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Village Club Hoffenheim Join Bundesliga Elite

Village club Hoffenheim from southern Germany clinched promotion to the top-flight Bundesliga Sunday with a 5-0 victory over Greuther Fuerth to complete a remarkable rise from the country's lower leagues.

Hoffenheim players

Hoffenheim's Chinedu Obasi, left, and Sejad Salihovic celebrate

The village club, backed by a billionaire investor, have gained promotion to the top flight after just one season in the second division.

The victory by the team led by coach Ralf Rangnick, led to euphoria in Hoffenheim, close to Heidelberg and which is home to just 3,300 people.

Ralf Rangnick

Ralf Rangnick had much to celebrate

"It's a very special day for the region," Rangnick said.

Hoffenheim join Borussia Moenchengladbach and Cologne, who were already assured of promotion.

Former top-flight club Kaiserslautern meanwhile avoided relegation to the third division with a 3-0 win over Cologne. Kickers Offenbach, SC Paderborn, Erzgebirge Aue and Carl Zeiss Jena are the four teams relegated.

Rags to riches

Hoffenheim's remarkable rise from amateur obscurity into the top echelons of professional German soccer, where they will be competing next season with the likes of Bayern Munich, Werder Bremen and Schalke 04, reads like a rags-to-riches tale.

At the end of the 1980s, the village sports club was home to nothing more than a team of weekend amateurs kicking in the local eighth division.

Most Germans would be at a loss even to locate Hoffenheim on the map. Little more than a district of the small town of Sinsheim, between Heilbronn and Mannheim, it is hardly the cradle of soccer.

But things changed in 1989 when Dietmar Hopp, one of the co-founders of the software giant SAP and one of Germany's richest men, donated 10,000 German marks (5,000 euros) to the local club he used to play for so that they could buy balls, track suits and other items.

The club has since been dubbed Germany's "richest village team," thanks to the big-money backing of soccer-crazy Hopp, 68. SAP, Europe's largest software firm, has its headquarters not far away in Walldorf near Heidelberg.

Big bucks

Promotion to the second division last year was remarkable enough, but Hoffenheim have now done better than even Hopp had imagined.

The billionaire had hoped for a period of consolidation in what has probably been the strongest second tier in Germany for some time.

Dietmar Hopp at Hoffenheim

Dietmar Hopp with his boys

Now he can look forward to World Cup winners like Bayern's Luca Toni visiting the tiny club who hope to have a new 40-million-euro ($60 million) stadium with a capacity of 30,000 spectators to ready by early next year.

"It will take some getting used to," Bayern Munich president Franz Beckenbauer said.

Hopp, who is a golfing buddy of Beckenbauer's, seems to have applied his keen business acumen to revamping the club, hiring some of Germany's best coaches and buying young talented players from Africa.

Former Bayern player Hansi Flick -- now co-trainer of the German national team -- coached the side to promotion to the regional league in 2001. At the helm now is Ralf Rangnick, former coach of Hanover, Stuttgart and Schalke.

And if Hopp's plans bear fruit, Hoffenheim are also going to be a big name in German soccer.

Hopp says he will be investing in some new players for the next season but only in three or four positions. He wants the club to develop its own talent, and with this in mind has invested millions in training centres.

"We want to realize a project that is unique in Germany," Hopp had been quoted as saying.

Envious critics

"For now we are simply happy," Hopp said after Sunday's game. "It is going to be difficult enough for us in the Bundesliga."

The rise to the top has not been without its critics, and there are clubs who are struggling financially who may be justified in feeling envious of Hoffenheim's possibilities.

But Hopp dismissed this as the Hoffenheim players celebrated wildly after clinching promotion, saying fans should focus on their own clubs rather than be envious of others.

"They should accept a club's sporting achievement for what it is," he said.

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