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May 18, 2013

Freiburg's astonishing rise

It's during months like this one that you realise there are many kinds of finals. There are those that everyone talks about, such as the Champions League final, and those that whoosh by almost unnoticed (at least over here in Germany), such as the Europa League final. Then there are finals that don't even bear that name but are crunch- time affairs nonetheless.

On the last matchday of a Bundesliga season that by and large has been full of records but short on thrills and stunners, Freiburg could cap off a most astonishing rise. Only sixteen months ago, the team were in last place, with just three wins from seventeen games. Now they are just one point behind Schalke in fourth place - the very team they are going to host on Saturday.

It means if Freiburg win their final game of the league season they will have made the Champions League qualifiers. The mind boggles.

Not even under the iconic coach Volker Finke - who was in charge of the team for almost sixteen years between 1991 and 2007 - have Freiburg ever reached such dizzying heights. Yes, Finke's legendary team celebrated an amazing third place in 1995, but back then this meant the UEFA Cup, now we're talking about the glitziest, most glamorous showcase in world football.

Add to this that Freiburg have also reached the cup semi-final for the first time ever this year and what you have is the most successful season in the club's entire history even if the team should fail to beat Schalke on Saturday.

To say that it's all the work of a dotty butcher's son from a village between the French and Swiss borders is stating the obvious. In late December 2011, Freiburg looked and felt like the surest relegation candidate you've ever seen. The club was in such turmoil that no less than five players, among them the captain, had just been indefinitely suspended and told to go and find a new club. Then Christian Streich took over the team. The first thing that happened under his tutelage sounded like the final nail in the coffin: the club sold their best goal scorer, Papiss Demba Cisse, to Newcastle.

But somehow this far-reaching overhaul on the pitch and at the sidelines served to kick-start an astonishing reversal of fortunes. Under Streich, a highly idiosyncratic man who always speaks his mind and does so in a thick Baden dialect, and with a young team almost entirely devoid of recognisable names, let alone star players, Freiburg went on to win 21 of their next 40 Bundesliga games. One more win and they could rub shoulders with Real Madrid next year.

Not that any of this awes Streich. "I'm not talking about fourth place," he warned reporters this week. "I won't talk about future things in subjunctive moods. We can't finish worse than sixth place, everything else is just a bonus." Well, but is it really?

Only two months ago, in mid-March, Streich appeared on a nationwide sports show and was asked about playing in Europe. At the time, the questions concerned the Europa League, as the Champions League wasn't even a pipe dream then. The bottom line of the interview was: can a club like Freiburg even cope with the strain that comes with all those midweek games?

"On the one hand, it would be really great," Streich said. "On the other hand, it would be dangerous. Of course we want to win every game and be as good as possible, but this is a tricky subject." Then he made one of his trademark faces, think "worried schoolteacher", and added: "Some of the teams that have been active in the Europa League this season, like Stuttgart or Hannover 96, have played ten or twelve games more than we have." He paused, then admitted: "We couldn't manage that with the squad and the number of players we have."

Streich made that television appearance only a few days after it was announced that Eintracht Frankfurt had signed his offensive midfielder Jan Rosenthal. Since then, Streich's squad has been dealt numerous additional blows. In mid-April, Gladbach let it be known that the 25-year-old offensive midfielder Max Kruse would activate a get-out clause in his contract and join them. Only days later, Daniel Caligiuri left for Wolfsburg. And on May 3, Eintracht Frankfurt confirmed the signing of another Freiburg player, Johannes Flum.

This mass exodus reportedly soured the relationship between Streich and business manager Dirk Dufner, who's since dissolved his contract and joined Hannover 96 after almost six years in Freiburg. It's not that they aren't used to losing good players down south, quite the contrary. The club officials have repeatedly stated that they consider Freiburg a "tuition club", meaning they find talents, school them and then sell them to a bigger club at a profit. It may have been the "profit" bit that angered Streich, given that one of the four regulars left on a free transfer and the three others will earn the club good but not great money.

Not to mention that all of that money will have to go into not just replenishing but enlarging the squad for European football next season. As Streich hinted at when he referred to the number of games played by teams "like Stuttgart or Hannover 96" this season, many Bundesliga clubs face severe problems when they have to incorporate a third major competition into their calendar. A visibly tired Stuttgart team too often underperformed in the Bundesliga for many months, while Hannover ran out of steam down the stretch.

And that was "only" due to the Europa League. Now imagine a club like Freiburg in the Champions League, with all the massive hoopla, intense media glare and limitless potential for distraction that comes with it. Suddenly there would be a need they have never had in Freiburg, namely the need to invest. Suddenly there would be something they have rarely felt in Freiburg, namely the pressure to perform. Would the Champions League be a threat rather than an opportunity for a club of this size?

In any case, it would be an interesting experiment. And whatever happens, one thing is for certain: Christian Streich will furrow his brow, shake his head at all the hullabaloo and remain his unflappable self. After all, this is the man who was once asked about the public perception that he is "different" and replied: "Of course I'm different. But all the others are also different. There are more than seven billion people out there. Every single one of them is different from all the others."

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