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The little soccer team that could


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    A flag for the local soccer team flies from a home in Hoffenheim, Germany.

    - Brett Neely

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    A hair salon's sign in Hoffenheim, Germany, shows its support for the village's soccer team. It reads: "Up into the first league."

    - Brett Neely

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    A house in Hoffenheim, Germany, painted in the local soccer team's colors.

    - Brett Neely

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    The Hoffenheim, Germany, team on its practice field behind a gas station.

    - Brett Neely

TEXT OF STORY

Tess Vigeland: Michael Phelps swims for his seventh gold medal tonight. After he finishes the water portion of his Olympic tour, he'll be trying for at least a silver on the pommel horse and then going for a world record in the high jump. But if you're looking for a bit of a break from the Beijing Games, the big soccer league Bundesliga might fit the bill. And the latest team to win its way into contention has many Germans worried about the state of their national sport. Brett Neely reports.


Brett Neely: [sound of birds singing] Hoffenheim is a tiny, scenic village in southwestern Germany. Think half-timbered houses and narrow streets. The town is also crazy about soccer.
Almost every building flies the blue and white flag of local team TSG Hoffenheim. One house is even painted in team colors. Last May, Hoffenheim shocked the nation when it scored its way into the big leagues of the Bundesliga. The locals are still cheering.

Village man: Hoffe-hoffe-Hopp! Hoorah, das ganze Dorf ist da!

That means, "the whole village is here!" Which isn't hard since there are only about 3000 native Hoffenheimers. But this is not your typical underfunded-underdog-team-makes-good story. Jochen Rotthaus is Hoffenheim's business manager.

Jochen Rotthaus [speaking through a translator]: We spent money, perhaps more money than others. It was an investment and now we're in the top league.

That money -- about $150 million -- came from billionaire and Hoffenheim native Dietmar Hopp. He co-founded SAP, the giant software company. He also played for TSG Hoffenheim in the 1950s. Hopp's deep pockets have made him a controversial figure, says soccer reporter Matthias Klappenbach.

Matthias Klappenbach: In Germany, if you have money, people don't like you. If you have success, people don't like you. And so the fans of the others clubs, they hate Hoffenheim.

But they don't hate the team simply because it is pulverizing their teams. German soccer fans are worried that Deitmar Hopp will usher in a new breed of super-rich owners. Owners who care more about money than they do about soccer. Right now, no individual can own more than 49 percent of any German soccer club. That's Hopp's share in Hoffenheim. The other 51 percent must be owned by fans, who have a say in how teams are managed. But soccer's ownership rules are expected to be relaxed in the next couple years. German teams need more money so they can compete with their richer European rivals.

[sounds of a soccer gam] Behind a gas station in the village, the team practices for its Bundesliga debut. A fancy training center funded by Hopp is being built nearby, as is a stadium with space for 32,000 that will draw fans from the surrounding region. Business manager Rotthaus says Hopp has no interest in running the show. His goal is to create a team that can support itself.

Rotthaus [translated]: He gave us seed money to get us started. But it was a loan. At the end of the day, we have it pay it back.

When the soccer club ownership rules do change, reporter Matthias Klappenbach says fans should expect the worst. He says powerful and demanding owners are sure to buy up Bundesliga teams. When that happens, Dietmar Hopp's money and methods may not look so bad.

Klappenbach: I think in a few years when other investors may come to the Bundesliga, the people begin to like Dietmar Hopp.

And that would be an underdog-makes-good story for Germany's top village soccer team.

In Hoffenheim, Germany, I'm Brett Neely for Marketplace.

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