Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Hoffenheim was an amateur club in Germany's eighth division back in 1990, when Dietmar Hopp decided to get involved with the club he played at as a kid.
Hopp, one of the founders of European software giant SAP, eventually started to pour money into the club, and Hoffenheim's amazing rise through German soccer is nearing the pinnacle less than two decades later.
Hoffenheim, which was still a fifth division club as recently as 2000, sits in first place in the German Bundesliga - the country's top level - at the winter break.
The unofficial title, labeled the Herbstmeister (German for autumn champions), has more often than not led to the overall title at the end of the season.
In the Bundesliga's previous 45 seasons, the team that led at the winter break has won the title 31 times.
Although Kaiserslautern in 1998 is the only team to win the Bundesliga in its first season in the league, Hopp believes Hoffenheim is in position to repeat that feat.
Vedad Ibisevic leads the league with 18 goals in just 17 games.
"We are deserved winter champions," Hopp told Bild. "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."
If Hoffenheim does manage to hang on, it would be its first title since winning the Oberliga Baden-Wurttemberg, or German fourth division, in 2000-01.
Hoffe spent the next few seasons in the third division, before a second-place finish in the Regionalliga Sud in 2006-07 moved the club into the Bundesliga 2.
Hoffenheim needed just one season to take the next step into Germany's highest level, finishing second in the second division in 2007-08.
Now, against some of the best teams in Europe, Hoffenheim is trying to complete the amazing run. Of course, with its lead based only on goal differential over 21-time German champion Bayern Munich, that won't be easy.
"If someone had offered me 35 points ahead of the season," Hoffenheim boss Ralf Rangnick told the league's website, "I'd probably have taken them.
"From now on, the improvements will be smaller ones. It's about stabilizing the level and improve step by step."
Hopp's money has undoubtedly fueled the team's success - Hoffenheim dished out a record $11.2 million for Brazilian Carlos Eduardo last season - but decisions made by the club have played a more crucial role.
In addition to adding Eduardo, Hoffenheim has put together the highest-scoring team in the Bundesliga. Ex-Saint Louis University Billiken and Bosnian international Vedad Ibisevic leads the league with 18 goals in just 17 games, while Senegal striker Demba Ba has seven goals and Nigerian striker Chinedu Obasi six.
To put Ibisevic's total in perspective, he has as many or more goals than four teams in Bundesliga, seven teams in the English Premier League, eight teams in Spain's La Liga and eight teams in Italy's Serie A.
"That's not normal," Ibisevic, who has an shot at German and Bayern Munich icon Gerd Muller's record of 40 goals in a season, told the league's website.
A few months ago, Ibisevic, Ba and Obasi were unknowns. But now, clubs all over Europe, including Bayern Munich, are reportedly interested in Ibisevic. Offers for Ba and Obasi are likely to roll in as well.
Midfield trio Eduardo, Sejad Salihovic and Tobias Weis, not to mention defender Marvin Compper - the latter two were recent call-ups to the German team - are also sure to be on other teams' radars. German defender Andreas Beck is likely close to getting a look with Germany and is probably on the wish list for a few teams as well.
But unlike too many promoted clubs, who really have no choice but to sell their best players when Europe's richest clubs come calling, Hopp's money erases that problem.
Hoffenheim has instead made a move to strengthen its title hopes, adding German goalie Timo Hildebrand on a free transfer from Valencia. Hildebrand failed to establish himself at the Spanish club and hopes to regain previous form back in Germany.
Hildebrand, who played for Germany's Stuttgart from 1999-2007, should take over for current goalies Daniel Haas (11 starts) and Ramazan Ozcan (six starts). He still holds the league mark of 884 straight minutes - nearly 10 full matches - without allowing a goal and got his start under Rangnick.
"He is the ideal picture of a goalkeeper," Rangnick said. "He has personality and confidence."
There are major obstacles when the second half of the season starts in January, mainly a Bayern club that finished the first half on a 16-game undefeated run.
On the 14 occasions when the midseason leader didn't win the title, Bayern has claimed six of those championships. Hertha Berlin, Hamburg and Bayer Leverkusen are also all within three points of the leaders.
Hoffenheim will also open a new stadium in January - another gift from Hopp - when newly-built Rhein-Neckar-Arena opens in Sinsheim. But Hoffe will be saying goodbye to Carl-Benz-Stadion in Mannheim, where it was 7-0-2 in the first half of the season.
Despite the hurdles ahead, Hoffenheim convinced every team in Germany it will stay in the race all season. Although Hoffe lost its clash with Bayern in early December, the last-second loss in Munich was the biggest statement yet to prove the club wasn't simply on a run of good luck in the first half.
Rangnick knows "opponents will adapt to our game better" in the second half and "we have to find good answers."
Hoffenheim has done that successfully for years now, and coming up with one last solution to hold off Bayern and its other challengers doesn't seem like too big of a challenge.
Especially for a team that has scaled seven divisions in such a short time.