This article is an archive from March 3, 2021.
Andreas Heraf was immersed in his philosophical studies in the picturesque village of Mondsee in the spring of 2017. 210 miles north-west, in the city of St Polten, a teenager was searching for wise words from his former mentor.
Heraf abandoned his studies to attend to his former pupil and was greeted by an uncharacteristically puzzled Christoph Baumgartner. Fearful of falling into the trap of rushing his pathway into professional football, the young midfielder was weighing up his options. A contract at Hoffenheim was awaiting him but something was preventing him from signing on the dotted line.
“I remember he gave me a Zoom call,” Heraf recalls. “He told me that he visited RB Leipzig with his agent and they had made an unbelievable financial offer. He had already agreed with Hoffenheim and was unhappy with the offer from Leipzig because they have no second team between the U19 and the senior team, whereas Hoffenheim did.
“They struggled to give him a definitive answer, so he decided to let the money go and took his chance at Hoffenheim. He has the patience to wait and that was key to his success. Agents are very mighty in this business. Some players listen 100% to their agent without looking left or right. Fortunately, Christoph didn’t do that.
“Hoffenheim try to get the best Austrian players. I think it’s a really good step for our young players because they focus on developing talent. If you go to RB Leipzig, you have to perform from the first second. If you go to Hoffenheim, they give you the chance in the youth team, the reserves and then you can play in the first team when you’re ready.”
A close family network safeguarded him from succumbing to the inevitable temptations naturally connected with professional football. Baumgartner, despite being a football novice at the time, was very understanding of the merciless nature of the industry.
His principles were shaped by personal experience, after his brother Dominik, suffered two anterior cruciate ligament injuries during the embryonic stages of his career. Dominik was a talented defender, who played for Austria U21s, and ended his youth career at St Polten prematurely to pursue a professional career at SV Horn. Although he’s since recovered to star in the Europa League for Wolfsberger AC, his experience left a lasting impression on his younger brother.
Carlos Chaile, who coached the Baumgartner brothers at St Polten, believes Christoph learned a valuable lesson from his brother’s misfortune.
“The family learned from that situation that Christoph needed more time,” Chaile observes. “The mother and father looked at the issue with Dominik and vowed not to let the same thing happen to Christoph.
“There were some clubs interested in him when he was at U16 level, such as Red Bull Salzburg, but he decided to stay until the end. Christoph was different because he understands the game. At the beginning he was very small and not very strong so he had to play with his head. He did it step-by-step and didn’t go directly to the professional game.
“Many Austrian players are playing in other countries and when you only play in Austria, you cannot get to the level you need for the national team.”
Germany was inevitably his next destination. 31 Austrian players currently ply their trade in the Bundesliga – more than any other country outside Germany. The Bundesliga has been the perfect platform for Austrian players to develop and has also played an instrumental role in leading to the resurgence of the Austrian national team.
Austria qualified for back-to-back European Championships for the first time in their history by finishing runners-up behind Poland in Group G in the Euro 2020 qualifiers. They also earned promotion to the UEFA Nations League A by finishing at the summit of Group 1 ahead of Norway, Romania and Northern Ireland respectively.
Roughly 67% of their nine goals in the UEFA Nations League were scored by Bundesliga players, while 22 of the players that have been called up by Austria manager Franco Foda in the last 12 months play in the Bundesliga.
David Alaba, Xaver Schlager and Marcel Sabitzer have all thrived in the German top-flight, but Heraf expects Baumgartner, who has scored two goals in four caps for Austria, to topple them all.
“I worked for the Austrian FA for nine years and had him for four of those years. I had a lot of good players, such as Sabitzer and Alaba, but I always said that he was the best player that I ever had,” Heraf declares.
“He’s very humble and polite. Maybe you can get the impression that he is a little shy but on the pitch he knows how to play a dirty game. He was a complete player and my right hand man in the team. If there is no huge injury then he’s going to be unstoppable!”
Baumgartner settled quickly at Hoffenheim and wasted little time making an impression on youth coach Marcel Rapp. Nine goals and 15 assists helped propel Hoffenheim to the summit of the U19 Bundesliga Süd/Südwest ahead of German giants Bayern Munich.
Within just three months of making his debut for the second team, Baumgartner was presented with his Bundesliga bow against Werder Bremen. He was shown two yellow cards in the final game of the season in a 4-2 defeat at FSV Mainz in May 2019 but was unperturbed by his difficult induction to the Bundesliga.
He was reinstalled into the second team at the start of the following season but became a focal part of the first team towards the end of the Hinrunde. Baumgartner marked his appearance from the bench to score his first senior goal in a 2-0 victory over Union Berlin in December 2020 and Rapp credits his mentality for overcoming his stuttering start.
“Every club in Germany knew about Christoph Baumgartner before he came to Hoffenheim,” Rapp reveals. “From the beginning we had this fantasy that he can be a professional. He had opportunities to go to other clubs and earn much more money but he has a clear image of what he wants.
“It was hard for him being away from home for the first time, so when he played for the national team, we gave him a few days off to clear of his head. But it’s not so difficult for Austrian players to come to Hoffenheim because it’s a small town and a family club.”
Rapp has played an instrumental role in developing household names in Germany such as Niklas Sule and Nadiem Amiri. The latter’s departure to Bayer Leverkusen left a gaping hole in the Hoffenheim midfield, a hole that Baumgartner has duly filled to tremendous effect since his breakthrough into the first team.
Baumgartner has contributed 15 goals and 13 assists in 64 games across all competitions for Hoffenheim, including eight goals and seven assists this season.
A host of European clubs looked to prise him away from the Rhein-Neckar Arena in January, including Manchester United, but Baumgartner responded by pledging his future to Hoffenheim with a contract extension until 2025. Baumgartner has shown throughout his early career that all good things come to those who wait and Rapp expects the day to come when he leaves Sinsheim for pastures new.
“At Hoffenheim we understand that there are players who are too good for our first team,” Rapp admits. “They make the next step like Sule and Amiri did and we hold no grudges. We congratulate them and then our next step is to make the next Sule or Amiri.
“There is no secret to our youth success. We just give young players the opportunity to play. For example, when Amiri went to Bayer Leverkusen, Baumgartner was selected to replace him. When he leaves , then it’s our job to produce the next Baumgartner.
“If he continues his development at this rate then there will inevitably come a time when Baumgartner leaves Hoffenheim.”