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Official Review by Tarek Zohdi, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
Once upon a time there was a tiny inconspicuous football club from a little village in the south of Germany playing with negligible success. After another relegation, this time to the eighth division, a retired player of the club decided that something had to be done. Luckily, the former striker co-founded a company two decades earlier, that has turned into one of the world’s largest software corporations with an annual 14 billion € in revenue. Bit by bit, he invested in the club and built a new stadium for the team. And after the club was promoted to the second division he even built another, yet bigger stadium. Then…
Well, then the fairy tale suddenly comes to an end as the last part hasn’t been written yet. We don’t know how the story turns out, whether the journey will have a happy or tragic ending. But we do know the main characters. The village club is TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, the little village is the district of the 35,000 population town of Sinsheim. The former striker of the club is Dietmar Hopp. The company the billionaire co-founded is known as SAP, market leader in enterprise application software.
You have to admit, there is something romantic about this story. Who hasn’t dreamed about leading his own youth or hobby team into the country’s first division? Well, this man actually did it. And just to point it out once again, he is not a random billionaire, who has been looking for a new toy in another country. Neither has the club been bought by one of the countless investment companies or foundations which burden the club with debts that derived from the acquisition. Just ask the many once independent clubs of the Premier League how that works out.
But where there’s success, there’s envy. The club is not accepted among the other clubs’ fans to say the least. They accuse the club of missing tradition in particular. Unfortunately, Hoffenheim reacted rather disastrously to recurring catcalls. In 2011 abuses towards patron Hopp were counter attacked with high frequency sounds by a device that was installed under the area of the visiting fans in the stadium.
On the pitch, the club managed to steadily promote one division after another until they reached the coveted first division in 2008. The club even managed to lead the league tables after the first half of their very first Bundesliga season in winter 2008. During this time the club played what arguably could have been described as the best football the league has ever seen until then. Players like Chinedu Obasi, Demba Ba, Vedad Ibisevic or Sejad Salihovic managed to make steadfast players dizzy and to surprise long-established clubs. Unfortunately the glory was a short-lived one. During the second half of that season the club folded and ended the year as seven seeded. After ending both of the following seasons twice as eleventh, Hopp decided that it was time for more reasonable investments. The club should be able to live on his own with a little less of the patron’s cash injections. Hence, expensive players were even sold with a profit, but the current team plays more of a featureless football now and is far away from reliving the glorious not long gone days.
The Wirsol Rhein-Neckar-Arena was opened in Sinsheim in 2009 and has a capacity of 30,150 (9,150 standing room). Interestingly, the main terrace is called Business Terrace and is entirely reserved for guests of the boxes. Besides matches of the regular tenant, the stadium hosted four games of the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
The Wirsol Rhein-Neckar-Arena provides a little bit more than the usual drinks and pretzels other stadiums provide. French fries (2,50€), sausages (3,10-3,30€) and chicken nuggets (3,30€) are on the menu in Sinsheim. Interestingly and unusual around other Bundesliga grounds, there are no alcoholic drinks for sale, the served draft beer is a non-alcoholic brew (0,4l 3,10€; Coke 2,90€). Bear in mind, you can’t pay with cash inside the stadium so you’ll have to get a so called justpayCard, pay a deposit and charge it. There are no vendors in and around the stadium.
One star for the peacefulness in and around the stadium and one star for the visiting supporters who eventually produce something that you might want to call atmosphere in the stadium.
The Autobahn A6 parts the stadium from the commercial area of Sinsheim. The town of Sinsheim is not really a place to go out before and after the match. Most visiting fans drive directly to the stadium and leave it without entering the town. However, if you have enough time on the day of the match, the Auto & Technik Museum Sinsheim is opposite the arena. Among the 3000 exhibits are various automobiles like vintage and Formula 1 cars, and planes like a Tupolev or an original Concorde open to walk through. And speaking of Formula 1, the Hockenheim race track which hosts the German Formula 1 Grand Prix is just a couple of miles away from the stadium.
Football fans in the Hoffenheim region tended to root for nearby Bundesliga clubs like Kaiserslautern, Stuttgart or Frankfurt. The common bromide that you can leave your wife, your friends or your job but never your team became once more apparent when the project "TSG 1899 Hoffenheim" was "created" and the club entered the league a couple of years ago.
People still support their childhood clubs, only a few of them call themselves now Hoffenheim supporters. On the other hand, many local young football fans that grew up during the rise of the club as well as older people are now attracted to the newest addition to the league. This might as well be the reason why, believe it or not, only 147 fans (yes, that’s one hundred and forty-seven) made the journey to an away game in Bremen in February 2012. The club simply needs a couple of more years or even decades to establish a decent fan base. Until then, the impression is that people go with their families to watch a game just to have something to do between lunch and dinner. But the allegations and talks about missing tradition is of course nonsense. Every club had to start at one point and needed its time to establish itself in their respective city and region.
However, leaving a match in droves where the score is tied five minutes prior to the final whistle is a no-go!
The stadium lies directly at the Autobahn A6 exit "Sinsheim-Süd" with plenty of parking spaces around it. However, before and after the match there is a good chance of a traffic jam as the A6 is one of Germany’s major east-west-axes.
Spectators also have the opportunity to arrive by train. A complimentary shuttle bus leaves the station "Sinsheim (Elsenz)" to the arena, from the station "Sinsheim Museum/Arena" it’s just a 15-minute walk. Like in many Bundesliga cities, you’re able to ride the trains and busses for free with your ticket to the match.
With ticket prices from as low as 12€ up to 41€, the Wirsol Rhein-Neckar-Arena is one of the cheapest Bundesliga grounds. But what do you get for that investment? A passionate football atmosphere? Definitely not. A nice weekend amusement? More likely. Consider a visit to the museum next door before the match. This way, if the football experience should disappoint you, you still did something educational this day. Especially if you’re travelling with kids, the museum is an excellent prelude to a match in the Wirsol Rhein-Neckar-Arena.
But I guess it says something about the whole Hoffenheim experience when a recommendation to visit a museum shows up in a review about a football stadium.
The stadium provides the usual opportunities to hold business meetings, festivities or any other kinds of gatherings.
There is also the opportunity to tour the arena’s underbelly. The "ArenaTour" lasts 45 minutes and costs 5€.
The club definitely doesn’t make it easy to phrase a conclusion or one final thought. I guess you can choose from two different views.
1) Compared to other Bundesliga events, visiting a match in Sinsheim is a rather lame experience. There is almost no classic football atmosphere among the Hoffenheim spectators. You’ll be guest to a club without a large fan base and tradition that plays a rather solid football nowadays in front of a below average sized audience.
2) A visit to the Wirsol Rhein-Neckar-Arena is a splendid afternoon amusement. With low ticket prices you’re able to watch a Bundesliga match within a peaceful and relaxed atmosphere in a nice and neat stadium. The excellent transport connection and the museum next door make a visit to Sinsheim a pleasant family experience.
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