Interview with Hoffenheim Coach Ralf Rangnick 'Football Is Always the Future'

In an interview with SPIEGEL, Hoffenheim head coach Ralf Rangnick, 50, discusses the meteoric rise of his football team from a small-town club into a giant killer in Germany's Bundesliga, the perils of success and his occasional temper tantrums.
Hoffenheim head coach Ralf Rangnick celebrates another victory.

Hoffenheim head coach Ralf Rangnick celebrates another victory.

Foto: DPA

SPIEGEL: Mr. Rangnick, your team, TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, is the first newcomer to the Bundesliga -- the highest tier of league football in Germany -- to ever win the fall championship in its first year. Even the Times of London has celebrated this football miracle. Has it surprised you, too?

Ralf Rangnick: It's inconceivable, really. We are doing our best to understand it, and we certainly have our theories, but part of it is still a fairy tale. It's good that we now have the chance to pause for a moment, so that we don't lose perspective.

SPIEGEL: Can your team win the German championship in May?

Rangnick: In theory, yes; but no one is expecting us to. Nor is anyone saying that we have to do everything we can to capture the title.

SPIEGEL: Would doing so mean that you were releasing an evil genie from the bottle?

Rangnick: No, but we would create unnecessary pressure and lose much of our laid-back approach in the process. What the team has achieved so far is so amazing that no one would be disappointed if we ended up in fifth place at the end of the season. VfB Stuttgart won the championship in 2007 because the team refused to think about it until the very end. They were only under real pressure once -- in the final match.

SPIEGEL: Did your team work itself into a frenzy of sorts over the course of the first half of the season? Did the young players learn quickly, or are they simply that good?

Rangnick: A bit of everything. We haven't had to worry about being relegated to a lower tier at any point in the season. With a young team, this flow can tip in the opposite direction if the team loses three times in a row. At this level, though, it still has to learn how to deal with defeats.

SPIEGEL: Such as after its 1-2 loss to FC Bayern Munich?

Rangnick: That was a bitter defeat; it was brutal. But I told my boys: "You played a fantastic game in this Champions League environment." Apart from Carlos Eduardo, none of them had ever played in front of 70,000 fans and experienced such a commotion in the days leading up to the match.

SPIEGEL: Why did you seem so agitated after that outstanding match?

Rangnick: I'm not a good loser. When I was a child, I once threw a toy fire truck at my great grandfather after he beat me at a board game. Even today, it's not a good idea to approach me if we've lost a match because we made a few mistakes.

SPIEGEL: After the final whistle in Munich, it looked as though you were blaming your defender Andreas Ibertsberger for having messed up before Bayern Munich's second goal.

Rangnick: No. Looking for scapegoats isn't our thing. Actually, I was more upset after the 4-5 loss to Werder Bremen.

SPIEGEL: Why? Your team came back from being three down and played so brilliantly that even the Bremen fans cheered them on.

Rangnick: That was precisely why I was so furious -- because the guys were spellbound by it. I stormed into the locker room after the final whistle, but nobody else came in for 10 minutes. Then, the first guy came in with Diego's jersey, the second one with Naldo's and the third with Pizarro's. I yelled: "So, do you all have your trophies now?" Then I hurled three plastic bottles through the locker room and gave the players a stiff talking-to. In Munich, there was no reason to do that.

SPIEGEL: In the Allianz Arena, home to Bayern Munich, were you amazed yourself when you saw what your team could do?

Rangnick: Well, as a coach, I certainly can't remember witnessing a match that was so intense and fast-paced. At some point, I looked at my watch and thought to myself: "What? Just 10 minutes left? How can that be?" Everything went by so quickly that we even made a mistake on the bench.

SPIEGEL: What was that?

Rangnick: We were hoping to make another substitution at the beginning of stoppage time. But we didn't get the player to the sideline in time. So, we couldn't put him in the game when the score was 1-1, and it was our own goal kick. After that, the match wasn't interrupted again until the opposing team's second goal. The substitution would probably have prevented the Bavarians from making that decisive play.

SPIEGEL: In other words, it's still a learning process for you, as well?

Rangnick: Of course. We are a learning system, and that applies to everyone.

SPIEGEL: Is this team getting close to what you would consider the ideal team?

Rangnick: In many respects, yes. Not just in the way they play, but also in how they treat each other. But what does "ideal" mean in football, anyway? Football is never the present; it is always the future. We may be at the top of the league now, but by the time training starts in early January, the question on everyone's mind will be: What next?

SPIEGEL: How fragile is the success of the past few months?

Rangnick: The greatest risk is that we allow ourselves to get carried away by the euphoria. Besides, we cannot pretend like we don't get jealous or greedy. These are human traits, and that's why we have to be careful not to upset our salary structure by suddenly making quantum leaps.

SPIEGEL: But you just signed Timo Hildebrand, who has played goalkeeper for Germany's national team.

Rangnick: In one of our first conversations, he told us that he desperately wanted to be part of our team. Our response was: "Let's see if you still feel that way when we start talking numbers." If Timo had insisted on anything even close to the sums he was paid in Valencia or to what he was offered by two other clubs, we certainly would not have signed him.

SPIEGEL: Bayern Munich's general manager, Uli Hoeness, recently speculated openly that Hoffenheim patron Dietmar Hopp  is probably reaching deeper into his pockets to pay his players than he wants the world to believe.

Rangnick: I can imagine why he's saying that.

SPIEGEL: Why?

Rangnick: When we agreed to extend Sejad Salihovic's contract in October, the Bavarians quickly made him a considerably better offer. Then Salihovic mulled over the offer, which is completely normal. But the impressive part was that, two days later, Salihovic called us back and said that he wanted to stand by his word and sign right away under the terms to which we had agreed before the Bavarians made their offer. So, it isn't surprising that this would prompt Hoeness to conclude that we really upped our offer. But we didn't.

SPIEGEL: Do you expect us to believe that?

Rangnick: We asked Salihovic: "How often do you think you'll really be playing for Bayern if you're competing for a spot against people with names like Ribéry, Schweinsteiger or Altintop?" The guy is only 24, and he'll never reach the peak of his abilities anywhere else as quickly as he will with us. He can still sign that extremely lucrative contract in a couple of years.

SPIEGEL: But top international clubs would presumably put players like Carlos Eduardo or Chinedu Obasi on the pitch right away.

Rangnick: Even those guys know that their development has a lot to do with what makes Hoffenheim unique: the calm, the composure and the way we work with them. This is exactly why they came to us. We made it clear to them that we could make them better and that, as a result, they would end up in the spotlight.

SPIEGEL: You already know that you're not going to be able to hang onto these players forever, don't you?

Rangnick: It's clear to us that, if we want to keep them, we're going to have to pay them a lot more money now. But that doesn't mean we're doubling their salaries. Many people say that money isn't a problem at Hoffenheim. But that isn't the real issue. The real issue is that it's inspiring for a player like Carlos Eduardo to realize that he is becoming more complete as a football player.

'Nothing Has Been Perfected"

SPIEGEL: Is it still the case at Hoffenheim that no player can earn more than the head coach?

Rangnick: That's only logical. But it isn't because I'm "the big cheese," as they say in Swabia. The person with the greatest responsibility should also make the most money. It's no different in big companies like Daimler, Siemens or SAP.

SPIEGEL: You never played at the professional level. Just last week, Andreas Müller, the general manager of Schalke, said: "Ralf seems, well, I wouldn't say schoolmasterly, but he isn't exactly a real footballer." Are you trying to stick it to the establishment with your Hoffenheim model?

Rangnick: No, not at all.

SPIEGEL: Do you feel like an outsider?

Rangnick: No. But I must be a pain for some of the big clubs that are drenched in history. At Schalke, for example, there was this but-we've-been-together-for-so-long attitude. Then I showed up and really shook things up. For me, it's very important that all my colleagues have just one goal in mind: to provide a service to the 25 professional players.

SPIEGEL: That should seem obvious.

Rangnick: But it isn't -- and partly because the idea of choosing the best person for the job doesn't always apply when the job assignments are being made. But as long as clubs keep putting clauses in the final professional contracts of the players that had earned it guaranteeing that they'll be coaching the B youth team or working as chief scouts once their playing careers are over, there will be no progress.

SPIEGEL: Uli Hoeness would say that that's Mr. Know-it-all speaking.

Rangnick: Sure, but he doesn't even know me.

SPIEGEL: But you do come across as a zealot sometimes.

Rangnick: I have shed some of my missionary characteristics. For instance, making a TV appearance like the one I gave 10 years ago on the "Current Sports Studio" program, when I explained how the "chain of four" works, is something that wouldn't happen again today. And I also don't want us to be the measure of all things. The Hoffenheim model would not be possible anywhere else. Two and a half years ago, we were looking at a blank page. First, we assembled a staff of advisers, using professional expertise as the main criterion; and then we built the team. This is unprecedented. Can you imagine someone showing up at a professional club and -- just like in a corporate takeover -- reassessing everyone and asking questions like: "Who is really good, and who is really in the right place?"

SPIEGEL: Are you a better coach today?

Rangnick: Yes. The first two and a half years were a constant learning process for me. I've had to lock horns with some very good people on a daily basis, and we really get down to brass tacks in these discussions. I doubt I would have ever offered such a thoroughly planned training program.

SPIEGEL: Are you in the process of reinventing football?

Rangnick: Of course not, but we are trying out a lot of things. We've gotten rid of some drills and kept some others, even though they seemed confusing at first. For example, there is one drill we call "bananas," which tries to teach players how to get the ball up front as quickly as possible. If we had introduced drills like "bananas" in a traditional club -- with 10 journalists watching over us during our practices -- the next day, we would have had to deal with headlines like: "Chaos during training! Now Rangnick has gone completely bananas!"

SPIEGEL: Can success be planned?

Rangnick: Not success, but performance. We see our young players as blue chips. They contribute speed, technical skills, good basic tactical training, a willingness to learn, determination and a special "weapon," depending on the position they play. The trick is to equip these highly qualified individual players with something strategic as well.

SPIEGEL: Ten years ago, you said that tactics is the only aspect of football that hasn't been perfected. Is this still true today?

Rangnick: It wasn't even true back then. Although I had looked at what was happening in some countries, I hadn't look at other types of sports. Nothing has been perfected yet, not even conditioning.

SPIEGEL: Could you ever imagine working anyplace else besides within your Hoffenheim biosphere?

Rangnick: You should never say never, but I am so happy with my job right now that it isn't something I think about at all. I'm on vacation now until the beginning of January. By the time Christmas is over, I'll probably be asking myself: "When do I get to see the guys again?"

SPIEGEL: Do you think your players feel the same way?

Rangnick: I have no idea. But they don't seem to be able to get enough of each other. Before our match against Schalke, I asked them all: "What will you guys being doing during the winter break?" It turned out that 10 of them will be flying to New York. That's something I have never experienced in professional football: They spend the entire year together, and then they go on a trip together for New Year's.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Rangnick, thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Christoph Biermann and Michael Wulzinger.

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