Leaving the forest – SC Freiburg’s recent moves

Freiburg haven't had a great start to their campaign, new coach Marcus Sorg looks already worried.

Jason LeBlanc, known as @OutsideMid on Twitter, and as a regular contributer to quality sites like the Bundesliga Lounge and twohundredpercent.net, takes you on a journey to The Black Forest and tells you all that you need to know about SC Freiburg this season. Enjoy!

The Black Forest appears just as daunting an area to penetrate these days as it was to the ancient Romans who might have given it that rather swarthy name. Even as Bundesliga wedges itself into the upper echelons of top European football leagues by delivering on several of the demands of today’s football consumer–moderately-priced match tickets to parks filled with enthusiastic supporters chanting and chomping through their sausages rather than politely observing and nibbling on watercress as if attending a university fundraiser, and increasing televised access to fans unable to journey to the Land of Ideas–the club of Der Schwarzwald remains off the beaten path, still playing in the shadow cast by those increasingly brighter lights of its top flight brethren.

SC Freiburg, then, somewhat embody the very city in which they play; we often think of them only during certain times of the year and they remain rooted near the bottom.

Father of the success SC Freiburg have had in the past: Volker Finke, the current FC Köln sporting director and long time SC Freiburg coach.

Admittedly, Freiburg have always operated in a smaller circle than their Swabian neighbors to the north, but there was a time not so long ago when the top flight newcomers were acquiring their Brazilian nickname for an attractive style of play that forced general Bundesliga observers to pay attention. Of course, this was when the club were under the direction of long-serving trainer Volker Finke and playing a brand of football that, were it to done today, might have earned them the nickname Breisgau-Tiki Taka instead. Finke’s departure in 2007, while Freiburg were still in 2.Bundesliga, stripped nearly two decades of steady leadership from the club, but the young Robin Dutt was able to return Freiburg to the first division in style the following season, completing the double feat of winning promotion utilising the old master’s philosophy of beautiful football while doing so on a budget.

Robin Dutt
Robin Dutt's attacking football was one of last season's highlights. The former SC coach is now trying to coach Bayer Leverkusen to success.

Now, with Dutt having turned his success at Dreisamstadion into a bigger club move to Bayer Leverkusen, current trainer Marcus Sorg is discovering first-hand the difficulty of the task his predecessors faced in the Black Forest. Beginning a campaign with but seven points from the opening eight matches on a nearly double digit goal differential to the bad tends to find clubs given short shrift with a football media obsessed with the stars–and my, did those Bayern stars thump hopeless Freiburg, eh?–but there might be more going on in Baden-Württemberg than Sorg’s relegation battle. Should they survive to play another Bundesliga season, might we be seeing the initial transition of Freiburg from a small club usually lost amidst the taller trees of German football’s sequoias to one of the bigger spruces in the forest?

Papiss Demba Cissé, most likely the best striker who has ever played at Freiburg.

Two years after losing Finke through resignation, SC Freiburg lost president Achim Stocker to untimely death. Suffering a fatal heart attack at age 74, and after 37 years of overseeing the club’s fortunes, Stocker was gone, and his position fell to Fritz Keller, who has since kept the club in good stead financially with a decent balance of investment in Freiburg’s excellent youth system along with decently priced player transfers to maintain the club’s competitive edge in the top flight. Under his brief tenure, however, it cannot be overlooked that Freiburg have splashed the cash more often, with their two most expensive transfers in club history–Papiss Demba Cissé and Garra Dembélé–happening over the past two years. While Dembélé surely looked to be a replacement for the Senegalese striker pegged to be leaving during the summer transfer window, he remains and has been awarded an even more lucrative contract to stay on at Freiburg through at least the end of this season. This type of decision by a club to reward an important yet disgruntled star with hush money appears commonplace in an age where all Wayne Rooney has to do is threaten Manchester United with a transfer request to get more filthy lucre for a hair transplant, but this is decidedly atypical of how Freiburg has conducted their business in the past.

Existing somewhat between being strong enough to challenge near the top of 2.Bundesliga when there yet not quite capable of sustaining similar momentum throughout an entire top flight campaign, Freiburg have normally sold their hotter player commodities on and promote cheaply from within. One needs only look at some of those that have passed from the youth and reserve ranks into the senior squad over the years–such as Omer Toprak, Daniel Williams, and Daniel Schwaab–who were later moved for a profit while the next set of young players took their places. Rather, under Keller this summer saw Freiburg reject multi-million euro deals and opt to retain Cissé even after signing Dembélé and extending GK Oliver Baumann’s contract to 2015 rather than shopping the young talent to a bigger club desperate for a quality keeper in an attempt to cash in on his breakthrough season.

Safe hands: Freiburg have extended Oliver Baumann's deal until 2015. Baumann is currently amongst the biggest goalkeeping talents in German football.

Granted, SC Freiburg have shelled out some money for outside players over the years, with Bayern Munich’s Daniel Sutter being their first £1 million transfer back in the mid 1990s, but the number of those now on the books individually costing the club more and collectively earning more has increased during the past few seasons, signalling an intent at achieve rather than just survive. Certainly, the increased outlays has something to do with the club retaining their top flight status since 2009 and likely having additional revenue at their command to pay more without breaking the bank. The fees paid out have been tempered with free moves for players like Beg Ferrati and now Andreas Hinkel along with sales of lads like Toprak, while extending Baumann could be interpreted as giving the club additional clout when a bigger club comes along later to throw money at them for his signature. Still, Freiburg seem to be shifting up from transactions involving hundreds of thousands of euros to those in the millions while retaining more of those reserve players they once sold on.

The club reportedly has no debt despite this jump, however, so the board under Keller is not going over Freiburg’s credit limit just yet.

But plans are afoot in the marketing of SC Freiburg to convert the side into a larger regional and national Bundesliga club. From the club’s most recent Marketing & SalesReport, Freiburg leveraged their top flight presence into a more lucrative shirt sponsorship deal, transitioning from the Black Forest’s own Duravit to the Bavarian dairy company Ehrmann AG in 2010. International and national companies comprise the bulk of their sponsorship revenue now (47%) as opposed to those of the regional variety, and the club’s partnership with InfrontGermany–a media/advertising agency also working with the German national football team–has likely brought about this more outwardly-looking view from SCF. Further, with its continued desire to promote the business of football as a green enterprise through the use of a solar-powered Dreisamstadion with the ambitious goal of becoming the world’s first truly co2 neutral venue, the club is demonstrating how reducing the cost of hosting football matches by being kind to Mother Nature can indeed be achievable in practice and likely profitable to them should other clubs seek their advice on how to do the same.

Would Bayern Munich pay to find out how to light up the Allianz for a little bit less so they could buy up more talent? Günter Netzer and his Infront staff are waiting for your call, Uli.

So, let us return back to Sorg and SC Freiburg’s current attempt at beating the drop this season on the pitch. Should it appear that the club’s former youth and reserve coach is unable to avoid managing Freiburg into the 2.Bundesliga, might Keller and the board take the audacious step of sacking him in favor of a more experienced Bundesliga manager with a verifiable CV to his name rather than promoting from within again? As the club have appeared to broaden their horizons the past couple seasons, with looser purse strings and more expansive marketing of their club as a brand, retention of their Bundesliga spot is an essential ingredient for them to escape the relative anonymity of playing near the Black Forest. It would certainly demonstrate the new direction the club have been slowly making since the losses of such long-standing leaders as Finke and Stocker. Might he return to better health and seek out a fresh challenge outside German football’s spotlight, would it be a shock to see Ralf Rangnick’s name appear in the rumor mill if Sorg gets the sack around the winter break?

Midfield terrier Cedric Makiadi has to drop deeper according to Jason LeBlanc.

Otherwise, Sorg will likely have to undertake something else rather un-Breisgau-Brasilianer of late, and that’s playing for the draw. Over the past two campaigns, SC Freiburg were among the clubs recording the fewest draws in Bundesliga while at the same time taking the most losses outside those that were eventually relegated. The attack-minded approach under Dutt and now Sorg that supported Cissé to become one of the league’s deadliest goal scorers might need adjustment, as the loss of defenders like Toprak through sale and others like Ferati and Heiko Butscher during the season through injury has demonstrated how thin and frail the line in front of Baumann truly is, as evidenced by that 7-0 disaster against Bayern. Rather, the defensive quality of a wing player like Jan Rosenthal might need to be encouraged while midfielder Cedric Makiadi might need to be considered playing deeper to provide cover. In short, Sorg might need to resort to a less cavalier, attactive formula of play to keep Freiburg on track for its future aspirations to be met. After all, a 1-0 win against Borussia Möchengladbach counts the same as a 3-0 victory over Wolfsburg, and at this stage a 5-3 shootout loss to Werder Bremen hurt just as much as that seven goal rout handed out by the Bavarians.

Keep an eye out in the Black Forest then–the trees might be starting to move.

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Niklas Wildhagen

Niklas is a 33-year-old football writer and podcaster who has been following the Bundesliga and German football since the early 90s. You can follow him on Twitter, @normusings, and listen to his opinions on @TalkingFussball.

3 Comments

  1. Thanks guys. And Cris is right–they always seem to be an element or two short of really challenging consistently–which makes me wonder if the subtle shifting suggests they will indeed seek those elements.

    As for relegation, it’s still very tangible, but I wonder if Augsburg will lock down one spot & possibly Kaiserslautern will nab the 2nd automatic spot. Should Freiburg finish in the relegation playoff, I might imagine them squeaking through. The battle throughout the season will probably be between Freiburg & the Red Devils to avoid that 2nd automatic relegation spot.

  2. Excellent article, Jason. You summarize well the challenges of a club outside the more heavily populated media centers face, and the importance of every decision made by the club being correct, whether regarding player personnel or issues off the field. SC Freiburg seem to have a reasonable business plan in place….but the delicate balance between being financially prudent, looking ahead to the future while fielding a team that can avoid relegation places them on a real tightrope where it would be quite easy to lose one’s balance. As one who by nature tends to side with the underdogs, here’s wishing that SC Freiburg can maintain that balance and grow.

  3. Great write up Jason. One gets the feeling that Freiburg are always one or two elements short of reaching that next level. But then again, a step like that is almost always impossible for a side so low on resources relative to their competitors.

    The inevitable sale of Cisse will prove crucial to the development and future of the club in my opinion. How they chose to invest that money could determine which direction the club will move. But of course, they’re going to have to maintain their Bundesliga status before any of that can happen. Do you have them pegged for relegation like most pundits seem to at the moment?

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