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Page last updated at 14:05 GMT, Monday, 16 March 2009

Germany's surprise package team

Hoffenheim fans
Hoffenheim's new stadium holds 10 times the population of the village itself

By Stephen Fottrell
BBC Sport, Hoffenheim, Germany

Perhaps there is an air of inevitability to Hoffenheim's recent drop from first to fifth position in the German Bundesliga table, but it is important to remember just how far this team has come in such a short time.

The side from the little southern German village - population just 3,300 - captured the imagination of fans across Europe when they shot to the top of the pile in only their first season in the top flight.

A closer inspection reveals just how remarkable their journey to the summit has been.

Visiting the village, it is easy to see just how much the area has been transformed by the fortunes of the local team.

Over the last 10 years, they have risen up through the ranks to take their place among the elite.

Demba Ba
Senegal's Demba Ba is one of three African strikers in the team

Barely two years ago, they were playing to crowds of just a few hundred.

They now sell out their brand new 30,000-seater arena in the neighbouring town of Sinsheim - population just 12,000 - attracting a new and fiercely loyal fan-base, who travel from up to 100km away.

TSG 1899 Hoffenheim's success owes itself mainly to a side made up of young, previously unknown, hugely promising footballing talents.

At their core is a group of young African players, who were cleverly scouted and brought in by the team's coach Ralf Rangnick - an experienced name in German football who dropped to the third tier to take on the challenge.

Nigerian Chinedu Obasi Ogbuke, Senegal's Demba Ba, Ghana defender Isaac Vorsah, and recent addition Ivorian Boubacar Sanogo have all contributed to shaping an African spine to the team.

Obasi and Ba were at the heart of much of the attacking flair that contributed to the side's electric form in the first half of the season - a run that saw them looking down on many established footballing giants throughout the league's winter break.

Ba has scored 11 goals this season including a hat-trick away to Stuttgart last month, and has fed off the assists of the creative Obasi for many of them.

But it was the Bundesliga's top scorer, Bosnian Vedad Ibisevic, who grabbed many of the headlines, scoring an incredible 18 goals in 17 league matches before his season was ended by a cruciate ligament injury.

His absence has been keenly felt but it has opened the door for the Africans - three of whom are strikers - to form a unique partnership up front, with all three starting together for the first time earlier this month.

Ibisevic told BBC Sport that he hopes to see the Africans fill the attacking hole left by his absence in their season run-in.

"They're definitely great football players and I don't see a reason why they wouldn't keep scoring goals," he said.

Obasi has struggled with his own fitness of late and is currently sidelined with a hip injury, but he hopes to make a swift return to the team's all-African attack.

"It's great being part of this history. I feel great, I feel honoured," Obasi said.

"We [the Africans] have really good communication, we're like brothers and we try to help each other out whenever we can.

(L-R) Demba Ba, Chinedu Obasi Ogbuke and Vedad Ibisevic all celebrate a Hoffenheim goal
Ibisevic (R) remains the league's top scorer, despite being sidelined

"But the team itself is like a family. It's not just about being African or German or whatever, it's about trying to fight for each other."

The team will look to recover some of that fighting spirit if they are to keep alive the dream of challenging for the Bundesliga title, or at least for a Champions League spot.

However, captain and German international defender Marvin Compper says their incredible form in the early part of the season may have risen the hopes of their fans too high.

"With success comes expectation," he said.

"We played really well in the first half of the season, so people think this is the level we have to play every week.

"But still we are a young team so it's not possible to always play on the same level and the most important thing is that we don't let the pressure eat us up."

A brief conversation with fans around the village or at the stadium quickly convinces you, though, that supporters in the area remain fiercely proud of this team and to be challenging for honours at all is far beyond what they could have imagined.

"Of course there is a chance," one fan standing beside the club's training ground said, "but we don't need to win, because it's an achievement at all just to be here and that's enough".

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see also
New home for German giant-killers
30 Jan 09 |  Europe
African goals in Europe: 22-23 Feb
23 Feb 09 |  African
European football photos
21 Feb 09 |  Europe
Obasi doubtful for Mozambique tie
10 Mar 09 |  African
Nigeria refuse request for Ogbuke
12 Aug 08 |  African
Ogbuke released for Olympics
20 Jul 08 |  African

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