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Jan 7, 2009

Ibisevic the hero of Hoffenheim fairy tale

Vedad Ibisevic is a 24-year-old Bosnian international whose goals helped propel Hoffenheim to top spot in the Bundesliga heading into the winter break in Germany.

In part one of an exclusive interview with ESPNsoccernet Ibisevic told the remarkable story of how a team from a village with a population of 3000 has taken one of Europe's top league by storm.

ESPNsoccernet: Here we are at the winter break in Bundesliga and your newly-promoted club, Hoffenheim, is at the top of the table. Did you think this was possible?

Vedad Ibisevic: It is a crazy story, I think, that in the last couple of months everybody's talking about little Hoffenheim. I'm just happy to be at this team, in the team right now, and hopefully we can keep playing like this.

Do you think the expectations are going to be much different for the second part of the season for Hoffenheim?

I really think so, because a lot of people see us as favorites now, because we showed we can play very well. I personally think it's going to be much harder for us to keep playing like this because other teams already know our weaknesses, our strengths, and it's going to be difficult for us.

What were the goals for this team before the season? Five years ago, Hoffenheim were in Germany's fifth division.

Well, we knew that we had good, young talented players on the team but our goal for the season was to stay in the Bundesliga, just keep the status of our first division team. At the same time, we didn't really know where we stood because we never played teams like Bayern Munich, like Stuttgart and all of them. I think very important for us was to win a couple of first games and to get confidence.

Was there a game during the first part of the season where the team realized you can play with the best?

I think after the second game. We won the first game at Cottbus 3-0, and in the second game, at home, we won against Monchengladbach, 1-0. That's actually where guys figured out we can play in this league and we should just keep going.

As well as Demba Ba and Chinedu Obasi, talk about some of your other teammates.

I think our strength this season is that we click so well together. The guys from the midfield like Sejad Salihovic, like Tobias Weis, Eduardo, everybody brings something new to the team and I would never be able to score so many goals without them so I think they're all great players and I'm happy to play with them.

What's been the reaction around Germany, outside of Hoffenheim, to the success of your team and your personal success?

It's been pretty crazy, I mean, everybody wanted to see what Hoffenheim could do in the Bundesliga. Nobody expected so much success but now that we played the first half of the season so well, everybody keeps talking about Hoffenheim and a lot of people see us, like I said, as favorites, and that's a lot of responsibility now for us.

It's been said that very often success is about money - Bayern Munich are big spenders - but that really hasn't been the case of Hoffenheim, has it?

(From last season), we have maybe one new guy in the team that's starting and we have showed everybody it was not about money. I'm pretty happy because of that and now everybody's talking about our beautiful game and nobody's talking about money anymore.

Bayern trail Hoffenheim on goal difference. You lost to them shortly before the winter break. Was their late winner tough to take?

Everybody was talking about this game for two weeks beforehand and was pumped up for it. I think it was a little worse for us because most of the guys don't have a lot of experience with the media.

The game itself went pretty good until the last minute (when) a lack of concentration and experience led us to lose this game. I really think we deserved not to lose but I just hope we can learn something from the game and take this experience with us.

What about your manager, Ralph Rangnick? Tell us a little bit about him, his mentality, as well as his philosophy and his importance to the success of Hoffenheim.

He's the main guy responsible for all this success. He's the manager who had so much experience at a high level - he was coach at Schalke 04 and Stuttgart - so he saw what is working and what is not working in the Bundesliga.

He brought everything to this club but at the same time he got freedom from the owner so he could do anything he wanted. I think he's a great coach. All of his ideas are concentrated on our offensive game, which is very successful for right now.

What about the role of Dietmar Hopp, Hoffenheim's owner and one of the founding members of the software giant, SAP. How important is he to the club?

I think he's really important - he just built a new stadium for the team and has been the main sponsor but I also think in the last couple of years the team itself got strong, through great success and great results. I think he's still very important to the club but the club is now relying on its own results and its own money.

Until you begin play in your new stadium, the team's home games have been played in Mannheim. Are you looking forward to playing closer to Hoffenheim and where do the supporters come from? Only 3000 people live in Hoffenheim.

We've had a lot of fun playing in Mannheim. It has been a great stadium for us - we didn't lose one game there - but now we are moving to our new home, which is going to be in Sinsheim, and I'm looking forward to it.

It's going to be a really nice stadium, built for 30,000 spectators. Our fans are actually people from the region - this small team is called Hoffenheim and it is a small village - but it's basically made for the region, for people from Mannheim, from Heidelberg, from Sinsheim. Those are all cities that don't have professional teams, so they're all going to be coming to our stadium.

Given the form Hoffenheim showed in the first half of the season, do you almost wish there was no winter break? Will it be hard to pick up where you left off?

We were playing pretty well so we could probably think it was better not to have this break but, at the same time, Bayern Munich were playing very well in the last couple of weeks too. I think the break came in the right moment because most of the guys were a little tired from the season. Hopefully we can just continue that in the second half.

After, perhaps, overachieving in the first half of the season, how do you sustain that form and, if you don't win the Bundesliga, can what you've done so far be considered a success?

I think so. Our goal was just to stay in first division so we should go into the second half of the season from zero (points) and just try to win every game if it's possible. At the same time, if you lose, it's not going to be the end of the world so I think, if we play with this mentality, we can make a good season.

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