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Freiburg has 'a specific type of intelligence'

May 19, 2022

SC Freiburg will play RB Leipzig in their first ever German Cup final on Saturday. The two clubs are cut from very different cloth but, deep in the Black Forest, Freiburg are happy to continue on their own unique path.

Freiburg's Nils Petersen leads the celebrations with a megaphone after Freiburg's semifinal win over Hamburg
All together now: Freiburg's Nils Petersen leads the celebrations after Freiburg's semifinal win over HamburgImage: Jürgen Fromme/augenklick/picture alliance

In the final minute of injury time on the final day of the Bundesliga season, SC Freiburg goalkeeper Mark Flekken, having gone up for a corner, was lobbed from the halfway line to seal a 2-1 defeat away at Bayer Leverkusen and bury any dreams of qualifying for the Champions League for the first time.

But the mood among the Freiburg delegation inside the BayArena was anything but dampened. In the away end, several thousand traveling supporters bounced up and down in unison with their players, who continued the celebrations in the dressing room.

Creative talisman Vincenzo Grifo cut a relaxed, satisfied and proud figure, despite a "full body cramp," as he spoke with reporters last Saturday.

"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. We're in the cup final next week and we're in the Europa League next season. What more could you want?"

Grifo's attitude was typical of that which permeates the "Sport-Club" from Freiburg. This is a club which exudes tranquility and a sense of perspective like no other, following its own way, the "Freiburger Weg," from the serenity of the Black Forest all the way to Saturday's DFB Pokal (German Cup) final in the Olympic Stadium in Berlin.

'That's our culture — but it doesn't just fall from the sky'

"That's our culture," explained Jochen Saier, Freiburg's sporting director, chatting with DW a few hours earlier. "It's not part of a marketing concept, and there's no blueprint. It comes from the people involved."

In March, Saier, 44, celebrated 20 years at the club, initially heading up the youth academy before becoming sporting director in 2013. A year later, he joined the club board in his current role. Such longevity is no exception at SC Freiburg.

Director of Sport Jochen Saier (left) and head coach Christian Streich sitting together at an away game in Stuttgart.
Sporting Director Jochen Saier (left) and head coach Christian Streich pull the strings at SC FreiburgImage: Weber/Eibner-Pressefoto/picture alliance

The charismatic Christian Streich, a former Freiburg player (1987-88) and youth coach (1995-2011), is now the Bundesliga's longest-serving head coach. The final will be the 56-year old's 396th game in charge.

Streich's most illustrious predecessor, Volker Finke, took charge of 607 games between 1991 and 2007, while his current assistants, Lars Vossler and Patrick Baier, have been at the club since 2012 and 2009 respectively. Sporting director Klemens Hartenbach also took on his current role in 2013.

"A club culture doesn't just fall from the sky, so shaping — and being shaped by — a club over several years is something special," said Saier.

"If I know I probably won't be here next year, then it's understandable that I work in the here and now. But if I'm still going to be responsible for the club in three or five years' time, then I won't go making easy decisions at the expense of the future."

The fruits of that approach can be seen in the makeup of Freiburg's current first team squad, which contains 12 players who came through the club's own academy, with four to five featuring regularly. Even the second team plays in Germany's national third division.

'A specific type of intelligence'

"When it comes to squad planning, we know what works for us," explained Saier. "We work in meticulous detail with the players, who need to be hungry for information on as many aspects of the game as possible. But we know that certain factors have to be present for that development to take place."

Chief among those factors is what Saier calls "a specific type of intelligence," meaning:

"How do players interact with their environment? How do they behave off the pitch? How do they deal with difficult periods? Can they handle frustration? Do they have the mental ability to absorb the information they are given and process it? That's the basis for improvement."

SC Freiburg players salute their supporters after the final game of the Bundesliga season
'A specific type of intelligence': SC Freiburg know what sort of players they're looking forImage: Jan Huebner/IMAGO

Streich a key figure

No one in Freiburg embodies that pastoral approach more than head coach Streich, who studied German and history at university and remains an avid reader.

With his short gray hair, heavy Baden accent and his frequent pronouncements on sociopolitical issues, Streich enjoys cult status in German football. From Germany's 2015 refugee policy ("It's about opening up to people, welcoming them and dismantling fear") to a supposedly spoiled younger generation in 2019 ("Who spoiled them then? Who bought them the smartphones?"), Streich's press conferences and interviews attract just 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," said Saier.

SC Freiburg: 100% e.V. 'out of conviction'

Of particular importance on that 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 remain one of only four clubs (along with Mainz, Union Berlin and newly-promoted Schalke) which are still 100% an "eingetragener Verein" (e.V.), a democratic registered association under full member control.

Critics of such a model bemoan the complexity and lack of professionalism which can sometimes come with the influence of democratically-elected structures, hence why many German clubs take the step of "Ausgliederung" (outsourcing first team affairs into a separate company). But Freiburg, who have just moved into a new, modern stadium, are committed to 50+1 and convinced that they can compete on their own terms.

"We're an e.V. out of conviction," said Saier. "With 35,000 members, it can be demanding, but we think it's worth it. Football shouldn't belong to a single individual. Football belongs to everyone. That's our culture in Freiburg."

"Unique club — qualify for the final!" — SC Freiburg supporters away at Hamburg in the semifinal
"Unique club — qualify for the final!" — SC Freiburg supporters away at Hamburg in the semifinalImage: Joachim Hahne/johapress/picture alliance

RB Leipzig: A clash of cultures?

At least 26,328 of those members will accompany Freiburg to Berlin on Saturday, with the club's official ticket allocation quickly oversubscribed. Given the identity of their opponents, however, they will also enjoy almost unanimous support from the rest of the country.

RB Leipzig are making their third cup final appearance in four years and have finished in the top four in all but one of their six Bundesliga seasons. They attract crowds of 40,000 to home games and have also sold out their cup final allocation, but their presence remains controversial.

The club currently have 19 voting members, all associated with Red Bull, the energy drink brand which RB Leipzig has primarily served to market since their creation in 2009.

Since the club's promotion to the Bundesliga in 2016 — in second place behind Freiburg — only Bayern Munich (€222 million; $233 million) have recorded a higher net spend than RB Leipzig (€157 million). In the same period, Freiburg have made a net profit of €20 million, but the opposition to RB Leipzig goes beyond just money.

"Pretty much all of things we criticize in modern football — overcommercialization, the circumvention of the 50+1 rule, the exclusion of fans, multiple club ownership — apply to RB Leipzig," said Manuel, a member of Freiburg's hardcore Corrillo Ultras, who published a blog on the subject ahead of the final entitled: "No normal game, no normal opponent: RB Leipzig is a problem, but it's also a symptom of the ailing system of professional football."

For Helen Breit, chairwoman of national supporter alliance "Unsere Kurve" (Our Terrace), fan representative in the German Football League (DFL) Taskforce "Zukunft Profifußball" (the future of professional football), and lifelong Freiburg fan, a win for Freiburg would be "a double triumph: firstly, for us, but also for football as we love it, football as a cultural asset."

The final might be seen as a clash of cultures among the fans, but Saier is keen to focus on the sport. "That it's a fundamentally different model, that's indisputable. And if there are different opinions on it, that's also legitimate," he said.

"Of course, [RB Leipzig] have particular financial possibilities, but other clubs have also spent money without producing 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 the two clubs do have in common is that victory on Saturday would represent a first major honor — albeit one for which Freiburg have waited for 118 years, and Leipzig just 13.

While a maiden triumph for RB would undoubtedly be well-deserved for head coach Domenico Tedesco, who has singlehandedly rescued Leipzig's season after taking over from Jesse Marsch in December, it would raise existential questions about the future of German football and path the country wants to take.

The 50+1 rule: What is it?

Whatever that may be, Freiburg are happy on their chosen path through the Black Forest and beyond, even after leaving their historic old Dreisamstadion this season to move into a more modern arena.

"We're a very down-to-earth club, a humble club," said Saier. "We're always growing but we've always kept the basics the same: the familiar, the approachable, the personal, the normal."

In football in 2022, that's anything but normal.

Edited by: Matt Pearson