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Jun 26, 2007

The Freiburg experiment: 'We are Finke'

When, following the 1997 relegation, Volker Finke set about creating a new team from scratch yet again, he faced a problem he hadn't had in 1991. The typical Freiburg player - inconspicuous but clever, technically gifted and fast-learning - was now scouted by other teams as well.

At one point in Moneyball, Paul DePodesta says: 'I hope they continue to believe that our way doesn't work. It buys us a few more years.' The years they had bought at Freiburg were slowly coming to an end. In 2001, Volker Finke would look back on his decade at the helm and say: 'The tactical advantage we used to have is gone.' By which he meant that the league had learned too much from Freiburg.

Their style, which once contrasted so sharply with the game as played by the other teams, had become the new standard over the course of all those seasons. At the very latest after the national team's debacles at the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 European Championships, German football finally moved into the foreign Freiburg territory and made itself comfortable there.

But as early as 1997, there were young managers such as Armin Veh at Fürth, Ralf Rangnick at Ulm or Joachim Löw at Stuttgart who were following in Finke's footsteps. And so Freiburg had to cast the net wider as they attempted to replace no less than sixteen players who had left when the club got relegated.

Finke and his scouts looked for and found players, often in pairs, in places such as Mali, Tunisia and Georgia. There was a bit of grumbling among the support (a famous banner said: 'Hello Finke! You're allowed to speak German in the second division, too!'), but nothing silences critics as quickly as success.

Freiburg finished in second place and bounced straight back to the Bundesliga. Yet again the side were promoted as the highest-scoring team even though there wasn't a single striker who scored more than seven goals. It was just like old times, and Kicker magazine dutifully celebrated the club's return with the headline 'Back to the future'.

But some of the old magic had gone. The team still played a modern passing game and still stunned the league from time to time, such as when they reached the UEFA Cup again in 2001. But as sensational as this achievement was, the applause no longer came as loud as it used to.

In part, that was because people had begun to take Finke and Freiburg for granted. The small, smart and loveable club had joined the establishment, at least when compared to the even smaller newcomers like Ulm, Unterhaching, Cottbus or Mainz who now took turns catching the imagination.

By 2002, the Freiburg Way had become so accepted that very few eyebrows were raised when Finke kept his job despite a second relegation. (Of course his team came straight back.) Ditto when he remained at the helm after Freiburg went down a third time, in 2005. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung referred to this as the 'sacrosanct serenity' the club had turned into a trademark. You don't panic, you keep the ball on the ground, and Volker Finke will oversee it all until judgement day.

Which, at last, leads us to what could have become the finest story of the 2006-07 season.

Freiburg started this campaign in catastrophic fashion. On December 11, they were beaten at home 4-0 by Karlsruhe and found themselves level on points with the team in 16th place. Almost half of the season was over, Freiburg were staring relegation to the third division in the face. Two days later, the club sent out a dazzling press release.

The board declared there was 'unqualified confidence' in Finke to turn things around - but added that the manager and the club would go their separate ways at the end of the season, after sixteen years.

Few fans were happy with that. Finke's followers said that if there was enough trust in the manager to not fire him in such a moment of crisis, then why would he have to go in the summer? Finke's detractors said that if the board felt the manager was no longer the right man, then why were they willing to wait six months and risk relegation before replacing him?

The team won the next game. And the one after that. And the one after that. And the one after that. And the one after that. Following a breath-taking 5-4 victory against Aue in late February, it was obvious that Freiburg had not only escaped the relegation zone but might have a shot at promotion, even though third place was still eight points away.

But another few victories later, the Berlin paper die tageszeitung would say: 'Depression increases with every win. Compared to the apocalyptic mood [that permeates Freiburg], the Führerbunker in April of 1945 may have been a jolly place.'

An initiative called 'We are Finke' had formed and was collecting signatures to make the board change their mind. When that didn't bear fruit, they urged people to become Freiburg members and then enforce an extraordinary general meeting to oust the board and keep Finke at the club. Things got so out of hand that the club decided to not accept new memberships, refusing applications by saying: 'In the interest of the club, we have to prevent a potential split.'

But of course club and city were already split.

Following an impressive 4-1 win against Kaiserslautern in March, midfielder Roda Antar handed out 'We are Finke' shirts among his team-mates. But in the stands there was a banner that said: 'We are Freiburg - no matter who's the manager.'

In early May, Freiburg lost their third but last game of the season at home to Paderborn. The only goal of the game came three minutes into stoppage time when goalkeeper Alexander Walke gave the ball away with a diabolical pass. Freiburg won the final two games to set a record for the best second half of a season in the history of the 2nd Bundesliga - but finished in fourth place, level on points with promoted Duisburg.

If the Paderborn game had ended after 92 minutes, or if Freiburg had scored another ten goals in the preceding nine months, Volker Finke would have pulled off yet another miracle. And it would have put the board in a very awkward situation. Then again, it would have been the ultimate punchline to the Freiburg story: We keep the manager when he takes us down, we fire him when he takes us up.

In any case, next season won't be an easy one for Robin Dutt. Hardly anyone knew him last December, now they all know him as The Man Who Follows Finke, the man who follows the man who set a record in the German professional game by staying sixteen years at one club. Finke, meanwhile, is careful in his statements, but you sense he must be bitter about some things.

Still, don't fear a scenario where he and his old club meet in court. 'I don't even have a written contract. Only once did we ever put something down in writing,' he says. 'That was back in 1991.'


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