Fabulous Freiburg aiming for Champions League with authenticity, culture, continuity

ESPN’s lead Bundesliga commentator on the secrets of Freiburg, the little team from the German south west that continues to pack a punch. Could a Champions League place be in their future?

All top division football clubs have natural enemies, or so we might think, yet SC Freiburg are the glaring exception. In all my travels across Germany or in daily interactions with Bundesliga fans on social media, I can’t recall coming across anyone who professes to detest those awful upstarts from the Breisgau region.

There’s a certain purity and wholesomeness about Freiburg that is impossible to dislike. Indeed, one could go as far as to say their continuing presence in the Bundesliga, and this season at its upper end, makes most football supporters smile and nod their heads in approval, which is a rarity in the often verbally strident modern game.

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Ask most neutrals which person is most synonymous with the club and you’ll get a fairly unanimous answer: It’s not a player, but Christian Streich who recently celebrated 10 years as head coach. The thought of Freiburg without Streich is a bit like envisaging the Schwarzwald region without its delicious array of chocolate sponge cakes. The likeable Streich is the cherry on top, and then some, for a club rooted in its community. But longevity is nothing new for tacticians in the Breisgau. Volker Finke, the first coach to guide Freiburg into the Bundesliga in 1993, was in place for 16 years. Finke, a man of the north, didn’t speak in the regional Badisch manner of the current occupant of the technical area.

Many a German student who thought they could fully understand German has had to do a double take when Streich holds court. But that is all part of his charm. Streich, a butcher’s son from Weil am Rhein, where Germany, France and Switzerland meet, retains his independence and isn’t going to march to anyone else’s beat.

He occasionally tackles social issues such as racism and equality head on at press conferences when others might be tempted to shy away. Let’s just sum it up by saying say Donald Trump is about as far away as you can go, from Streich’s idea of a true world role model.

To return to the subject of continuity of personnel, two other important decision makers need to be highlighted. Jochen Saier has worked at the club since 2002 and since 2013, he and former Freiburg player Klemens Hartenbach have served effectively as twin sporting directors. There is no muddled structure at Freiburg, thus enabling decisions on acquisitions, emphasis and strategy to be made with speed and clarity.

The one common theme in squad building is that divas are not really welcome. It’s uncanny how the players they sign, even though some might have individual quality in abundance, are prepared to buckle down for the sake of the collective.

Freiburg can be quirky too in, for example, not being keen on telling the wider world about the length of a contract, such as with Streich. Some things in the Breisgau region must remain private.

Freiburg don’t always get things right, of course. As recently as 2014-15, they were relegated. But rather than panic and make a coaching change for the sake of change, Saier and Hartenbach stood by Streich and he repaid the faith shown in him by leading the Breisgauer back to the top flight as 2. Bundesliga champions the following season.

Why complicate something unnecessarily? If Freiburg were to fall again, the club bosses would make the same decision once more. The status quo makes sense when you have someone and something special on board.

Streich from time to time has been linked with other bigger clubs, including even Bayern a few years ago when they were struggling to find a fit. But the man who famously cycles all around the pleasing university city knows he would have to pedal a bit more frantically elsewhere. In an industry laced with uncertainty, why wouldn’t you want to do what you love in your familiar home environment?

Many will wonder how it is Freiburg find themselves in third place going into the second half of the Bundesliga campaign. The truth is they have been aided by the collapse of teams like RB Leipzig, VfL Wolfsburg and Borussia Monchengladbach, who were expected to compete a lot higher up the table than they currently are.

But Freiburg are there on merit after a deserved win over Bayer Leverkusen on the final day of the Bundesliga’s 2021 campaign. A particular strength of the team is the defence (they and Bayern have jointly conceded fewest goals, a total of just 16.) Nico Schlotterbeck, 22, has been the standout at the back and it will be a surprise if he’s not part of Hansi Flick’s new guard at the World Cup later this year.

Other top performers include Dutch keeper Mark Flekken, whose interpretation of the position is modern, Austrian stalwart and former Real Madrid prospect Philipp Lienhart, midfield “staubsauger” (vacuum cleaner) Nicolas Hofler and selfless captain Christian Gunter — enjoying perhaps his best ever season making shuttle runs up and down the left.

But the artist is Vincenzo Grifo. Born in Pforzheim, the skillful Grifo has fond memories of growing up playing football on the street and on makeshift pitches with his friends, who were like Grifo himself, sons of immigrants. Grifo’s Italian parentage has allowed him to play six times for the reigning European champions.

Set-piece deliveries from his cultured right foot set Grifo apart from others. Of the 15 set-piece goals scored by the Breisgau club so far this term, 12 have been thanks to Grifo’s contributions with four of the goals being his own, including his recent Panenka penalty against Leverkusen. The aforementioned Schlotterbeck and Lienhart are threatening aerial targets when Grifo works his magic.

For the second year running at this stage, Freiburg are the best team in the Bundesliga when it comes to attacking dead-ball situations and Streich would be happy to give the credit to his dedicated assistants Florian Bruns and Lars Vossler, who concentrate heavily on this source of scoring.

It should be clear by know, everything good that happens in Freiburg is as a result of a cohesive team ethos. It could hardly be otherwise.

A Champions League place? Don’t bother asking Streich about that. Even if he might in quieter moments dream about it, he feels it would be getting ideas above his station to comment on it with a large chunk of the season still to go.

Jus three months ago the club moved away from their beautiful, charismatic old Dreisamstadion home ground, in the shadow of the hills and forest, to their shiny new home, the Europa-Park-Stadion, on the other side of town, and some mourned the passing of an era. But when your football club has a true soul in a special and appreciative part of Germany, no one should worry about Freiburg not knowing precisely who they are, and what they aspire to be.