The 'miracle' of Hoffenheim

If you asked the average German on the street to locate Hoffenheim on a map five months ago, chances are you would have drawn blank stares.

8 years ago, the club was in Germany's 5th division. Now it's a Bundesliga title contender.

Vedad Ibisevic, left, has scored 18 goals for Hoffenheim this season. ((Michael Probst/Associated Press))

If you asked the average German on the street to locate Hoffenheim on a map five months ago, chances are you would have drawn blank stares.

A lot has changed since last summer, when the 2008-09 Bundesliga season kicked off.

Situated in southwestern Germany, Hoffenheim, a tiny village of just under 3,300 inhabitants, is the talk of the country because its soccer club, TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, sits atop the standings as the German league resumes this weekend following its traditional six-week Christmas break.

Hoffenheim claimed the unofficial title of winter champions of German soccer with 35 points after winning 11 of 17 games in the first half of the season.

Boasting the league's top offence (42 goals for) and the fifth-ranked defence (23 goals against), Hoffenheim has stunned all those critics — not to mention defending German champions Bayern Munich — who predicted the club would be candidates for relegation.

Instead, Hoffenheim, using a mishmash of unheralded and unknown players, stands a decent chance of repeating the astonishing feat of Kaiserslautern, the last newly promoted German club to win the league championship (in 1997-98).

No miracle at all

Nobody in Germany saw this coming. It was so completely out of left field that Hoffenheim's improbable climb to the top of the standings has been described as a miracle on par with the loaves and the fishes.

The fact is, though, that Hoffenheim's meteoric rise is no miracle at all.

The word miracle implies an act of God, or some sort of act that contravenes the laws of nature and can only be explained by divine intervention.

Hoffenheim's ascension can be explained by club owner Dietmar Hopp's meticulous blueprint, which combines hard work on the field and careful planning off it.

The software billionaire has invested close to $200 million since taking over Hoffenheim in 1990, when the club was still an amateur side competing in the eighth tier of German soccer.

Slowly but surely, the club fought its way up the ladder and earned promotion to Germany's second division in 2007. Once there, Hopp reached into his deep pockets and spent big, splashing millions on new players, including over $30 million on Senegalese striker Demba Ba and Brazilian prospect Carlos Eduardo.

The German second division had never seen such astronomical sums of cash, and it was hardly a surprise when Hoffenheim finished the 2007-08 season in second place, earning promotion to the Bundesliga at the first time of asking.

Detractors galore

Hopp's actions have won Hoffenheim few friends in Germany, a country that traditionally sneers at mega-rich benefactors who throw their financial weight around when it comes to the national game.

Bayern Munich, a team that broke the bank last season to sign Luca Toni and Franck Ribery, has publicly chastised Hopp for trying to "buy success," a sentiment shared by fans across the country who feel Hoffenheim is nothing more than a team of corporate whores.

Such an evaluation is as crude as it is inaccurate.

To be sure, Hopp's heavy investment into the club has paid huge dividends, but only after the team reached the second division two years ago did he open up his wallet and spend big money on new players.

When he took over Hoffenheim, the team was a mess and Hopp fought to simply keep the team afloat before slowly building a solid infrastructure, including developing a first-rate youth setup — the team's under-17 side recently won the national junior championship.

And instead of going after accomplished veterans, Hopp has built his team up by going after young, unproven stars, including Vedad Ibisevic. The previously unknown Bosnian striker repaid Hopp's faith by exploding onto the scene with 18 goals in 17 games, good enough to top the goal scorer's chart in the Bundesliga.

Credit must also be given to manager Ralf Rangnick, who took over the coaching reins in 2006.

The former midfielder has instilled his players with a world of confidence and a never-say-die attitude, which perfectly complements his attacking philosophy.

Under Rangnick, Hoffenheim plays a relentless pressing game, with emphasis put on quickly moving the ball up the field with a series of quick and short passes to keep their opponents on the back foot at all times.

With half a season to go and with Bayern Munich breathing down its neck, Hoffenheim is far from a lock to win the Bundesliga, especially after Ibisevic has been ruled out for the remainder of the season after rupturing a cruciate ligament in his knee.

But if Hoffenheim has proven anything, it is that it can rise to the occasion and defy expectations.