SC FREIBURG’S Schwarzwald Stadion is blessed with much more natural charm than most grounds. The rolling hills of the Black Forest tower out over the back of the modest North Stand, frequently glistening with snow in the winter or radiating the heat of the sweltering southern German summers. The fumes from sausage stands outside the stadium on match days struggle to compete with the mix of the fresh scent of firs and clean air of the sparkling centre of the chic student city.
Being able at any time to stop, relax and enjoy the view of the sprawling natural delight that has spawned its fair share of fairy tales can’t be the only reason the club and its fans seem to be in near total contentment as they hover forever between the Bundesliga’s upper mid-table and the 2. Bundesliga. It might just play a part, though.
Understatement and level-headedness are as much a part of Freiburg’s DNA as their pre-eminence in yo-yoing between Germany’s top two tiers, with five promotions to the Bundesliga since 1993. Although in their case, the constant ups and downs feel a bit more like gently rocking to and fro in a hammock. In 2011, months after securing their best finish in a decade – ninth in the Bundesliga – club president Fritz Keller rather modestly assured: “We want to be among the top 25 clubs in Germany over the next few years.”
That can proudly take its place in the shortlist of targets the football club has met in full. After a single season down in the 2. Bundesliga in 2015/16, Freiburg took a sensational seventh place top-flight finish in the 2016/17 season. Things have been a little trickier this season after the departure of star playmaker Maximilian Philipp to Dortmund for €20m in the summer. One win in their opening 12 matches left Freiburg in the relegation zone for much of the autumn, and although they have since climbed out, they remain just a handful of points clear of 16th – the position that forces a club into a post-season relegation/promotion playoff.
If this were happening to your typical Premier League side, it would no doubt have been a recipe for anguished calls to radio phone-ins and a nervy chairman reaching to trigger the managerial ejector seat. Freiburg manager Christian Streich, in contrast, is about as immovable as the Black Forest – and just as loved.
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Streich is a man who fits the profile of the club to a tee. He would struggle not to given the 16 years he spent working with the club’s youth teams before a role as assistant to Marcus Sorg, who became the first manager Freiburg ever sacked in 2011. Having been convinced back then to take the hot seat against his instinct, Streich is now the Bundesliga’s longest-serving manager. It is Streich’s persona, as much as his successful brand of football, which has earned this grounded, humble and hard-working club great respect from neutrals.
Streich has a remarkable ability to both freely proclaim worldly knowledge untypical of a football manager and retain a simple, focused outlook. In his candid press conferences, the highlights of which have been viewed millions of times on YouTube, he cuts an assured figure both rubbishing the ridiculous elements of modern football and making it clear what values he wants his team to embody.
For instance, Streich scathed both Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Neymar’s recent transfers by warning the God of money is consuming football. He has praised Cristiano Ronaldo’s ripped chest, pointing out how much work went into it, but in his next breath criticised the way marketing has implanted this image everywhere and turned many young players into showmen.
While Streich’s wisdom on mega transfers and politics – he is an avowed supporter of immigration and environmentalism – has attracted the widest attention, the direct impact of his thinking on his team is also clear from his refreshingly open style of communication. First and foremost, he conveys maximum faith in his players and refuses, quite convincingly, to be swayed or pressured by media narratives. He said before a relegation six-pointer against Kaiserslautern in March 2012, for instance, that there is no such thing as a must-win match for his players: “The only thing we must do in life is die,” he added with typically deadpan humour.
Streich has downplayed the club’s successes in similar style, saying during Freiburg’s fantastic 2012/13 season – during which they finished fifth in the Bundesliga – that one of the greatest pleasures of his job was receiving compliments after asking in the supermarket where the mustard is. He is equally happy to dismiss indulging in tactical fads, carefully explaining his disinterest in man marking when it was suggested ahead of Freiburg’s recent encounter with Werder Bremen that they place a man on Max Kruse.
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Shape, structure and sweat are the cornerstones of Streich’s footballing brand, or perhaps more accurately, footballing organic label. Freiburg work hard, press hard and move fast with the ball. Continually interchanging between a 3-4-3 and a 4-4-2 with a pair of defensive midfielders has made them an unpredictable side to face. After their poor start to the season, they have gained a number of eye-catching results – beating Leipzig 2-1 and Gladbach 1-0 at home and holding free-scoring Dortmund and Leverkusen to goalless draws. All with a defence whose most senior regular is 24-year-old Christian Günter.
Freiburg may only have a slim chance of matching last season’s seventh-placed finish and earning another go at the Europa League, having suffered a disappointing exit against Slovenia’s Domzale in the third qualifying round in the summer. This season has still produced its share of iconic moments, though – most notably Nils Petersen’s jaw-dropping goal in a 2-2 draw at Dortmund in January. The striker, who moved to Freiburg in 2015 after failing to break through at Bayern and Werder Bremen, chipped the goalkeeper from 40 yards with his second touch after winning the ball. It was a wonder strike par excellence. Yet the build-up to the goal says so much about Freiburg’s relentless team ethic.
With Dortmund in possession, Lukas Kübler first chased Jadon Sancho back into his own half with all the intensity of the breed of dog named after Rottweil, a town close to Freiburg in the Black Forest area. The ball was passed back to Nuri Şahin, who was uncharacteristically hurried into misplacing a pass by Petersen’s ferocious pressing. Freiburg only have one away win to their name this season – a 4-3 victory on a snowbound pitch in Cologne. Coming back from 3-0 down to nick that with a stoppage-time Petersen penalty was another indication of their pluckiness.
Freiburg’s recruitment is every bit as intelligent and professional yet down to earth as their playing ethos. As a provincial club sponsored by a local dairy with a €6m record signing, they are fully aware of their constraints. They ruthlessly exploit the opportunities presented by being one of the Bundesliga’s smallest clubs. They offer a safety net where young talents who slipped through the system at bigger clubs can try to gain experience or relaunch careers, such as young Austrian defender Philipp Lienhart on loan from Real Madrid, Marc-Oliver Kempf, signed from Eintracht Frankfurt, Pascal Stenzel, who came from Dortmund, and Janik Haberer, who failed to break through at Hoffenheim.
The young quartet have made over 170 appearances for Freiburg after just five first-team showings altogether at their previous clubs. Haberer, a phenomenal presser who can play in any attacking position, has been the standout performer and played a part in the German under-21 team’s European title win last summer. Streich leaves no doubt about his faith in young players, having said: “I have met 12-year-olds with bigger personalities than 40-somethings.”
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SC Freiburg also have deep roots entrenched through the sprawling picturesque valleys in their home region of Baden, on which they have built an enviable academy. The academy counts three current Freiburg first-team regulars amongst its graduates: goalkeeper Alexander Schwolow, central midfielder Nicolas Höfler and left-back Christian Günter. In addition to Maximilian Philipp, other academy graduates to have been sold on for good money include Gladbach’s Matthias Ginter, Dortmund’s Ömer Toprak and Hoffenheim’s Oliver Baumann. It has long been this way. The club’s all-time top scorer remains a local lad from a small Black Forest town – German national team manager Joachim Löw.
Freiburg’s contentment in rumbling along in the Bundesliga, thriving in its underdog status and braving the odd relegation, can’t be stressed enough. It is an exemplary case of a club defining its own idea of success without itching to throw common sense aside and strive for the unachievable. I was a frequent visitor to the Schwarzwald Stadion in 2004/05, a season in which Freiburg finished with a pathetic 18 Bundesliga points, half of what they needed to avoid relegation.
They had an inadequate side at that time that was given a humiliating, season-long lesson. The fans knew their club’s limits, though, and there was barely a sour face to be seen throughout it all. The position of Volker Finke, who had been managing the side for 13 years by then, was never called into question. One of my most vivid memories of that season is a tram full of bouncing Bremen fans singing taunts about Freiburg’s impending relegation and being met by smiles and puzzlement from locals.
Daniel Sand, editor of Freiburg fan site Nur Der SCF tells These Football Times: “[The fans] Would prefer to go down now and again than survive by the skin of our teeth every year like Hamburg. You get to see some new stadiums, be a big fish in the second division and then enjoy a promotion party.”
Freiburg show that you don’t need be sweeping honours every year to be a team oozing confidence. It is a club that knows exactly what it does well and enjoys doing it. It is aware of its traditions and values, but not afraid of change. By 2020, the club plans to relocate from the ageing facilities of the Schwarzwald Stadion to a new stadium in the city’s north-west. With space for an extra 10,000 spectators – a capacity of just under 35,000 – the project is modestly ambitious and sustainable at a cost of just €70m. Freiburg appear to have locals and fans fully behind the move, with over 12,000 spots reserved for standing.
The backdrop at the new home won’t be quite as spectacular, but, nature behind the stands or not, expect the carefully nurtured soul of the club to survive intact.
By Dan Billingham @D_Billingham