Village Vanguard The Football Miracle from Hoffenheim

Few in Germany had ever heard of tiny Hoffenheim before this year. Now, though, the village club team is at the very top of the country's professional soccer league. On Friday night, they clash with powerhouse Bayern München.

One can be forgiven for doing a double-take when glancing at the standings in the Bundesliga these days. There are, to be sure, some familiar names leading Germany's professional football league. Bayern München is there. Berlin's Hertha BSC as well. Bayer Leverkusen.

But right at the very top is a team that, up until a few months ago, hardly anyone in the country had ever heard of. It is a squad from a tiny village in Germany's south-west halfway between Stuttgart and Frankfurt, population 3,200. The town is called Hoffenheim, and the local club team plays against powerhouse Bayern München on Friday night in Munich for the right to go into the mid-season break leading the league.

It is a success story the likes of which Germany has never seen: Within just a few years, 1899 Hoffenheim has rocketed from regional league obscurity to its current status as one of the elite teams in the country. Football fans from all over Europe are now rooting for the club, attracted by its fairy tale rise up the table. A new book about the club has recently come out called "The Miracle of Hoffenheim," and the title's reference to Germany's dramatic 1954 World Cup victory -- known as the Miracle of Bern -- doesn't even feel overstated. Even Bastian Schweinsteiger, a Bayern star, admitted recently in reference to Friday's game: "If they win, the entire country will rejoice."

There are, of course, some detractors. As one might expect, the team's progress has been helped along by money -- a lot of money. Dietmar Hopp, a co-founder of the software giant SAP, has invested millions of euros in the team in recent years, allowing it to go on a shopping spree for players that could help it to the next level.

Still, comparing Hoffenheim to other clubs who have lucked into money -- such as Chelsea, which was purchased by Russian tycoon Roman Abramovich in 2003, or Manchester City, bought up by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi this year -- is off the mark. For one, rather than going after players the calibre of Robinho (brought in by Manchester City for €40 million) or spending hundreds of millions on the transfer market like Chelsea, Hoffenheim has gone for youth and potential.

"It has been just luck that our scouts have had such a good eye recently," Hopp told SPIEGEL in a recent interview. "They went to Belgium, where they found Demba Ba. Chinedu Obasi came from Oslo." Even the team's biggest star, Ibisevic Vedad -- who leads the Bundesliga in goals scored with 17 -- spent some time on the bench last year due to poor play, when Hoffenheim was still in the second league.

There is also another important difference: Dietmar Hopp actually comes from Hoffenheim, and once played on the team back when it was little more than the local village club. Now, Hopp owns 49 percent of the team, the maximum allowed under German league rules. And he is building a new stadium. The current village stadium, capacity 6,000, is much too small for a Bundesliga team, meaning Hoffenheim has thus far played its home games in nearby Mannheim. The new building, which will be finished early next year, will seat 10 times the population of Hoffenheim.

The size, though, is necessary. Hoffenheim has attracted a growing cadre of fans and draws from a region which has a total population of around 2.4 million. Many of the newcomers are attracted by the team's enthusiastic, attacking style of play.

And its ongoing success means there are more supporters every day. Already, the village has seen a deluge of visitors, many of them journalists from across Europe wanting to see where Germany's top team comes from. So much so that the village is thinking about how it might be able to capitalize on its team's popularity. According to a Friday piece in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, community leaders are hoping to attract nature-loving vacationers. Karlheinz Hess, who heads up the municipality, told the paper, "we don't really have anything other than a nice landscape."

That, and perhaps the best team in the German football league. Most of the country will be tuning in on Friday evening to find out. And so will fans across the world. The game is to be broadcast live in 167 countries. Hoffenheim -- the world is watching.

cgh -- with wire services


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