In the last minute of added time on the last day of the Bundesliga season, SC Freiburg goalkeeper Mark Flekken was lifted from the center line after a corner to make it 2-1 at Bayer Leverkusen and all dreams of qualifying for the Champions League for the first time were buried.
But the mood in the Freiburg delegation inside BayArena was anything but muted. In the guest area, several thousand traveling fans jumped up and down in unison with their players, who continued the celebrations in the dressing room.
Creative talisman Vincenzo Grifo made a relaxed, happy and proud figure despite the “whole body cramp”, as he spoke to reporters.
“Ah, of course you dream of certain things: Champions League, Juventus, Real Madrid,” he smiled after his team finished sixth. “But after a season like this, we’re all just incredibly proud. Next week we are in the cup final and next season in the Europa League. What more do you want?”
Grifo’s attitude was typical of what runs through the “Sport Club” from Freiburg. This is a club that exudes calm and perspective like no other, and forges its own path that “Freiburg way.” from the serenity of the Black Forest to the final of the DFB Cup on Saturday in the Berlin Olympic Stadium.
“This is our culture – but it does not fall from the sky”
“That’s our culture,” said Freiburg’s sports director Jochen Saier a few hours earlier in a DW interview. “It’s not part of a marketing plan and there’s no blueprint. It comes from the people involved.”
Saier, 44, celebrated his 20th club anniversary in March of this year and initially managed the youth academy before becoming sports director in 2013. A year later he joined the board of directors in his current position. Such longevity is no exception at SC Freiburg.
Sports director Jochen Saier (left) and head coach Christian Streich pull the strings at SC Freiburg
The charismatic Christian Streich, former Freiburg player (1987-88) and youth coach (1995-2011), is now the longest-serving head coach in the Bundesliga. The final is the 56-year-old’s 396th game in charge.
Streich’s most famous predecessor, Volker Finke, managed 607 games between 1991 and 2007, while his current assistants, Lars Vossler and Patrick Baier, have been with the club since 2012 and 2009 respectively. In 2013, sports director Klemens Hartenbach took over from Saier.
“A club culture doesn’t fall from the sky, so it’s something special to shape a club over several years – and to be shaped by it,” says Saier.
“When I know that I probably won’t be here next year, it’s understandable that I’m working in the here and now. But if I’m still in charge of the club in three or five years, then I’ve won.” Don’t make easy decisions at the expense of the future.”
The fruits of this approach can be seen in the composition of Freiburg’s current first-team squad, which consists of 12 players who have graduated from the club’s own academy, four to five of whom play regularly. The second team also plays in the third German league.
“A Certain Kind of Intelligence”
“When it comes to squad planning, we know what is important to us,” explains Saier. “We work meticulously with the players who have a hunger for information on as many aspects of the game as possible. But we know that certain factors must be in place for this development to take place.”
The most important of these factors is what Saier calls “a certain kind of intelligence”, which means:
“How do the players interact with their environment? How do they behave off the pitch? How do you deal with difficult phases? Can you handle frustration? Do they have the mental ability to absorb and process the information given to them? For improvement.”
“A special kind of intelligence”: SC Freiburg knows what kind of players they are looking for
Nobody in Freiburg embodies this pastoral approach more than head coach Streich, who studied German and history at university and remains an avid reader.
With his short gray hair, the strong Baden accent and his frequent comments on socio-political issues, Streich enjoys cult status in German football. From Germany’s refugee policy in 2015 (“It’s about opening up to people, welcoming them and reducing fears”) to a supposedly spoiled younger generation in 2019 (“Who spoiled them back then? Who bought them their smartphones?”), Streich’s press conferences and interviews draw as much attention as his team on the pitch.
“Even after more than 20 years, it’s impressive how much energy he has and now he takes people with him on the journey,” says Saier.
SC Freiburg: 100% eV “out of conviction”
Of particular importance on this journey are Freiburg’s 35,000 members, who, even within German football’s 50+1 ownership system, have more say in their club than most.
Freiburg remains one of only four clubs (alongside Mainz, Union Berlin and promoted Schalke) that are still 100% a “registered association” (eV), a democratic registered association with full membership control.
Critics of such a model lament the complexity and lack of professionalism that sometimes go hand in hand with the influence of democratically elected structures, which is why many German clubs have taken the step “spin-off” (Spin off first-team affairs into its own company). But Freiburg, who have just moved to a new, modern stadium, are committed to 50+1 and are convinced they can compete on their own terms.
“We are a registered association out of conviction,” says Saier. “With 35,000 members, it can be exhausting, but we think it’s worth it. Football should not belong to one person. Football belongs to everyone. That is our culture in Freiburg.”
“Unique club – qualify for the final!” – Supporters of SC Freiburg in the semifinals in Hamburg
RB Leipzig: Clash of Cultures?
At least 26,328 of these members will accompany Freiburg to Berlin, with the club’s official ticket contingent quickly being oversubscribed. However, given the identity of their opponents, they also have almost unanimous support from the rest of the country.
RB Leipzig are contesting their third cup final in four years and have finished in the top four in all but one of their six Bundesliga seasons. They attract 40,000 spectators to home games and have also sold out their final cup allocation but their presence remains controversial.
The club currently has 19 voting members, all affiliated with Red Bull, the energy drink brand that RB Leipzig has primarily marketed since its inception in 2009.
Since being promoted to the Bundesliga in 2016 – in second place behind Freiburg – only Bayern Munich (€222m) has had higher net spending than RB Leipzig (€157m). In the same period, Freiburg have netted a net profit of 20 million euros, but the opponent against RB Leipzig goes beyond money.
“At RB Leipzig pretty much everything that we criticize about modern football applies – over-commercialisation, circumvention of the 50+1 rule, exclusion of fans, multiple ownership of clubs,” says Manuel, a member of Freiburger Hardcore Corrillo Ultraswho published a blog on the subject before the final with the title: “Not a normal game, not a normal opponent: RB Leipzig is a problem, but also a symptom of the ailing system of professional football.”
For Helen Breit, Chairwoman of the national fan alliance “Unsere KURve”, fan representative in the “Future Professional Football” working group of the German Football League (DFL) and lifelong Freiburg fan, winning for Freiburg would be “a double triumph: on the one hand for us, but also for football as we love it, football as a cultural asset”.
The final may be seen as a clash of cultures among the fans, but Saier wants to concentrate on the sport. “It is undisputed that it is a fundamentally different model. And if there are different opinions about it, that’s legitimate too,” he says.
“Naturally, [RB Leipzig] have special financial opportunities, but other clubs have also spent money without showing the same quality on the pitch. They have done things exceptionally well and you have to respect their sporting achievements.”
First time winners
One thing both clubs have in common: Victory on Saturday would be a first great honor – but one that Freiburg has waited 118 years for, Leipzig only 13.
While a first triumph for RB would no doubt be well-deserved for head coach Domenico Tedesco, who single-handedly saved Leipzig’s season after taking over Jesse Marschin December, it would raise existential questions about the future of German football and the path the country is taking.
Whatever that may be, the people of Freiburg are happy on their chosen path through the Black Forest and beyond, even after leaving their historical roots behind Dreisam Stadium move to a more modern arena this season.
“We are a very down-to-earth club, a modest club,” says Saier. “We’re always growing, but we’ve always kept the basics the same: the familiar, the accessible, the personal, the normal.”
In football of the year 2022, this is anything but normal.
Edited by Matt Pearson