Well, we haven’t really talked about football, have we? There are more important things in life. With these words, SC Freiburg trainer Christian Streich ended an emotional press conference before his team’s match against Armenia Bielefeld, in September. During the press conference, the issue of Germany’s recent influx of refugees was brought up, and one journalist asked Streich his opinions on the matter. What followed was typical Streich: emotional, political and eloquent, and delivered in his thick South-German accent. The refugee issue in Germany is complex, and one that has polarized family and friends, caused political and social chasms, and has affected the whole nation these past few months. What’s more, it is an issue without easy solutions. Still, with no intention of sidestepping the issue, Streich gave an impassioned answer, almost plea, to the gathered journalists on behalf of the country’s new arrivals. It was a scene more at home at a UN convention, not the build up to a second division football game – but Streich is no ordinary football trainer.
Following their latest victory, away at Heidenheim on Friday night, SC Freiburg sit top of the 2. Bundesliga, ahead of RB Leipzig on goal difference, and as it stands, they look set to bounce back from the bitter disappointment of relegation from the top flight last season.
As has been the case in recent years, anyone looking for drama in the Bundesliga had better look to the bottom of the table, rather than the top. Bayern Munich’s dominance has barely been challenged as Borussia Dortmund look to regroup, post Klopp, while Wolfsburg and Leverkusen continue to falter. Over the same three or four seasons, though, the scrap to stay in the league has involved some big-names, such as Hamburg, VfB Stuttgart and Werder Bremen – all of which are among the top five Bundesliga teams of all time in terms of points won.
Last season was no different, as both VfB and Hamburg found themselves in real danger of dropping into the 2. Bundesliga. In fact, whereas Stuttgart narrowly-escaped, Hamburg could only finish third from bottom, meaning a two-legged play-off with Karlsruhe, the third-place team from the second division. Many would argue that Hamburg, who needed the playoff the season before to stay up, deserved to be relegated. Nevertheless, despite falling behind in both legs, the 1983 European Cup winners managed to hold onto their Bundesliga status, and remain the only ever-present team in the league’s 52 year history.
But while VfB and Hamburg huffed and puffed, and wheezed their way to safety, SC Freiburg almost quietly slipped into the bottom two, and were relegated. You could argue that any team that finishes in the relegation zone deserves to be there on the simple basis that they have collected fewer points than the majority of the league. However, the negative atmosphere around the larger clubs at the bottom led to many thinking that maybe their time had come, even possibly some of their own fans. Freiburg, on the other hand, were on the receiving end of a wave of sympathy from neutrals as they went down, losing away at Hannover on the final day of the season.
Freiburg had only been in the bottom two for eight of the previous 33 weeks and went into the final round of matches on the back of a 2-1 home victory against Bayern Munich. The team, under Christian Streich, had finished 14th the season previous and were always going to be among the favorites for the drop. However, their relegation never seemed nailed on and many thought, and maybe hoped, they would somehow save themselves. Many fans of the league were well aware that Freiburg, and their trainer, would be missed.
Christian Streich was originally the co-trainer from Marcus Sorg, who lasted only half a season. The new man took over at the turn of the year and was initially hit with a setback as star striker Papiss Cisse was sold to Newcastle for €12 Million. Losing a key player in January is hard for any team, but even more so for one starting the second half of the season nailed to the bottom of the league. To illustrate the importance of Cisse, he finished the club’s top goal scorer that season with 9 league goals, despite playing only the first-half of the season. In the season before he’d hit 22 league goals, finishing only behind Mario Gomez at Bayern Munich in the race for the golden boot.
Despite being new in the role of first-team trainer, Streich was certainly not new to the club, serving over fifteen years as player and youth trainer. Consequently, he was aware of the young talent at his disposal and quickly reached into the youth set up and reserve team to booster his depleted squad – perhaps most notably with Matthias Ginter. Freiburg born-and-bred, Ginter was a powerful and promising teenage defender. Already on the radar of the fans, he had a debut to remember. After stepping up to train with the first team in the winter break, Ginter came on as a second-half substitute in the first came after the winter break, a home clash against fellow strugglers Augsburg, two days after his eighteenth birthday. In the 88th minute Ginter headed in a free kick to seal three valuable points. Aside from making him an instant hit with the fans, the goal made him the youngest Bundesliga goal scorer in the club’s history.
As well as introducing Ginter to the general footballing public, the game also saw Christian Streich take centre stage for the first time, and gave viewers a taste of what was to come from the league’s most idiosyncratic trainer.
As Ginter’s header hit the back of the net, the stadium erupted and the entire Freiburg bench ran onto to the pitch in celebration – apart from Streich. Motionless, he stood and took in the scene for a couple of seconds as his staff swarmed by him, before suddenly jerking into action and running down the touchline, bellowing at his players to get back into their own half and concentrate on seeing out the game. Gesticulating wildly and screaming to make himself heard over more than 20,000 relieved fans, you would think is team had just conceded.
The win lit the touch paper on an impressive second half of the season. Although they won none of their next five games, collecting only two points, Streich then led Freiburg on a run of ten-games without defeat, picking up 22 points from a possible 30. And, having looked doomed in the winter break, SC were safe with two games to spare, eventually finishing a very respectable 12th.
The following season Streich really took the club forward, and continued to place a lot of faith in youth. Matthias Ginter, the hero against Augsburg was now a bona fide first-teamer, and was regularly joined in the starting XI by fellow defenders Oliver Sorg and Christian Gunter, goalkeeper Oliver Baumann and offensive talent Daniel Caligiuri. The five players, who were all born locally were joined by Max Kruse, Streich’s shrewd €750,000 summer signing from St. Pauli, who went on to finish the season with 11 goals and 7 assists. Under the effervescent leadership of Streich, the team managed to carry their form from the back end of the old season into the new, ending the first half of the 2012/2013 season in fifth place – thirteen places higher than the year previous.
Free from the pressure of relegation, the team flourished – not only maintaining the league position and finishing fifth, but also reaching the semi-finals of the DFB Pokal for the first time in the club’s history. As remarkable as this may be, but for a defeat at the hands of Schalke on the final day of the season, SC Freiburg could have finished fourth, thus entering the Champion’s League qualification rounds. Still, a place in the Europa League and the club’s second-best ever finish in the Bundesliga was still cause for celebration, as was Streich – trainer of the year for 2013, as voted by the league’s players – signing a new long-term deal.
The team’s performances and youthful exuberance won it many almost as many fans as points. And as the team became more acclaimed, so did its stars become more coveted. For in spite of European qualification, Freiburg was still a small club, and was consequently powerless when other came knocking for five key players in the post season, among them Caligiuri, Kruse and Cédric Makiadi, who between them were responsible for almost half of the club’s league goals scored the season previous. Incidentally, all five players joined teams that had finished below Freiburg in the league.
As is often the case, entry into the Europa League turned out to be a poisoned chalice. The extra strain of mid-week fixtures coupled with the significant departures and subsequent bedding in time of new players all culminated in a frustrating season, and the club only managed to lurch to safety two weeks before the end of the season. Again, in the summer players came and, most notably, went. The two main departures this time around were keeper Oliver Baumann and, perhaps most bitter for the fans, Matthias Ginter, who joined Borussia Dortmund for €10 Million.
The lofty heights of two seasons ago long forgotten, many foresaw a difficult campaign, and one that ultimately ended in relegation once the fallen giants of Hamburg and Stuttgart mustered together enough fight and quality to save themselves.
As previously mentioned, the club’s recent years in the Bundesliga had won them fans and turned them into many peoples’ second team. As long as they weren’t facing your club, you’d generally want them to do well. The club has many things going for it. Primarily, the attacking and expansive brand of football played under Streich, who is not afraid to put his faith in young players, including those promoted internally. Secondly, the city itself, nestled in south Germany, is one of the most beautiful places in the country, where palm trees grow and the warm temperatures draw people to linger in street cafes and bars in the evening. The Schwarzwald Stadion is one of those old-fashioned four-cornered grounds, rather than a sleek modern oval – a tight Subbuteo-like stadium with the fans close to the byline, where a capacity crowd of 24,000 can whip up quite an atmosphere.
And then there is the trainer. Christian Streich is a dichotomy. On the one hand, what you see it is what you get. He is a man without pretense – not even a tracksuit manager, but a jeans-and-t-shirt trainer. The son of a butcher, Streich is a straight talker, neither mincing his words nor hiding behind clichés. On the other hand, he is a sensitive and reflective character, at ease discussing current socio-political issues alongside match day tactics.
Streich’s footballing career to date is very much interwoven with the city of Freiburg. As a player Streich began his career with FC Freiburger, the city’s second team, in the third-tier of German football, and returned to end his career with the club in the early 90s. He also played for SC Freiburg for one season and began his coaching path with SC’s under-19 squad, a position he held for over 15 years, winning three youth cups and one league title, becoming co-trainer, and eventually trainer of the first team.
Just as Christian Streich himself is a breath of fresh air in modern football, so too is the manner in which he has been treated by SC Freiburg and its fans. Despite following a fifth-place finish with a scrap for survival, followed by relegation, both fans and club stuck by their man. There were no unrealistic expectations, no short-termism. Disappointment, yes. Streich choked up in the press conference following relegation and had to leave the room. What better person to try and get them back up again? The point is that despite relegation his future was never in question. And having held on to Streich, with a new stadium under construction, and promotion looking possible, the future seems bright for the club from one of Germany’s sunniest cities.