Leaders Hoffenheim determined to become force

BERLIN - Bundesliga newcomers Hoffenheim have already left their mark in their debut season and hope to become a major force in German football after being crowned "winter champions" last week.

The promoted team, who until now have used a rental stadium to hold its support drawn from a village of 3,300 people, lead the standings after 17 matches on goal difference from champions Bayern Munich.

"We are deserved "winter champions"," multi-millionaire software pioneer Dietmar Hopp, who has bankrolled the club since the 1990s, told German paper Bild on Tuesday.

"If we keep it up... we are a force to be reckoned with. I am not saying we will be champions but we will hang on up there," said Hopp, who will watch his team's second half of the season from a newly-built 30,000 seat stadium.

With a core of players who won promotion and former Schalke coach Ralf Rangnick at the helm, Hoffenheim have excelled on the big stage with their attacking style of football.

"I would not have believed it if someone would have told me that after 17 matches we would have had 35 points," Rangnick said.

"We cannot take big steps anymore. Now it is all about maintaining that level and improving step by step."

The leaders, who were playing in the German regional leagues at the turn of the decade, have scored a Bundesliga-leading 42 goals with Bosnia striker Vedad Ibisevic averaging over a goal game to top the scoring charts on 18.

STRONG BAYERN

Hoffenheim's achievements this season are even more remarkable given Bayern's resurgence in form.

After a rocky start under new coach Juergen Klinsmann, the champions have improved since France midfielder Franck Ribery's return from injury in late September, winning eight out of the last ten league matches.

Klinsmann's side have also qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League and the last 16 of the German Cup with ease.

Bayern have felt uncomfortable at the domestic spotlight falling on Hoffenheim with manager Uli Hoeness saying their success was purely down to Hopp's money.

Hopp, the co-founder of the software company SAP, began investing into the local club he had played for as a child over a decade ago when they were just another local league team with no real aspirations.

However they have resisted going on a major spending spree, even after winning promotion to the top flight.

Strikers Chinedu Obasi, Demba Ba and Ibisevic, who have a combined total of 31 league goals this season, were all playing in the second division last year.

Their biggest signing so far has been former Germany international keeper Timo Hildebrand, who joined last week after a luckless spell at Spanish club Valencia.

"We never looked for a star," Hopp said. "The fact that a star has found his way to us on favourable terms does not mean our strategy changes."