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Hoffenheim's Hopp wants a stop to the abuse
by Ian Plenderleith, September 26th, 2008 10AM



[GERMANY] When 1899 Hoffenheim beat Borussia Dortmund, 4-1, last weekend, the home side's celebrations were dulled by an unpleasant banner among the traveling support. The face of Hoffenheim's multi-millionaire owner and benefactor Dietmar Hopp was displayed in a crosshair under the message "Hasta La Vista Hopp!" The fan also reportedly cursed Hopp as a "son of a whore."

Hopp took what he saw as a murder threat seriously, some might say too seriously, and police later arrested a 19-year-old male in connection with the incident. But after weeks of abuse from opposition fans Hopp said that he felt a line had been crossed and that it was time to send a message. He's even considering a civil prosecution against the fan.

Why is there so much hostility towards Hopp and Hoffenheim? German fans are sticklers for tradition. They successfully fought against all-seater stadiums to retain standing areas, and for the retention of Saturday afternoon kickoff times for the majority of games, against the wishes of the TV companies. In Hoffenheim's case, they are also against the idea of buying success, despite this being the only way that a club in a town with a population of just over 3,000 could ever conceivably rise up German soccer's pyramid structure and into its highest division. Upstart newcomers are not welcome.

There's a huge double standard here, however. Although German league rules prevent any single person or company from taking a majority stake in an individual club -- thus preventing the kind of takeover that has swept the English Premier League and massively enriched teams like Chelsea -- current league leaders Schalke 04, for example, have been financed and sponsored these past few years by the giant Russian energy concern Gazprom. There are no chants or protests aimed at the company's wealth when Schalke plays on the road. And it's hardly as though any of the league's other clubs are run along the lines of cash-free cooperatives.

Meanwhile, the German federation has announced that it too wants to punish fans who hurl insults at Hopp. For some, such as Michael Rosentritt writing in the Berlin-based daily Tagesspiegel, this is going too far. Although he sees no justification for the abuse against Hopp, "abuse and insults sadly belong to soccer as much as the referee who has to soak up the worst abuse every weekend." He said any sanctions will only encourage fans to become more creative in finding new ways to slander Hopp. Arnd Festerling in the Frankfurter Rundschau, by contrast, wrote that "intervention was long overdue."

Hoffenheim was knocked out of the German Cup on Wednesday by second division Freiburg, but has made a solid start to its Bundesliga campaign, sitting nicely in second place with 10 points from five games. Its good form could be a passing phase, and so could the abuse from opposition supporters. In the meantime, it's unfortunate that, as Sunderland manager Roy Keane pointed out this week when his side was booed by home fans and he was targeted for personal abuse during a League Cup game against lowly Northampton Town: "We have some bloody brilliant supporters, but you always remember the idiots."



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