This weekend, the Bundesliga returns from its winter break. It’s fair to say it hasn’t been a vintage season in Germany’s top flight. At the start of the season, there was some hopeful anticipation for a more competitive title race after each of last season’s top-six finishers changed head coaches. But when the league entered the break a few weeks ago, Bayern Munich held an all-too-familiar lead atop the table with a nine-point advantage over second-place Borussia Dortmund.
It’s not a hugely surprising scenario. After all, Bayern have won the past nine Bundesliga titles. But some league observers have said this could be the worst Bundesliga season in years, pointing to the absences of Werder Bremen and Schalke, two of Germany’s biggest clubs, in the first tier, as well as the stadium atmosphere due to COVID-19-mandated crowd reductions. It hasn’t been all gloom. One club, in particular, has provided a story line well worth following for the rest of the campaign: SC Freiburg.
There’s a lot to love about Freiburg. You’ve probably read more about them this season than at any time since their return to the Bundesliga in 2016. And with good reason, too. They were the league’s last unbeaten team this season, a run that ended with a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Bayern at the Allianz Arena on November 6. One month later, they became the first away side in Bundesliga history to score five goals in the first 25 minutes, against Borussia Mönchengladbach—they led 6-0 at halftime. Gladbach, incidentally, were the only other side to score five goals in the opening 25 minutes—they did it at home against Braunschweig in 1984.
Freiburg will resume play this weekend, tied with Bayern for the best defensive record in the league. Offensively, only Bayern, Dortmund, Leverkusen, Leipzig, and Hoffenheim have scored more goals. Freiburg are currently in third place, in line for a Champions League spot. Whether they will remain so at the end of the season is another story. In a way, it doesn’t matter: In a league often ridiculed because of Bayern’s dominance over the past decade, the club from Germany’s Black Forest provides an almost too-perfect example of what makes the Bundesliga special. While Bayern may be the league’s financial behemoth, Freiburg are its pure heart and an example of the magic the league can possess.
“Freiburg are the lovable outlier, the team that no one can dislike,” said ESPN and Bundesliga commentator Derek Rae. “As a club, they don’t consciously try to sell anything. They’re comfortable in their own skin. The German model has allowed them to be who they are. Even fervent supporters of other clubs mention Freiburg with a smile in their eyes.”
Helge Thomas has been attending Freiburg matches since he lived in the city during the 1980s. He’s no longer a local, but returns often to watch the team. “It has a special attitude,” he told me. “Everything at SC Freiburg is based on the conviction that you can survive in the modern football business by discovering and almost lovingly training young talent.”
Thomas brought up the Freiburg Football School, founded in the 2000s to develop talent to help the club overcome competitive disadvantages. Eight members of the current senior squad graduated from the school, which centers the club’s purpose and gives them a central identity—the Freiburger Weg (Freiburg Way). As Thomas put it, “We fans forgive a lot because we know who we are as a club and where we come from.”
And the fans have forgiven. Christian Streich, a former Freiburg player, has been the club’s manager since 2011. He kept his job after Freiburg were relegated from the Bundesliga after the 2014-15 season. In Jonathan Harding’s book Mensch, about the key tenets of German coaches, he wrote of Streich after Freiburg’s relegation:
Streich had to fight back tears in the mixed zone afterwards. When asked if he would continue, his response said it all: “I find it incredible that everyone is asking this question, because it shows where we are. How can I go, when I am healthy enough to be head coach, and say I’m calling it quits? That’s unbelievable. You see the society we live in today. If I sign a contract, I’ve signed a contract—whether I’m successful or not.”
Thomas recalls the moment from a fan’s perspective. “At no time were there calls for his dismissal,” he said. “It was absolutely clear to everyone that we stand behind him and will also go this way together.” The following year, Freiburg topped the 2. Bundesliga, returning to the top flight after one season in the second tier; they finished seventh in their first season back in the Bundesliga.
Streich still kept his job despite 15th- and 13th-place finishes the following two seasons, which would be an unfathomable level of commitment in the Premier League, where a manager lasts less than two years on average. “It’s hard to imagine this kind of story written in England,” Rae said. “[Freiburg] stick to the plan. No tearing up what works for them. They have decision-makers at the club—Jochen Saier, Klemens Hartenbach, Oliver Leki—who understand what makes the club tick in this regard. If they tried to be something else, there’s a good chance they would fail.”
It also might have to do with who Streich is. He’s the Bundesliga’s longest-serving active coach and is immensely popular in Germany. After a brief stint at the club as a player, Streich joined Freiburg as a youth team coach in 1995. He progressed to become an assistant for the top team, before taking over the first team in 2011, following Marcus Sorg’s brief tenure as head coach.
Stephan Uersfeld, who covers the Bundesliga for Germany’s N-TV, recalls his first experience with Streich at the German Youth Cup final in 2012. “He had been the head coach for less than six months and stood right there in the stands, next to the Borussia Dortmund fans, and cheered as Freiburg’s U19 completed their lap of honor,” he said. “They had won the cup, again, and he had been their coach for many years. He was in love with that group of players, which included Matthias Ginter, and it was there you could see he loved football the right way. For the players, the atmosphere, regardless of league or age group.”
It’s anecdotal evidence of what many believe: Streich is special, a manager who speaks with clarity on a variety of issues, including global politics, and his unease at the sport’s commercial relationship with professional entities like gambling companies. “I profit from damaging influences,” he told The New York Times in a rare interview in English.
“He’s the wise, avuncular owl you want to be lucky enough to have sitting next to you,” Rae said. “Authentic, interesting. He knows about strengths and limitations. Never overstates things and he has a heart and a conscience.” Authentic. Interesting. Words that could describe not just Streich but the club where he is such a central figure. Maybe the Freiburg Way is also the Streich Way, which is why both club and manager mean so much to the other.
That closeness between the institution and individual was again on display earlier this season, when Freiburg played their final game in their Dreisamstadion home. Sadly, even the Freiburger Weg wasn’t enough to navigate its way around modern stadium requirements: Freiburg’s pitch was ruled too small to meet German FA requirements, so the club moved to the newly built Europa-Park Stadion on the other side of the city. Following the 3-0 win at home against Augsburg, Streich sat on the pitch, in front of the ultras, in tears at having to leave the ground he spent so much time at, as a player and a manager.
christian streich is one of the best pic.twitter.com/rtobZ2ZTbJ— Ryan Hunn (@ryanhunn) September 27, 2021
That Freiburg fans haven’t been able to fully enjoy their new stadium might be the one sour note of Freiburg’s season so far. The German government recently reintroduced restrictions limiting crowd capacity due to the coronavirus. Shortly after the decision, Freiburg played in front of a few thousand fans; the stadium is currently empty. Having missed out on almost the entirety of the last season in their previous home, it seems cruel for Freiburg fans to be denied the chance to fully get to know their new one.
Even so, fans will return, and only those with the coldest of hearts—or their Bundesliga rivals vying for European qualification alongside Freiburg—would wish for anything other than for Freiburg to be in its current position. For comparison, Dortmund’s wage bill from 2019-20 was almost four times that of Freiburg’s; Bayern’s was almost seven times larger, and only three Premier League teams had a lower wage bill.
After so many headlines involving the financial inequity in the game, from the failed European Super League, to the revised Champions League format, and the proposed biennial World Cups and Euros, Freiburg’s season is a breath of fresh air. “The current situation is definitely a nice snapshot that I can relate to and know that it can’t and won’t last,” Thomas said. “As a fan, I enjoy it with the humility and gratitude typical of SC Freiburg fans.” Authentic. Interesting. The Freiburg Way.