Streich stays grounded as he leads Freiburg into a new dimension
There was a nasty surprise for some supporters leaving Europa-Park Stadion after an uplifting afternoon. Those who parked on Hermann-Mitsch-Strasse found that theirs was one of dozens of cars towed by the local authorities as visitors get used to traffic restrictions at SC Freiburg’s new home. A few teething problems in the new place, perhaps, are to be expected.
On the pitch, everything is much smoother. A home victory over struggling Greuther Fürth would be seen as standard in most contexts. Here, as a first win in only the second game at the new pad where they’re still peeling the sticky-back plastic off some of the seats, it meant so much more. “We are already a little bit in love,” said midfielder Nicolas Höfler, who headed the second in Saturday’s victory in front of a sell-out crowd of 31,500.
Leaving Dreisamstadion had been hard – their iconic coach Christian Streich wept on the pitch as the squad greeted fans at the end of the last game there, the 3-0 win over Augsburg in late September. Maybe it will be even harder as winter bites, with the trip into -8c in the old chocolate box of a ground in the Black Forest a rite of passage for the hardiest Bundesliga away teams in past years. It will be missed.
Now, the move delayed by the pandemic feels as if it has come to pass at just the right time, with supporters back in the stadiums (even with the new 2G regulations meaning spectators can only enter after full vaccination or with a certificate of recovery from Covid, the Fürth tickets were snapped up in double-quick time) combining with Freiburg’s excellent start to the season to create a sense of happening.
They begin Monday morning in third place in the Bundesliga, as its only unbeaten team (or indeed as Germany’s only domestically unbeaten professional side) with comfortably the best defensive record in the division. The seven Freiburg have let in makes them the only team with a single figure in the concession column. Having equalled the club’s longest ever top-flight unbeaten run of 10 they could set a new record next week – if they avoid defeat at Bayern Munich.
If any coach could keep the near-euphoria in check it’s Streich, the Bundesliga’s longest-serving coach, one of its most popular and without doubt its most down-to-earth. He’ll celebrate a decade in charge of the first team a few days before the turn of the year but his association with the club goes back much further – he’s been on the coaching staff in various guises since 1995 having previously played a season for the club in the late ‘80s. His click with Freiburg is as real as it gets.
Yet what makes him so loved in the Bundesliga is that he is more than just a great coach. He often holds court on wider societal themes in his press conferences, and emphasises perspective and respect in a game that can often lose sight of both. “People who care for disabled people are genuinely worthy of praise,” he told Deutsche Welle in his first major TV interview, a few months after his appointment.
He also told DW in that interview that he was “trying to remain seated more”. It’s fair to say that it’s one of the few things that hasn’t worked for him in the past 10 years. A huge element of the Streich legend is his touchline demeanour, wired, passionate and feeling every kick, whilst understanding that football is just football, the most important of the least important things in life.
Now, Streich takes that attitude and the essence of what Freiburg are into their new arena. It will take some getting used to. “I need months and years,” he admitted after the game. “I was there for 25 years. It somehow turned into half of my life.” He might need a map as well, having famously cycled from his home to Dreisamstadion every day.
This season, all the familiar pieces of Freiburg are there – the long-serving Christian Günter at the back, Nils Pedersen’s goals off the bench and Vincenzo Grifo’s craft – but there are a few supplementary strands. Jeong Woo-Yeong, who didn’t make it at Bayern but scored the club’s first goal at Europa-Park a few weeks back, adds some imagination and Maxi Eggestein brings thrust in midfield having joined late in summer from Werder Bremen. So the fans in those packed stands on Saturday chanted “Zieht den Bayern die Lederhosen aus” – Take Bayern’s lederhosen off – with feeling.
Freiburg have travelled to Munich in an encounter with meaning in recent memory, hoping a win on the season’s final day in May 2017 could seal a return to European competition. They were made to wait to pursue their aim – the singer Anastasia’s half-time concert went on long enough to delay the second half by nearly 10 minutes, as Arjen Robben helped carry bits of stage off the pitch so the match could resume. Freiburg eventually went down 4-1, reduced in every way to peripherals in Bayern’s title party. This time, they return to Allianz-Arena through the front door – and they deserve to share the stage on equal footing, rather than just as the support act.