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The Freiburg experiment: Concept football

When Volker Finke took over at SC Freiburg in 1991, the club had never finished higher than fifth in the 2nd Bundesliga and there seemed to be trouble ahead: the next two seasons would be mammoth affairs because, in the wake of reunification, the second division would first take up a lot of clubs from the East and then be cut down to its original size.

Kicker magazine predicted problems: 'You can't miss a certain fear of the future at SC Freiburg,' it said. 'Having lost no less than eight players, the team has to be rebulit from scratch.' But the unknowns Finke found at clubs like Weinheim, Reutlingen or Havelse, his former team, did well and even toyed with promotion in 1992.

A season later, Kicker was less skeptical about the team's chances in the 2nd Bundesliga, but raised a question you'd often hear over the next years: 'The team can play with almost any side in the league, but Finke will ask himself if he's got the players who can meet the tough physical challenge posed by a long season.'

Finke's players, among them new signings from places such as Donaueschingen, Ingolstadt and, again, Havelse gave an impressive answer. They climbed into first place on the seventh day of the season and held that position for the rest of the 46-game campaign to reach the Bundesliga for the first time in the club's history.

More telling than the 1992-93 table, though, were the details. Four Freiburg players made the Team of the Season in Kicker, three of them were midfielders. The side's most successful striker, an Albanian by the name of Altin Rraklli, scored only 16 goals (in 46 games, remember) and finished a distant 10th in the list of top goalscorers. The nominal centre forward, Uwe Spies, found the net only eleven times.

But did that mean Freiburg played a defensive game? Oh, far from it.

The team scored 102 goals, a staggering 20 more than the second-best offence. It was simply that in Finke's football, everyone contributed to both offence and defence. 'Uwe Spies doesn't measure his success in the goals he scores himself,' Finke said. 'Instead, he wants to help create chances.' In 1992-93, Spies set up more goals than any other Freiburg player - and he was the centre forward!

It was new, it was different, it confused traditional football people.

Finke would say things such as: 'I don't want team leaders. That's a line of thinking that buries other players' strengths.' He would shock the members of football's old boys' club of task-masters by saying: 'The only kind of discipline that the team needs is that the players use their heads and make decisions by themselves.' He challenged the star-struck public by declaring: 'Our playing system does not depend on the individual.'

And he irritated many a seasoned reporter fond of clichés by having the guts to say: 'It's boring to switch flanks and knock the ball from one wing to the other. We build through the middle, where there is little space.' When the writers would stare at him as if he was nuts, he explained: 'You play three or four short passes to lure the defence into what they think is the danger zone. And then you suddenly open up the game over the flanks - that's what is really dangerous.' Needless to say, he also did away with the most mythical of positions in the German game, that of the sweeper.

In August of 1993, Finke spoke to 50 top-level industry managers about how to turn the disadvantage of limited funds into an advantage. Then he set about proving even more experts wrong, namely those writers who said his approach might work in the 2nd Bundesliga but not against stronger opponents, not against the Bayern Munichs with their international superstars.

Well, in their first three seasons in the Bundesliga, Freiburg won every home game against Bayern, one by a score of 5-1, and even qualified for the Uefa Cup in 1995. With a team in which the most expensive player had cost 500,000 Marks. (Yes. Marks, not Euros.) About ten years after SC Freiburg had an average attendance of only 2,400 and used to be regarded as 'the other club' in the city by many fans who remembered the glory days of the older and posher Freiburg FC, Finke's team was the toast of the Bundesliga, no: the country. The side were called the 'Breisgau Brazilians' after the region around Freiburg and for their pleasing, technically impressive style of play.

Their new game was dubbed 'concept football' and would inspire a whole group of young soon-to-be coaches. (Among them the men responsible for how Germany played at the 2006 World Cup.) Of course, it wasn't entirely new. Arrigo Sacchi's Milan had set a precedent. But Freiburg tried to make it work without Baresi, Maldini, Rijkaard, Gullit and Van Basten - and held their own.

The man who, next to Finke, was most responsible for this sensational success story saw none of it. Achim Stocker, president since 1972, couldn't stand the tension of watching the games and preferred to follow them via teletext. Pretty much like Billy Beane in Moneyball, who 'couldn't bear to watch and carried around a little box that received a satellite feed of live baseball', as Michael Lewis wrote.

This, I promise, is the last but one time I mention Moneyball. Like I said last week, the book only reminded me of the Freiburg story, that's all. You can't really compare two games and, above all, you certainly can't compare US sports to European sports. For instance, the worst that could have befallen the Oakland A's during their experiment was losing games and money. It's not as if they had to fear being demoted to Triple-A ball or whatever. But in football, that's what can happen.

In 1996 and 1997, the Freiburg miracle appeared to be fraying around the edges. Some of the unknowns had become stars of sorts and were sought by bigger clubs. There was unrest when Jörg Heinrich pouted and moaned until he was let out of his contract to join Dortmund. It also seemed as if Finke was losing direction: when the team found itself in last place in late 1995, he signed the kind of all-out goal poacher he'd so far avoided at all costs, the Dutch striker Harry Decheiver.

Decheiver did score the goals that helped avoid relegation, but a season later, Freiburg paid the price for having diverted from their formula. Decheiver and another well-known signing, the Swiss international Alain Sutter, considered themselves stars and played accordingly. ('Harry had this leave-me-alone attitude,' remembers midfielder Jens Todt.) In May of 1997, Freiburg were relegated back to where they'd come from.

Just another failed fairy tale, many people surmised, expecting Finke to lose his job. But they still did some things differently at Freiburg. 'The only man who can fire Finke is Finke himself,' chairman Stocker declared. Finke did not fire himself. Instead, back at square one, he did it all over again! As you'll find out in the next column.

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