- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 6, 2008

Before checking the standings in the Bundesliga, Germany’s top league, name the leading team. Bayern Munich? Dortmund? Bayer Leverkusen? Hamburg? Nein,it’s none of the usual suspects.

Remarkably, 1899 Hoffenheim, a club from a village with a population of 3,200, has led the Bundesliga for three straight weeks. All it took to create this fairy tale was a billionaire and a talented forward who cut his teeth playing high school and college soccer in the United States.

In 18 years, Hoffenheim rose from obscurity to claim first in the race for the German title. With promotion and relegation not a factor in American sports, it’s hard to find a comparison. It would be something like a football team from Bladensburg topping the Washington Redskins in the NFL standings.

Unbelievable? Yes, but money changes everything.

After back-to-back promotions, Hoffenheim (11-4-1, 34 points) reached the top flight for the first time this season and leads the league above 21-time German champion Bayern Munich. The club lost 2-1 on an injury-time goal in its first game against Bayern on Friday but remains in the lead with its better goal differential.

Hoffenheim, which is near Heidelberg in southwest Germany, is backed by 68-year-old software billionaire Dietmar Hopp, who co-founded software giant SAP AG. The club’s top forward is Vedad Ibisevic, whose parents moved to St. Louis from their native Bosnia in 2001. Ibisevic, 24, had a stunning high school career and played a season for St. Louis University in 2003, when he was named NCAA freshman of the year before heading to Europe. He’s the leading scorer in Germany with 18 goals — including one against Bayern.

“I’m very proud of my son,” said Ibisevic’s father, Saban. “My son was always on the soccer field since he was a small child. Ever since he did well, we have been following his career closely and watching all his games and reading the articles in the paper.”

Saban, a former factory worker in the St. Louis area, said he wanted his son to stay in college and get an education. But when French club Paris Saint-Germain came calling, Vedad jumped at the chance. After struggling for a few seasons, he joined Hoffenheim in 2007 and helped the team reach the Bundesliga.

Hopp took over the team in 1990. The story goes that he received a fundraising letter from the struggling club as it sought to buy new jerseys and balls. Hopp sent a $7,000 check and then decided to buy the team. So far, he has pumped $250 million into the club.

In 2006, Ralf Rangnick, a popular coach known for his obscure training methods, was lured to Hoffenheim and helped complete the team’s journey to the top flight. Rangnick includes fencing, bowling and boxing into his training routines.

After reaching the Bundesliga, the club moved from its tiny venue to play at nearby Mannheim’s stadium, which has a capacity of 26,022. Hopp is building a 30,000-seat venue that is set to open next year.

How long Hoffenheim can prolong its rags-to-riches drama remains to be seen, but with one game left before the winter break, Christmas has come early for the newcomers.

Notes - Maryland plays Creighton in College Park at 1 p.m. Saturday in the NCAA men’s soccer quarterfinals. … The NCAA women’s final will be at 2 p.m. Sunday in Cary, N.C. It will air on ESPN2. … The U.S. under-20 women’s team faces North Korea in the FIFA U-20 World Cup final at 4:30 p.m. Sunday in Santiago, Chile.