Sinsheim - There were smiles all round as 1899 Hoffenheim kick-started their pre-season circuit on Monday.

2013/14's extraordinary escape act behind them, Markus Gisdol's men can now look forward to a sixth term in Germany's top flight.

Cinderella story


"We completed our own individual training programmes over the last few weeks before we rejoined the squad, but obviously we're not yet at the fitness levels required for the Bundesliga," explained one of last season's relegation play-off saviours Jannik Vestergaard. "Everyone can feel it getting more intensive."

Hoffenheim, though, are no strangers to intensity. From bottom of the pile to, fleetingly, the very top - all in the space of just 18 years - the south-western club are every bit German football's answer to Cinderella.

Transformation


It all began back in the early 1990s with the return of former player Dietmar Hopp; not in 1899 as the name might suggest. At the time, the club were nothing more than an amateur outfit, turning out in the eighth tier of domestic football, but that soon changed following years of shrewd financial management.

Putting faith in local talent, the club reached the Regionalliga Süd and, after four seasons in Germany's third tier, Hopp made his move. Large-scale investment attracted experienced players and, most importantly, head coach Ralf Rangnick, who would later propel the southern minnows into the big time.

Bundesliga staple


Rangnick's first season in charge ended in promotion to the Bundesliga 2. A year later, they'd reached the holy grail: the Bundesliga. By January 2008, they were top of the league. Although they finished the season seventh, successive eleventh-place finishes in the three campaigns that followed, coupled with a new, 30,000-seater stadium situated in the nearby town of Sinsheim, suggested 1899 were here to stay.

While Rangnick and a whole host of playing heroes have, at various junctures, moved on, Hoffenheim have continued their global recruitment drive to great effect, bringing in the likes of USA international Fabian Johnson and Brazil-born Belgium forward Igor de Camargo, which given the club's humble roots in a picturesque village boasting little more than 3,000 inhabitants is all the more remarkable. Fairytale indeed.

Christopher Mayer-Lodge