Officially, it’s prohibited. Still, Stefan Orth decides to couchsurf through Iran, thereby getting to know a country that doesn’t fit its image of a rogue state.
10:30 A.M. in Zuzenhausen is a still life. Bushes and trees are bent over the little river Elsenz. On the opposite bank stands the town hall, built in the pragmatic style of the post-war years, its wall painted a bright blue. Not even the flags in front of the entrance door, black-red-gold and white-red striped, are stirring. Every few minutes, a car rolls down the main road, usually going so slowly as if it wanted to blend into this absence of movement. A few pensioners walk by, always on their own, never in a hurry, often with a walker. There’s a sign screwed to the bright wall of the town hall. It says, “Recognize what’s right, do what’s good.”
Everybody in Germany knows this village: Zuzenhausen. Except, most people don’t know they do.
Zuzenhausen is home to the first and only village club in the Bundesliga (German football league). People believe Hoffenheim is the Bundesliga village. But in fact, since 2009, the club has resided in Zuzenhausen, four kilometers from Hoffenheim, half an hour outside of Heidelberg. Acquaintances from the world of football had often recounted their trips to Zuzenhausen with an affectionate smile, such as Rob Moore, a football agent who works all around the world. He described his ride on the S5 (a tram line) from Heidelberg to Zuzenhausen like an adventure trip, “I missed the stop because I couldn’t believe I was already there. All I saw was blooming meadows and an empty street!” In the papers, I contemplated a picture of Brazil’s national coach Luiz Felipe Scolari strolling through Zuzenhausen with an ice cream cone in his hand, which, in turn, made me smile with affection. Felipão, the Great Felipe, the world champion trainer from 2002, comes from Brazil to Europe, in order to visit a potential Brazilian international, and lands in Zuzenhausen.
From then on, Zuzenhausen somewhat became a place of yearning for me.
What kind of a village was it? What’s it like for a village when all of a sudden a modern Bundesliga club, one of the leading entertainment enterprises of the republic, with all its high-tuned training infrastructure, with all its medial interest, lands on the lawn next door? I needed to find out.
The sign to Dietmar-Hopp-Sportpark, the training and administration center of TSG 1899, is just as big as any other sign in Zuzenhausen, be it the sign to the driving school Osswald or to the dog obedience school. Whether you go there by car or tram, before the sports park comes into sight, one passes another place, the secret heart of village life: the gas station. In villages, the gas station isn’t just a place where you put gas in your car, it’s a local hangout. You say hi, you stay a minute to chat, or you stay bit longer to have a beer or eat a knackwurst. Which is why the people working at the gas station don’t seem surprised when I reach the gas station in Zuzenhausen on foot.
Hastily, I fasten my eyes on the assortment of newspapers because it suddenly feels awkward, being a gas station tourist. Appearing to be focused, I go through the choice of newspapers until my fear of contact has vanished. In order to buy something, I grab a chocolate bar, not a newspaper, and start to chat with the woman who works behind the register. She speaks in a wonderfully soft voice and with a slight East-European accent. She’s not from Zuzenhausen.
“Is there a café here in town?”, I ask.
“You can get a coffee here.”
“Ahm, thanks, but what I meant was a café where you can, ahm, actually sit down?”
She thinks for a minute.
“There’s a bakery. But, I’m not sure if they have seating.”
Some villages were lucky enough that they eventually became a point of destination several hundred years ago: a market- and merchant place to which people from the area flocked. These lucky villages had a natural center, the marketplace. However, most villages came into being because they were at the side of the road, en route from one city to the next. You can still tell today that they developed along the main road, which is rarely picturesque.
Also in Zuzenhausen, plain restaurants named Bierbrunnen with half-lowered blinds next to bleak houses line up along the B45 (federal highway). But then you take a sharp turn and enter the real heart of the village. Single timbered houses which were built beside the stream, a farm that is still in operation stands in second row, the old schoolhouse is a real gem, 150 years old, sandstone-colored, with large windows and high apple trees in front of the door.
I have a meeting with the mayor at 8:30. Dieter Steinbrenner, who has his head shaved, which not only makes him look striking at 65, but also younger, clearly enjoys his work. He’s been the mayor since 1998, working full-time, which is an accomplishment for a small village like Zuzenhausen; that it has remained autonomous, that it can afford a full-time mayor, with 2,000 inhabitants.
“2,200,” Dieter Steinbrenner gently corrects me. “If you’re as small as we are you can still count those hundreds.”
He represents the CDU (conservative German party), but his party affiliation isn’t mentioned in the newspaper article about his latest election victory. Because it’s not important. Because he’s bigger than his party in Zuzenhausen. Last election, 97 percent voted for him.
When Steinbrenner was born in Zuzenhausen, fields shaped the landscape. Primarily, tobacco was grown. In the 90s, when smoking was officially declared unhealthy and the government cancelled its aid for tobacco farming, Zuzenhausen became a residential municipality. Heidelberg, Mannheim and Walldorf, where SAP has its headquarters, are close enough for commuting.
In the first scenes of the documentary “Das Leben ist kein Heimspiel” (Life is Not a Home Match) by Rouven Rech about the ascent of TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, one can still see the picturesque willows with crooked wooden stakes, of which several had to make room for the developing area. So, if the village at 10:30 A.M. is a still life, it’s not so much a sign of desertedness, but a hint at how well-off Zuzenhausen is: people here are off at work.
While Steinbrenner, in his pleasant and polite manner, gives a lecture on Zuzenhausen, I, for a moment, succumb to the illusion of visiting a boomtown, “Well, I can say, we’re easily accessible”, “We’ve always had 500 to 700 jobs in town”. And in saying so, the mayor certainly isn’t exaggerating. Except, these achievements aren’t graspable, I think, once I’m out on the quiet road again. All of a sudden, behind the magnificent old schoolhouse, a familiar plopping sound disrupts the silence. I listen carefully. The plopping sound instantly brings back exciting memories of my youth. And, sure enough, there it is again: plop. Why does it come from the north? The training center of TSG Hoffenheim is located in the south of the village.
But, in Zuzenhausen, the football rolls in all cardinal directions. One, two streets behind the old schoolhouse there’s another football field, the youth academy of TSG Hoffenheim for junior players. And that’s where you hear the plop! once a foot kicks the ball with both vehemence and sensitivity. A youth team of TSG Hoffenheim is playing a test match against the FSV Offenbach/Pfalz, 14-year-olds who are allowed to play football at eleven o’clock on a Wednesday morning. It’s the holidays. Numerous parents of the away team have accompanied their children; after all, a football match against Hoffenheim is an event. Even if it’s only U-16.
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“The DFB has bound every professional club to run a youth academy.”
“Else, we wouldn’t even stand a chance against the English with all their money.”
“And against the Spanish, they run that on the basis of debt.”
“The Italians carried out their cup finale in China.”
“Who cut Dustin’s hair?”
“We had it cut that short so it would last until school starts again.”
“I don’t know, somehow the haircut looks good on Dustin, somehow it doesn’t.”
“Did you get the Email from the coach? Because I didn’t.”
“I did. Maybe it landed in your spam folder?”“
“You must delete spam.”
“But, one of my Emails once landed in the spam folder.”
“Check and delete, that’s the only way.”
“Sometimes spam mail blocks the computer.”
“When you can’t open anything, that’s a sign for me.”
“Then you must call the police.”
After the half-time whistle, a little boy runs onto the field, beaming, in order to hand the U-16 player with the number 21 from Hoffenheim – who is obviously his big brother– a water bottle. Irritated, his brother shoos him away. Gosh, it’s embarrassing to have a little brother, and now he has to run onto the field in front of all these people! At 14, everything is embarrassing.
To Mayor Steinbrenner, having the Hoffenheimer football pros here is “like hitting the jackpot.” Although they already had a much better football club than TSG 1899 in their village. The FC Zuzenhausen always played “one or two leagues above Hoffenheim,” Steinbrenner tells me. That was before SAP co-founder Dietmar Hopp started investing in his home club and Hoffenheim moved up from the Kreisliga (district league) into the Bundesliga. However, Hopp, when he was a U-19 player, changed clubs as a young football amateur from TSG 1899 to FC Zuzenhausen, because they had the better team.
That just as a footnote.
When Hoffenheim ascended into the Bundesliga in 2008, the club was still looking for an adequate training and administration center. The district town Sinsheim, where also the stadium was built, was under discussion, Hoffenheim itself, of course, Heidelberg, and even moving to Mannheim and a subsequent name change were considered. Mayor Steinbrenner wanted to convince Dietmar Hopp of Schloss Agnestal, a mansion in need of restoration. Schloss Agnestal, which is located a little outside of Zuzenhausen and which was erected in the Baroque style in the 18th century by the noble family von Venningen, last served as a discotheque named Schlössle.
“At a late hour, when there was nothing else going on, one went to the Schlössle. There was always something going on there,” the mayor says, who, of course, also frequented the disco Schlössle. “We of Zuzenhausen felt it was our obligation: no matter how late it was at night, one had to swing by for a nightcap.” But discotheques rarely survive several generations because the kids have to distance themselves from their parents by going to different clubs. Around 2005, the Schlössle shut down. Only the window panes were still frequented at night; as targets for the young people who, out of boredom, threw rocks at the glass. Dietmar Hopp thankfully declined the mansion as a location for his Bundesliga club. “But then we got help from Ralf Rangnick,” Steinbrenner says.
The coach, who had been responsible for the ascent of TSG 1899 into the Bundesliga, wanted a training center far away from any excitement. Rangnick saw the mansion, the willows, the village road and pushed through that TSG 1899 came to Zuzenhausen.
I leave the village going south, past single-family homes, up a hill and there it is, before me, in a beautiful suddenness, as if it had been uprooted from a big city and planted right here in the meadows: the training and administration center. Grass fields as far as the eye can reach, modern structures of glass and chrome seamlessly attach to the mansion, which underwent extensive renovation, a gigantic high-tech football machine named Footbonaut for technique training. The training center forms a nice contrast to the rural setting: it makes it very apparent why it’s so quaint that this place, a village, belongs to the football Bundesliga.
The ascent of TSG Hoffenheim into the Bundesliga didn’t happen without hue and cry: people were outraged, a millionaire who with his money bought a random club into the Bundesliga, what a test tube project. A club full of moneybags, without the heartbeats of a thousand fans, that was the beginning of the end of real football.
Those reflexes were to be expected.
Because the football love of real fans doesn’t come without hate.
On the other hand, it was astonishing that Hoffenheim wasn’t viewed in a more differentiated way. As Dietmar Hopp had basically just made the daydream of every amateur football player come true: to possess so much money that nothing else mattered and that one could bring one’s own little village club, Germania Schwanheim, TSG Sprockhövel, FC Alte Haide, into the Bundesliga.
Seven years down the road, TSG Hoffenheim no longer causes such a flurry. Even now, when the club is in danger of relegation, the rest of the country rarely feels malice but indifference. People have gotten used to TSG Hoffenheim. However, out on the sports field I still feel this is an unusual place for football: the absence of noise, of masses of people, instead a view over green hills. The modes of behavior are still those of any other professional club: the players of the second league must park in front of the security gate, outside the training center. The professional players get to drive all the way to the door.
Kevin Volland, Hoffenheim’s team captain and model forward, is already wearing shorts and a jersey when we sit down for our interview. Training starts in one hour. Volland isn’t sure if there’s even a player who lives in Zuzenhausen; he believes not, but he will check with the spokesman. No, currently not. Volland himself first lived in Rauenberg for several years, on the other side of the A6 (autobahn). Last summer, he moved to Heidelberg, like most of the players of TSG Hoffenheim.
“In Heidelberg, I can walk to a café. But in Rauenberg there was only the supermarket. And the gas station.”
The departure of goalkeeper Tom Starke was much to his regret, says Mayor Steinbrenner. Starke moved from TSG Hoffenheim to FC Bayern München. As their third goalkeeper. In Zuzenhausen, he was Hoffenheim’s only player who lived there. He was involved in the elementary school’s parents’ council and helped out at kindergarten festivities.
Sometimes, the inhabitants of Zuzenhausen can see the football professionals jogging along the little river. Occasionally, a few players go out for lunch at a local inn called Brauerei-Gasthof, and at the Christmas market, players from the Bosnian national team will sell sausages in the booth of the countrywomen. The points of contact between the village and its club are brief. But, the fact that one rarely catches a glimpse of the football pros in town only heightens the feeling of enchantment when strolling through Zuzenhausen:
The idea that, any minute, a national player might pop up at this gas station to grab a coffee is nicer and much more peculiar than watching him refuel and quickly drive on.
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Translation by Kate Weyerer