Of the nine cities hosting matches at the FIFA Women’s World Cup Germany 2011™, Sinsheim is by far the smallest. With a burgeoning Bundesliga team – 1899 Hoffenheim – but no real top-level football tradition or history to speak of, its inhabitants are hopeful that the ongoing global event will help the game in the south-western town to reach its full potential.
Sinsheim has a population of just 35,000 people yet boasts a shiny new 24,475-seater ground. This incongruous fact is exacerbated by the way in which Hoffenheim’s Rhein-Necker Arena seems to have been dropped from the sky, its looming stands appearing slightly out of sync with the surrounding community. However, this recent marriage between town and club, still in its early stages, has shown signs that it might last. And the FIFA Women's World Cup can only improve the relationship.
Wiebke, a 20-year-old German indulging in a spot of roller-skating in Sinsheim’s main thoroughfare, has been working as a volunteer at the tournament. On Sunday she was able to take in the match between France and Nigeria, where she found herself marvelling at the speed and skills of the players on show. “I think that the World Cup will lead to even more girls taking up football, and more clubs running women’s teams,” she says.
Three boys, Tony, Ramazan and Orkun pass by wearing football tops. They explain that they’ve been watching matches on the town’s giant screen. “I like women’s football, but the men’s game is better,” says Tony, the oldest of the three.
Of Franco-Nigerian descent, he was determined not to miss a confrontation between two countries close to his heart. His favourite teams in the tournament are “Germany, Nigeria and France” in Group A, a chosen trio that will certainly save him from enduring absolute disappointment, given that at least one of them will qualify for the subsequent round.
Tom is the owner of the Café am Burgplatz bistro, situated just off the central square where the matches are broadcast live. He has been amazed by the interest in the competition: “This World Cup is an enormous event for this town – lots of fans who usually watch men’s football have been turning up to see the women play. It’s really incredible, because four years ago, it seemed like nobody cared, but on Sunday there were almost 4,000 people in the square!”
Two less enthusiastic locals cannot help themselves from interjecting. “We were there and it was boring. I hate women’s football!” says one. Tom just smiles and expands the conversation to the region’s recently-acquired football culture, a phenomenon clearly still in its infancy.
“I’d say that it’s more of a growing tradition here. During the last two or three years, fans have become more demanding of the local club, Hoffenheim, but they need to understand that there are always going to be ups and downs. Perhaps they need to learn a little humility.”
Scaling the pyramid
On this particular point, Tom can speak from experience. “I’m from northern Germany, and I’ve been watching football for years. I’m a St Pauli man,” he recounts, revealing the ultimate symbol of fan loyalty: a tattoo at the base of his neck bearing the name of the celebrated Hamburg-based club who were relegated from the Bundesliga at the end of this season.
Across the other side of the town, Manfred has been enjoying the fresh air at a cafe terrace. A jolly retiree who claims to have enjoyed every match of the FIFA Women’s World Cup so far, he beams with joy behind his sunglasses when the subject of Hoffenheim crops up.
“I’m very proud to have Dietmar Hopp running our club, because he’s achieved some amazing things since arriving here,” he says, adding, “Now we’ve got a brilliant stadium, and people come from all over the region to attend games.”
Hopp, the club’s high-profile billionaire owner, has invested heavily in the diminutive outfit since becoming involved well over a decade ago. Since then, their rise through the German football pyramid has been nothing short of meteoric; a little too meteoric for some observers, concerned by the idea of such an impudent upstart threatening the Bundesliga’s established order.
Timo, a 21-year-old supporter who works at the club on a voluntary basis, has followed Hoffenheim since their promotion to the German fifth division, and has enjoyed the FIFA Women’s World Cup so far. “It’s a magnificent opportunity for us; it’s going to help us to grow,” he points out.
He also agrees that patience is necessary before Sinsheim’s top-flight team is properly accepted in the upper echelons of the game. “It’s a question of time – we need to establish ourselves little by little. The series of promotions that we’ve enjoyed over the last few years is already the start of something big. Often, it’s when you’re young that you commit yourself to a club forever. I’m sure that everything that’s going on right now will eventually create a whole generation of lifelong fans,” he explains.
In Sinsheim, football has come a long way in a short time. Football tradition and culture will not be far behind.