Hannover's success overshadowed by coach Slomka's contract dispute
Hannover's success is impressive considering its relative small budget
Most preseason pundits thought Hannover were candidates for relegation
Coach Mirko Slomka and sporting director Jörg Schmadtke don't see eye to eye
Hannover 96 is not doing its president Martin Kind any favors at the moment: it's just too successful. For years, the millionaire owner of a hearing aid manufacturing company has argued that the Bundesliga should change its regulations to allow investors to buy majority shares in clubs, in line with the liberal approach taken by the (English) Premier League. "How can small clubs ever hope to grow otherwise?" complains the 66-year-old Kind. Kind has threatened to sue against investment restrictions in the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.
As things stand, however, second-placed Hannover and other even more modest teams like Mainz 05 (third) and SC Freiburg (sixth) are showing that a lack of deep pockets might not prove fatal to their chances. Hannover's budgets for the playing staff is a meager €25 million ($33 million), a fraction of the money traditional powerhouses like Bayern Munich (fifth) or Hamburg (seventh) or Schalke (11th) spend on their squads.
On Sunday, an impressive 3-0 win away to Eintracht Frankfurt saw Mirko Slomka's occupy the space behind runaway champions-elect Borussia Dortmund. Nobody thinks 96 can mount a serious challenge for the title -- it is 12 points adrift -- but its ascent to rarefied heights of the table is sensational in itself. Most commentators, this one included, felt Hannover would flirt with relegation this season, as they had done in 2009/10. Instead, the Lower Saxons finished their first half of the season with the best-ever points-tally (31) in their Bundesliga history. "If we do manage to get into Europe, it would be supernatural," said Slomka.
Three factors were mainly responsible for his team's unexpected progress, the coach told Bild. "We have the fitness to make a difference in the 90th minute (if need be). We have a strategy: not many touches on the ball, but great defenders and strikers that can play on the counter. And we have a tremendous team-spirit." It doesn't sound like rocket science. But Hannover's simple yet effective game plan has been utilized to the max while bigger and better teams have floundered.
Qualification for the Europa League, let alone the Champions League, would bring in extra revenue but also force Kind to increase his player's wages to ward off interest from other parties. Ivorian striker Didier Ya Konan, arguably Hannover's most important player with 10 goals in 16 starts, has already revealed a €10 million ($13 million) buyout clause that would enable him to move to a "top club". "I love Hannover. But I can't say that I'll spend my whole life here", the 26-year-old told Sport-Bild. Defender Christian Schulz, 27, has also been linked with Wolfsburg and West Ham this month.
The most pressing problem, though, concerns the protracted contract negotiations with Slomka, The 43-year-old has cleverly used the good performances of his men as a bargaining chip; five weeks of talks with sporting director Jörg Schmadtke have thus proved inconclusive. Slomka is seeking a long-term-extension - his current deal terminates this summer -- and is reportedly keen to wrest some control from Schmadtke, too. The two men don't see eye to eye on most things.
Last week, Hannoversche Allgemeine reported that Slomka had even threatened to resign. Kind has not explicitly denied the claim but tried to downplay its significance. "In negotiations, it's customary to play a game of poker," he said. Slomka, meanwhile, maintained that their "differences weren't big enough" to make further cooperation unfeasible. "It's not about power and not about money, only about details."
It's also about vanity, and about security. When Slomka took over exactly 12 months ago, it's fair to say he wasn't an instant success. He lost his first six Bundesliga games and saw Schmadtke distancing himself from him in a very open manner. The team's fortunes improved but the relationship between the two men hasn't. There's now an element of payback and one-upmanship involved in Slomka's stance. "The successful coach is trying to test his value on the market", commented Der Spiegel. Back in December, Schmadtke warned against "mistakes made in euphoria," a reference to the coach's demands for a three or four-year deal. Understandably, Slomka wants the safety net of long contract: it took him 30 months to find a new job after getting fired by Schalke 04 in 2008.
"I'd recommend sorting this out as quickly as possible, so that this public debate will stop," a not best-pleased Kind told local reporters on Tuesday. Kind is upset that the contractual dispute is increasingly taking attention away from on-the-field business. To make things worse, Schmadtke has reason to feel aggrieved, too: his part in Hannover's brilliant season has been somewhat overlooked.
Without the sporting director's good eye for players, none of the current achievements would have been possible. Schmadtke brought in the key personnel like Ya Konan (€550,000/$740,000, Rosenborg), forward Mohammed Abdellaoue (€1 million/$1.3 million, Valerenga), exciting offensive all-rounder Moritz Stoppelkamp (free, Oberhausen) and defender Emanuel Pogatetz (free transfer, Middlesbrough) for relatively little money. U.S. international DaMarcus Beasley (Glasgow Rangers, free) has yet to feature regularly at the AWD-Arena but Ron-Robert Zieler, another free arrival from the Manchester United reserves, looks a great prospect in goal. Slomka gave the 22-year-old his debut on Sunday, crucially without telling Schmadtke in advance. The former Freiburg and Düsseldorf keeper, 46, was miffed to hear the news from Zieler's agent instead.
"We all need to be patient," Schmadtke told Neue Presse in relation to the negotiations with Slomka. Matters are slightly complicated by a possible conflict of interest on Slomka's behalf. He's represented by Harun Arslan, an agent who also looks after players Karim Haggui, Schulz, Steve Cherundulo and Altin Lala. In an interview with Neue Presse just before Christmas, Slomka said it was important for him to see "who could be kept in the future:" a reference to Haggui and Schulz.
It's doubtful whether an agreement can be found before Saturday's game against Slomka's former club, S04. Schmadtke and Kind are in a very tough spot. They need to secure the manager's signature before further wins make him too expensive and powerful. Or, alternatively, hope that a couple of less positive results in the next few weeks give Slomka less room to maneuver.