SPIEGEL: Mr. Hopp, since 1998, you have invested well over €100 million ($128 million) in 1899 Hoffenheim, a club that used to be in the Kreisliga, the lowest tier of league soccer in Germany. Now, after only eight games in the Bundesliga, the highest tier, the team has already advanced to hold a leading position. It sounds like there might be a master plan aimed at kicking FC Bayern München from the top spot.
Dietmar Hopp: There is no such plan. We will never be able to seriously compete with the Bavarians. They get twice as much television advertising and 10 times as much money from their jersey sponsors. The Bavarians have 140,000 club members, while Hoffenheim has all of 2,000. When the big clubs show up, we probably won't be able to keep our players. I'm not being overmodest when I say that we will be pleased if we can manage to keep up with the rest of the class this season without too much stress.
SPIEGEL: At this point, no one doubts your ability to keep up with the class. But if things do start getting tight, you could always invest more money.
Hopp: People seem to think that I have a bucket of money to pour over the team. Of course I want success, but I also want stability. I am 68 years old, and my big goal is to get this club up to speed as quickly as I can. Many will not believe this, but we will probably be in the black in our first year in the Bundesliga . And if we can turn one or two of our players into stars and earn significant transfer profits as a result, it will pay for itself. That could be the formula that launches us onto the international stage.
SPIEGEL: Are you saying that you're not planning to invest almost €20 million ($25.6 million) in the team again this season?
Hopp: No. When you are in danger of being relegated, recently acquired new players only create uncertainty. Referring to Hoffenheim, Leverkusen coach Bruno Labbadia recently said: "Having money is one thing; investing money right is another." We got the player Luiz Gustavo, for example, at a very good price -- about €100,000 ($128,000). Players like Andreas Ibertsberger, Tobias Weis and Marvin Compper joined the club for not a lot of money. And even if we don't fight to remain in the top class, in my view, investing in the team right now would be the wrong thing to do -- at least in strategic terms.
Hopp: The team that has managed to advance into the Bundesliga is very young, and it still has room for development. We have to give it a chance to show us what it can do. The money we invested last year was spent with an eye on the future.
SPIEGEL: Your coach, Ralf Rangnick, says that he can't really imagine the club supporting itself one day without your money.
Hopp: It's in Rangnick's interest, too, to get the club to a point where it can support itself. I view him and manager Jan Schindelmeiser as being entrepreneurs. Once again, there is no bucket of money. Infrastructure accounted for five times as much money as I invested in the team. Playing fields, youth centers, the new stadium in Sinsheim, the new training center -- all of this brings it close to €150 million ($192 million) the amount that has been paid over the last 10 years by me and, in the case of youth development programs, by my foundation.
SPIEGEL: Does the club have to repay the team's start-up financing?
Hopp: I am a silent partner in the operating company. I own 49 percent, and the club owns 51 percent. The rules of the German Football League (DFL) prohibit me from owning more than that. The silent contributions, in fact, must be repaid. But if this "50 plus 1" rule is ever revoked, the capital contributions will be converted into equity capital, and then I will acquire the corresponding number of additional shares. The club pays me rent -- a reasonable rent -- for the stadium and training center.
SPIEGEL: How much influence do you have over athletic decisions?
Hopp: I have no influence whatsoever. It has been just luck that our scouts have had such a good eye recently. They went to Belgium, where they found Demba Ba. Chinedu Obasi came from Oslo. Have you ever seen him play? You should see him when he cuts loose! But there will also be times when we make the occasional bad investment.
SPIEGEL: But, surely, Rangnick and Schindelmeiser must tell you about their transfer plans?
Hopp: Oh, of course. We have also discussed cases in which I thought the amounts were too high.
SPIEGEL: How high? More than €10 million in transfer fees?
Hopp: More than €10 million, but I can't exactly say how much more, because one offer never materialized. That was when I said that I couldn't afford this and that I didn't want to. Together, we concluded that this doesn't match our philosophy. In the case of Andreas Beck, who came from VfB Stuttgart, we initially thought that €3 million was too much. But we liked the guy. He is incredibly clever and was determined to play for Hoffenheim because he felt that he had better prospects here.
SPIEGEL: Is it true that one of the reasons you are no longer investing in players as much is that the competition has expressed resentment and the fans of opposing teams have heckled you?
Hopp: That would be grist to the mill for these people. I don't have to step on the brakes now; I set myself a budget from the start, and we continue to operate within this framework.
SPIEGEL: Can you understand football fans who get upset when a billionaire suddenly shows up and pampers a club until it starts beating everybody else?
Hopp: Of course I understand that, but our rivals overlook the fact that we have consistently played a good role in the regional league (the fourth tier of the German league system) since 2001. What troubles me is the form of the protests. I can tolerate the "son-of-a-whore" chants. But when I see a poster depicting me in the sights of a gun, as recently happened in a match against Dortmund, it stops being amusing. The police arrested the young man.
SPIEGEL: The stands can be a pretty rowdy place.
Hopp: I know. But this is going too far. What happens if someone actually becomes violent one of these days? By the way, we dropped the charges last Monday when the man apologized. We also invited him to take see how things are in Hoffenheim for himself.
SPIEGEL: The German Football Association (DFB) is threatening clubs with penalties if their fans accost you. In Bremen, for example, stadium officials refused to allow fans to bring in a sign that read: "Hoppe, hoppe Reiter -- wenn er fällt, dann schreit er" (in an allusion to Hopp's name from a children's song, suggesting that he is too sensitive about insults). Isn't all of this a bit exaggerated?
Hopp: I also know that this could possibly provoke people to test the limits of what's permissible. As far as the sign in Bremen is concerned, it wouldn't have really bothered me. But I can't say whether what the DFB is doing is good or bad for us. It apparently wants to prevent arrests in the stadium.
SPIEGEL: Rangnick isn't comfortable with this whole debate. He doesn't want to be cast in the role of a victim.
Hopp: Of course I would prefer peace and quiet. I've had to deal with the insults for a year now, and I haven't reacted to them at all yet. It was the police and the DFB, not us. But it just so happens that a stadium is not some lawless place, and that's why I approve of the reaction.
Facing the Reactions to the Game's Increased Commercialization
SPIEGEL: In general, do you view Germany as being a society of jealous people?
Hopp: My foundation might have something to do with the fact that people aren't as jealous of me as you might expect. But jealosy shouldn't be confused with the hatred I get in the stadiums. In 12 years, my foundation has spent €190 million ($243 million), and I hope that it can manage to provide €30 million ($38 million) a year in the future. That's why I have been the target of more recognition than envy. I'm also talking about recognition from people who are undergoing radiation treatment and find out that the Dietmar Hopp Foundation paid for the equipment or people who read in the paper that I have already donated €40-50 million ($51-64 million) to the University of Heidelberg Hospital and the University of Mannheim. Of course, no one cares about this in Dortmund.
SPIEGEL: Did you expect to encounter this much hostility in football?
Hopp: I believe that 80 percent (of the population) approves of what we are doing. Those who are more vocal see me as epitomizing the commercialization of football. I'm the face. One day, when the door is opened to foreign investors and people -- such as the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi -- buy stakes in the Bundesliga, perhaps then they'll say: "It would be nice if we still had someone like Hopp." That's because I do things differently. Making money is not my goal. My goal is stabilize the team and make it viable over the long term. Those who are fighting me now are also opposed to VIP boxes full of people drinking champagne.
SPIEGEL: Does one have to be in favor of that?
Hopp: People know perfectly well that you need financial backing if you want to have big-ticket football players. A goalkeeper like Fritz Herkenrath used to play for a sack of potatoes, but those days are gone. Once we get more investors, the hostility against us will diminish. Look, at Hamburger SV they want to set up a fund investors can buy into that would give them a chance to make a profit if players are sold at a later point. If I wanted to pay into such a fund, I wouldn't be the face (of football's commercialization).
SPIEGEL: You had originally intended to provide some young football players you sponsor with a local professional club where they could improve their prospects. Has reaching the Bundesliga taken you too far from this original goal of having a place where you can support young players?
Hopp: It's really no different than it is with any other Bundesliga club. We have four or five players on our B youth team who have real potential. It is still my dream that we can one day develop a player on the German national team.
SPIEGEL: Do you expect to win over the hearts of fans with a "test-tube" professional club, so to speak?
Hopp: Well, to stick with your metaphor, test-tube babies are loved, too! Seriously, though, the enthusiasm has already increased to a level that I would never have imagined. We have 50 fan clubs. If you had asked me about that two years ago, I would have said that it would be cool to have 10 one day. It's clear that this must -- and will -- continue to grow. But what does tradition mean? Microsoft would not have become a global corporation if only traditional companies had been allowed to operate.
SPIEGEL: Years ago, fans of Waldhof Mannheim, whose club is based in a city nearby, ridiculed your Hoffenheim team, calling it the "FC Nouveau Riche." Back then, you said that you were hoping to grow some thick skin.
Hopp: My skin isn't really thick enough to prevent those chants from having any effect on me. I'm not that good of an actor. But when it comes to the guys from Waldhof, it's a whole different story. There is a sports working group in the Rhine-Neckar metropolitan area that includes some well-known companies. They once expressed a desire to bring Bundesliga football to the area. At that time, Hoffenheim was in the regional league and Waldhof was a tier lower, in the Oberliga (or "upper league"). So I said: "Okay, we already want Hoffenheim to be in the second league (2nd Bundesliga, below the top tier), so I will put myself at the head of his movement. I'm also willing to provide some up-front financing." Today, those same companies support us and are also sponsors at the Rhine-Neckar Arena, our new stadium in Sinsheim.
SPIEGEL: Waldhof's fans were insulted?
Hopp: They said: "But we're the traditional club! We have to be the club that advances to the Bundesliga!" But there was no one who led that effort and, at the time, I had already been involved in Hoffenheim for 15 years. Besides, I had actively played football there for more than 10 years. Nevertheless, the people from Waldhof developed some antagonism toward us. But, by now, that has more or less dissipated.
SPIEGEL: Why do you invest almost exclusively in projects in the Rhine-Neckar region?
Hopp: I can't come up with the kind of money Bill Gates has. If I tried to spread out my foundation's money across multiple regions or countries, it would evaporate. When I build a retirement home here, I know many of the people who benefit from it.
SPIEGEL: Your nickname at SAP was "Vadder Hopp" ("Father Hopp"). The company offered above-average salaries, no fixed working hours, interest-free loans to homebuyers and a year's worth of wages for employees who contracted long-term illnesses. Can this sort of corporate culture be transferred to football?
Hopp: What can be transferred is the attempt to encourage people to perform using both humanity and understanding. That's what I like about Rangnick and his team, and that's what I like about Schindelmeiser, its manager. They do it, and they do it without my having asked them to.
SPIEGEL: In recent weeks, SAP's stock has lost almost half of its value. Your family and your foundation own about 10 percent of the company's shares. Could the financial crisis weaken your commitment?
Hopp: Luckily, I don't own any securities in banks that went out of business, and I have no plans to sell the SAP shares. I expect that they will continue paying dividends.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Hopp, we thank you for this interview.