Christian Streich, and the re-discovered identity of SC Freiburg

Four months ago, it was an abnormal wintertime in the Dreisam valley: Christmas without snow. Everything looked so bleak.

Freiburg just had their worst first half of a season, sitting deep at the bottom of the Bundesliga table. To be fair to Robin Dutt’s unfortunate successor, Marcus Sorg, it wasn’t such a big deterioration. Look at the 2010/11 Rückrunde: even if you ignore the last five games when their form fizzled after collecting 40 points, the drop in form was already alarming. But ending the season in ninth place raised false expectations and led to some flawed administrative decisions in the summer. Although it’s not entirely his fault, going into the winter break with only 13 points and a discordant dressing room was enough to see Sorg become the first coach who got sacked by SC Freiburg in 20 years.

And there was a series of unnerving events to follow: six players were let go, including the fan-favorite team captain; the coach was fired; finally and inevitably came Cissé’s long past-due departure. People were at a loss, and looked at their new coach with skepticism – Christian Streich, an old acquaintance of the club, who has been working here for 17 years. He was the assistant coach of Marcus Sorg and Robin Dutt. He had an outstanding record with the Freiburg youth team but really, who was this Streich guy?

The public knew little of him. He seemed to have a good reputation among his peers, given that Thomas Tuchel once wanted Streich in his team. Tuchel also named him “the best football educator in Germany”, and said that Streich is the one colleague he’d loved to talk about football with the most, although “between 15:30 and 17:20 Saturday we can get into a fight too quickly.” Apparently Streich has great knowledge and understanding about football, according to his former pupils like Dennis Aogo and Ömer Toprak. And he is a good man, always open and honest. Although his straightforwardness sometimes hurts, as ex-Freiburg player Daniel Williams recalled. Above all, everyone agrees on one thing: he’s a football fanatic. An amazed SC vice-captain Cedrik Makiadi said with a grin, “I never saw this kind of passion in a coach before.”

This football fanatic had the hair of a grumpy old man (mind you, he is younger than Robin Dutt). He warms up before the game then proceeds to shout and wave his arms and jump up and down along the sideline for the full 90-minutes. A photo of him leaving the stadium after a match on a bike caused quite a bit of a stir in nation-wide sport media (which most Freiburgers failed to understand, since bicycling is the standard means of transportation in town). The world soon noticed that he is one of a kind. Blunt comments like “It is wrong to treat a coach like that” or “We all have to die, but not necessarily have to win” quickly made it to the headlines. In the news coverage some described him as “unusual”; some called him  the”Bundesliga’s number one lunatic”.

And the fans? They simply love him. They love the refreshing energy he brought to the team, and that the team subsequently conveyed on the pitch. His slight awkwardness in front of the cameras only made him even more likable. After the disappointing Hinrunde and the chaos in the winter, the Breisgauers urgently needed something to make them feel worthy and special again, something to identify with. They’ve found that in Streich. Local newspaper Badische Zeitung was among the first ones to become Streich’s loyal supporters. A special page was created on their website dedicated solely to his press conference remarks.

In those press conferences Streich refused to make any promise about staying in the top flight, or even to talk about the league table situation. His idea was simple: do not look at the points, concentrate instead on the football. Do not think about avoiding the drop, but to focus on how high you can lift yourselves. And boy, did they lift themselves.

Earlier when the new faces were brought in as reinforcement to the broken squad, it looked very much like the club was already preparing themselves for the 2. Bundesliga next season. Although they tried to assure people that it was a decision based on players’ qualities, many had doubts: you want to save your club with these young and inexperience no-names, many of whom only played in the fourth division? That was some blind courage. Good luck with it people thought.

In fact being courageous is not the most important thing, as Streich showed us.  It’s not like you just push your youngster to the front line and cross your fingers. What you need is to be thorough. Before the game Streich prepares his troop as thoroughly as anyone in the business, be it in tactical, physical, or mental aspects. After the game he also defends his players to all extents. When asked about the fatal mistakes his players made after a defeat, he insisted that they are entitled to make mistakes; it’s a part of the learning process. After a brilliant performance of their goalkeeper Oliver Baumann which saved the team a precious away point, Streich claimed in several interviews with great enthusiasm, that Baumann is a really, really good goalkeeper, it’s unfair to write him off. That was not long after Baumann lost his position in the U21 national team to other younger players.

“To simply play football and enjoy the game” sounds like an old cliche and one usually applied to youth teams, but Streich and his boys have proven that it can also work in professional football. Give everything you’ve got and play with your heart, Streich said, you’ll earn what you deserve. Week after week his players came out strong and disciplined, full of confidence, willing to fight, and fearless no matter who they were facing. Five months later Freiburg finished in 12th in the table, having secured their top-flight status for another season against all odds.

And that’s how you pull things together in time of despair: with authenticity and character.

The Breisgauers can consider themselves very lucky when they look back at the atrocious Hinrunde. If they had lost one more match, they might not have been able to survive. If they had won one more, the club might not have decided to take those drastic, atypical measures during that bleak winter that later resulted in their miraculous escape.

Let us revisit that Saturday afternoon when everything changed. The date was January 21st, 2012. Round 18.  Freiburg faced their fellow relegation candidates FC Augsburg at home. A late header in the 88th minute from the 18-year old Matthias Ginter gave them a precious and rare three points. When the final whistle was blown, Streich sprinted straight into the dressing room. “I needed to calm myself down,” he later explained. At the same time the players were hugging each other on the pitch. Fans were chanting and singing in the stands. Everyone was busy celebrating the hard-earned victory; some felt this could be a turning point in the season. They were right. But only a few, if not none at all, actually realized what they just witnessed, the true significance of this moment. Much more than rescuing their current season: it marked the end of the post-Finke era and beginning of a new path.

Volker Finke, the legend. He was SC Freiburg, managing the club for sixteen seasons between 1991 and 2007. When Finke left, his reputation lingered. Freiburg seemed to always miss something without him, and this feeling only became stronger following the passing of  Club President Achim Stocker in 2009 after 37 years of service with Freiburg. Fans constantly lamented the loss of these two symbols of Freiburg football. Even four successful years under Robin Dutt didn’t change the perception that Freiburg were not quite right.

But then Christian Streich emerged front and center, with his incredible spirit and memorable Baden accent. The down-to-earth attitude, the clear objective of restoring the SC as a youth training- and football education-oriented club, the convincing performance from his team, along with the sensation of pulling off the great escape… it all worked like a charm. His “the journey is its own reward” concept reminded people of the man himself and yet, the ghost of Volker Finke has finally been laid to rest by the most adamant of nostalgics. In Dreisam-stadium, fans started lifting banners of Streich’s portrait in the center of the north stand. Be thou my vision. They are ready to embrace the future.

The bleak winter has finally passed. It is now springtime in and around the black forest. Biking alongside the beautiful Dreisam creek toward their solar-powered stadium, the euphoria is greater than ever. People are still going to talk about the good old days with great nostalgia, but they are now also eager to see what awaits them going forward. At the end of this incredible season, Freiburg got more than anyone would have imagined. Not just 40 points and the ticket for the next Bundesliga ride, but something much bigger, much better: they’ve re-discovered themselves. They know where they are standing now as a club, and they know where they want to go.

Granted, there will be highs and lows in the years to come. Freiburg will still have to fight the relegation battle again and again and again. Either way, one thing is certain for the Gaulish village of the Bundesliga: the future will be an exciting one.

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