There is only one unbeaten team remaining in the Bundesliga, joining Liverpool, AC Milan and Napoli among the four clubs yet to lose a match in one of Europe’s major leagues. That team is not Bayern Munich, not even Borussia Dortmund. It is Freiburg.
The club from the Black Forest have a proud history but they are not one of German football’s heavyweights. And yet, there they are. Third in the table. Beat Bayern Munich on Sunday and they will move level on points with the leaders. These are heady days.
Only adding to the sense of excitement is the fact that Freiburg have finally moved into a new stadium – winning their first match in the new arena against Greuther Furth last time out. This is a new beginning, a moment where suddenly anything seems possible.
Freiburg chief executive Jochen Saier can only smile when asked about the prospect of Champions League qualification. “The players can dream,” he tells Sky Sports. “The fans can dream and they should dream. It is important that I keep my feet on the ground.”
Even so, he afforded himself a moment on Saturday to reflect on how far they have come, this being the culmination of a 10-year project. It was too difficult to do so during the first game in the Europa-Park Stadion for the 1-1 draw against RB Leipzig.
“I was really stressed out,” he admits. “I was just hoping everything worked. We were all afraid. After having such a good run, we could have lost against Leipzig. If we had lost 4-0 everybody would have been saying it is the new stadium and we cannot win.”
Jochen Saier will celebrate two decades at Freibug in February 2022
Instead, the wins keep coming, six of them so far, four draws and no defeats. They have already beaten Dortmund and blown Stuttgart away inside half an hour. Victory at the Olympic Stadium over Hertha Berlin was impressive, the win at Wolfsburg even more so.
The Bundesliga is a competition full of bright young coaches and for a team that finished in the bottom half last season there is a temptation to assume there has been a dramatic change of personnel on the pitch or in the dugout.
At Freiburg, the opposite is the case.
Saier has been at the club for two decades now and the man in charge of the team has been there even longer. Christian Streich is the longest-serving head coach of any Bundesliga club, ten years into the job and over a quarter of a century into his Freiburg journey.
In the summer, the club did little incoming transfer business. Maximilian Eggestein has added some impetus from midfield but he cannot be said to be the catalyst. The key to the success at this football club is a level of continuity simply not seen anywhere else.
“Our DNA means that we do not get carried away in the good times. On the other hand, we do not sack the coach in difficult times either. We try to stay balanced. In football, you are the hero or the idiot. In Freiburg, we try to balance out this crazy football stuff.
“At other clubs, the coach stays for 18 months and that is it. That is not the way at Freiburg. The club has a clear philosophy. If you sign a different coach every 18 months, one goes left and one goes right, there is no chance to develop the club step by step.
“We have an idea and good coaches that fit the club. We are not for the short term. You have to win a game once in a while, of course, but we prefer to look at the big picture, the culture of the club. That is a big difference between Freiburg and other clubs.”
Jochen Saier’s relationship with Christian Streich helps provide continuity
If anything changed this summer, it was that they did not sell either. “Pretty much every year we lose our best players and have to find new ones to fit in,” adds Saier.
“This year, the work on the pitch could start from a higher level because the team was pretty much the same as before. We are working on keeping the good players that bit longer and don’t have to sell the players as soon as we receive a good offer.
“But that is a process as well. It is not like we are suddenly a big club. What we are is a club whose identity is clear. There is stability, people here who have been at the club since forever. It is more than just work. Everyone feels very responsible for the whole thing.
“That is the secret as well.”
Freiburg head coach Christian Streich in conversation with sporting CEO Jochen Saier
When Freiburg were relegated in 2015, Streich stayed and won promotion back to the Bundesliga at the first attempt. The strength of the relationship between him and the chief executive is at the heart of the club’s story. “We know each other so well,” says Saier.
“It is not all easy if you know each other so well. Football is emotional. It is not just harmony all the time. But I think it is important that we are honest and express different views. The base of our work is stable so it is no problem. It is even good to reflect each other.”
Saturday 6th November 5:20pm
They have contrasting profiles. Saier made news in Germany because he was once the only person in his position in the Bundesliga without his own Wikipedia page. In contrast, Streich is something of a national treasure, holding court on any subject imaginable in the media.
“We are very different people, that is a secret too. You need different characters. Christian is the face of the club. In his press conference, he is not just talking about football, it is politics and everything else. He is Christian. He does it how he does it.
“We don’t put our heads together and tell him what he is allowed to say. It just developed this way. Everyone asks him questions and he has the answers.”
Streich was the U19 coach before taking the top job, Saier was the head of the academy. It helps to explain why the club remains committed to youth. Twelve of the 26-man squad came through the academy and Saier meets with the staff there every other week.
“The philosophy is clear, the academy is at the front of everyone’s mind. We have brought six players from the academy to the first team this season. This has always been the philosophy of Freiburg. We were pretty much the earliest club to focus on that in Germany.”
When signings do need to be made, the team of Streich, Saier and sporting director Klemens Hartenbach understand what is required because they know their club.
“The coach needs players who have an open mind. If you have a black hole in the head it won’t work, they need to be able to take on information. That is how the coach works. If he does not have this then he is lost. That is our task. To find good players who fit.
Freiburg players have adapted quickly to their new environment
“We know precisely those players who will fit into the work of the coaching staff. We don’t need players who come here to train for one-and-a-half hours and go home. That is not how it works here. Everyone here is in the system. They stay after practice.
“Everyone here works hard because they know that individually they are not the best players in the Bundesliga. They have to work to stay in the Bundesliga. It is a different spirit. I don’t think there are many players who do not improve at Freiburg.”
The result is a club that is on the up. Changing but staying the same. At the new stadium, they have even imported many of the same food and drink vendors rather than use one supplier, in the hope of recreating the familiar feel of the old Dreisamstadion.
“Those small things are important for the feeling,” says Saier.
Freiburg supporters inside the new stadium during the 3-1 win over Greuther Furth
“We tried to get everybody involved in the process – even the ultras. Everyone loved the old place, we had been there forever, and the new stadium will not feel like home just like that.
“But everyone knew that the next step was necessary if we wanted to be in there fighting for the Bundesliga. We took everyone by the hand and walked there together. With every game, the feeling gets better. It will come, it will just take a while.
“And the players are adjusting quicker than we can.”
The hope is that through results on the pitch and hard work off it, the club can continue to grow. “It is not a guarantee or anything but if you do not take the step that every other club has already taken then you will get lost in the race,” adds Saier.
“Football is small margins and there will be tough times ahead too but we are trying to do it step by step. It has to be organic. It has to be little steps. We will not sign five players and suddenly become a Champions League team. That is definitely not the way for Freiburg.
“We have no investor here. We are a real club.”