has also damaged relations. They reached a nadir when a Hoffenheim home game against Bayern Munich in February 2020 ended in a bizarre truce after traveling Bayern supporters aimed insults at Hopp in solidarity with Borussia Dortmund and Cologne counterparts who had been subjected to controversial private legal pursuit.
Accusations of 'nepotism' and 'incompetence'
But while external criticism of Hoffenheim is nothing new, internal criticism is – and that has been mounting in recent weeks as results on the pitch have plummeted. Ahead of the recent home defeat to Bayer Leverkusen (1-3), the club's hardcore ultras, Young Boyz 07, used their prematch flyer to accuse Hopp and the club management of "nepotism" and "incompetence."
"Like in the colosseum in Ancient Rome, Dietmar Hopp raises or lowers his thumb as if deciding whether a gladiator should live or die," they wrote, referring among other things to the dismissal in 2021 of former CEO Dr. Peter Görlich, who, along with sporting director Alexander Rosen, had been responsible for the promotion of Julian Nagelsmann to head coach in 2016.
German media reported at the time that Görlich had fallen out with Hopp over the influence of player agent Roger Wittmann who, through his agency ROGON, had been responsible for dozens of Hoffenheim transfers, some more successful than others.
"Shouldn't the sporting director have the final say on such decisions? How many good ideas have been hindered by Dietmar Hopp's ego?" asked the ultras, claiming furthermore that at least one player had told them that the team felt affected by the "permanent distractions" off the pitch.
Current CEO Jan Mayer countered the claims, telling the local Heilbronner Stimme newspaper: "We're just as disappointed as the fans, and of course they're allowed to criticize. But the criticism should at least have a grain of truth."
Hoffenheim on a new course
Less disputable is the fans' sentiment that their club's identity as the Bundesliga's self-styled Dorfverein, or "village club" has been diluted in favor of a new marketing strategy, as attendance figures fall.
This season, the Pre Zero Arena, situated just off the A6 autobahn, has only been half full for the visits of Borussia Dortmund or Bayern Munich, an indication that the locals may be more interested in the visitors than the home team.
"Topics such as recycling, carbon neutrality or the club's engagements in Africa are all well and good, yet so omnipresent that the actual football seems an afterthought," the ultras wrote.
"Have they managed to attract a single new fan with this strategy? The likes and follows [on social media] may have increased but the half-empty stadium every two weeks gives a clear answer. Once the pride of our region, our club is barely recognizable."
Kicker magazine reached a similar conclusion this week, writing: "Like a stricken battleship, Hoffenheim are drifting through the fog in stormy waters, with neither course nor compass."
By relinquishing majority control, Dietmar Hopp has now set Hoffenheim on a new course. Only time will tell where it leads, or what long-term effect it will have on German football's ownership model.
Edited by Chuck Penfold.