Hinkel back in the Bundesliga
In 2006, Andreas Hinkel must have thought he had the world at his feet. Fresh from his transfer from Stuttgart to Spanish high-flyers Sevilla, the then 24-year-old went on to be part of numerous triumphs at the Andalucian club before moving to Scottish powerhouses Celtic two years later.
The former Germany international's success story continued with the Bhoys, until a cruciate ligament tear in late summer 2010 cost him the whole of last season. After three months without a club, Hinkel eventually agreed a deal with Bundesliga outfit SC Freiburg and has since become an integral part of the Black Forest side.
"It feels great to be back on the pitch," said Hinkel in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. "It's a wonderful feeling to be part of a team and I'm glad to be able to play again. Now I'm reaching a stage where I can really begin to contribute to the success of SC Freiburg."
The fact that Freiburg, currently 17th in the German top flight, are an altogether different proposition to some of his former clubs is of little consequence to the 29-year-old. "Finding a club wasn't the problem. It was finding one where the whole package felt right. I could have signed somewhere else earlier, but I wasn't under any pressure and I always said that it wasn't about the money. It had to feel right and that's certainly the case at SC Freiburg."
The public reaction to Hinkel's latest move was one of surprise. Having previously played in the UEFA Champions League with Stuttgart and having been part of a Sevilla squad that won the UEFA Super Cup, UEFA Cup and Copa del Rey, not to mention several further trophies with Celtic, a move to Freiburg, a city of just 200,000 inhabitants in southwest Germany, was seen by many as a step back.
Not a problem, according to the 21-time international: "The club is healthy and knows its limits. Ahead of the season it was clear that we'd be battling against relegation. I know what pure survival is all about and hopefully my experience will come in handy. I can help the team in Freiburg, so it's a win-win situation for both parties."
Hinkel's relief at returning to the Bundesliga is evident in every one of his sentences. As the defender admits, his time as a free agent between the end of his contract in Scotland and his new deal with SCF was difficult, in spite of the numerous offers which came his way.
"It was an uncertain time because I didn't know how things were going to pan out. Not being able to prove to clubs that I was fully fit and that my knee had recovered was difficult from a psychological point of view. That preyed on my mind a bit."
Hinkel's first serious injury cost him almost one-and-a-half years of his so far successful career, but with hindsight the devoted father has been able to take several positives from the ordeal, as he explained to FIFA.com.
"The rehabilitation period gave me the opportunity to finally switch off mentally. I'd never had the chance before as I'd been so caught up in the daily grind and was always pushing myself to the limit. A break like that can be invaluable. It gave me the chance to de-stress and build up my appetite for the game once again."
In the meantime Hinkel has made positive strides. His knee is holding up to the exertions of training and in his five Bundesliga appearances to date the 6'0 defender has performed admirably. Fitness and match practice are the only aspects lacking, but the ambitious right-footer is determined to reach his former level.
As for a return to the national side: "I'm trying to play as well as I can, I always demand that of myself. At the moment, though, the national team isn't an issue. I need to find my rhythm again first. I know I'm still a long way from my best form and I need to keep on improving," added Hinkel to round off the interview.
His current employers will be only too glad to hear of the former Germany defender's aspirations. Ultimately, an internationally-experienced campaigner could prove crucial to Freiburg's bid to avoid the drop.