Football managers are, generally, always working on borrowed time. It is just a fact of the game’s current atmosphere. Whilst there has always been pressure on those at the helm, they would once been given the chance to turn tricky situations around, and a couple of losses in a row would never be called a crisis.
43 men have lost their jobs as managers of an English Football League club since August. In Germany, it is no different. In the Bundesliga alone, only seven of the of 18 teams in the division will start next season with the same manager as they did the last, with that number potentially diminishing even further before the start of the 2019/20 campaign.
Some clubs have chopped and changed their managers more than most. For example, since 2000, Schalke have gone through 20 managerial changes, whilst Hamburg have managed to top even that, with 22. But practically every club in the country has gone through numerous new appointments. Even Bayern Munich, who have dominated German football for the best part of the 21st century, have switched it up 13 times in the hot seat during the same period.
The outfits who stick with their man are few and far between. But SC Freiburg are one of them. Since 1991, they have gone through just four managers. Volker Frinke lasted the longest, remaining for 16 years, before being replaced by Robin Dutt, who lasted four. Marcus Sorg was up next in 2011. When he was relieved of his duties just four months later in December 2011, Freiburg were in danger of turning into another trigger-happy club.
Step forward, Christian Streich. With the club in the relegation zone going into the winter break, Sorg’s assistant was given the top job. Streich is Freiburg through and through. He was a player at the club and had spent his whole coaching career in the Schwarzwald: 16 years as the U19 coach, and four as an assistant to Sorg and Dutt. He may have had little experience as the main man, but there was no-one who knew the club better.
It proved to be a fantastic decision by the club’s board. Streich hauled Freiburg out of the relegation zone and up into 12th place. Unsurprisingly, he was lauded for his efforts.
In the 2012-13 season, Freiburg went from strength to strength. Their eventual fifth-place finish was the best in the club’s history and took the club into European competition for just the third time.
The next couple of campaigns were not the best. A poor showing in the Europa League and a 14th place finish was followed by relegation to the 2. Bundesliga in 2014-15. And yet, despite the drop in performances, the club stood by the man who had given his career to Freiburg. They were rewarded with a promotion to the Bundesliga at the first attempt, and they have been safe in Germany’s top division ever since.
At Freiburg, Christian Streich is a hero. It is not just there that he is appreciated, however. Across the country, Streich is a popular figure and has now become a part of the fabric of the Bundesliga.
There are few men as quirky and charismatic as Streich in football. His energetic personality makes any of his press conferences a must-watch… although you will first have to decipher his strong southwestern German accent, which even some of the natives find difficult to do. It is no coincidence that Streich translates into English as ‘prank’: even just saying his name makes people smile.
Those press conference quotes in themselves make headlines. In May 2015, with his side in the midst of the relegation battle that would ultimately send them to the second tier, he was told that his Freiburg side had never picked up a single point against Borussia Dortmund, who they were set to face next. “I can confirm this stat is 100 percent true,” replied Streich. When asked why he thought that was, the Freiburg manager’s response was as deadpan as it could possibly be. “We always lost,” he answered.
Or how about when he was asked about Dirk Nowitzki, the German Dallas Mavericks NBA star who retired earlier this year, and his record-breaking career? “It said, 1,523 games, whatever amount it was… Then they said he had 10,000 successfully received rebounds, something along those lines. Numbers that make you wonder: How old is he, 340?”
Not content with always being on hand to provide amusing quotes, Streich has proven himself to be enlightened when it comes to the wider issues of the day. He cycles to every home game rather than taking the car – he lives just 300 meters from the stadium, but still – and he attempts to educate his players on ecological and nutritional matters.
“We always tell our players that they should make sure to only buy meat from butcheries that bring quality meat from close by,” he said earlier this year, “and not the meat that travels thousands of kilometres. They (the players) all have enough money and they can afford to buy more than just cheap chicken for 2.50 euros, where animals were tortured through their short, unworthy lives… there’s a reason vegan nutrition is up and coming. With nutrition you can always spend a few more euros, that’s not in the question. It’s also an ethical one, once you can afford it.”
The place of women in football has also been a hot topic in recent years, and Streich has also had his own say on the matter. As has come to be expected, he is more progressive than some of his colleagues who are stuck in the past.
Talking about Bibiana Steinhaus, Germany’s first woman referee, Streich said, “Good. For me it’s natural… Women breaking into different functions in society can only be a good thing. I would be happy to see more women leading countries in top political positions instead of men. It will probably make things easier for all of us. History tells us that it’s not very good to have so many men in government positions”.
His humanitarian views do not stop there, with him always happy to share his opinion, when asked, on other other subjects such as racism (“I think it would make sense that we start a joint action against racism in the Bundesliga”) and the rise of the far-right in Germany (“If you do not make your stance clear, you share the responsibility once things go in bad directions”). All of this adds to his glowing reputation, which started with his work on the pitch.
Freiburg, by Bundesliga standards, are modest. Other than the promoted FC. Nürnberg – who are likely to go straight back to 2. Bundesliga after just one season in the top flight – Freiburg have the lowest average wage in the whole of the division. In terms of their budget, there is little difference, with it being around the same level of Nürnberg and the other side to come into the Bundesliga for the start of the 2018-19 season, Fortuna Düsseldorf. Without the funds to find a seat at the table with the likes of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, Streich and his staff must look for a different type of player to make themselves competitive.
Desire and passion have become traits immediately associated with Streich’s teams. Not that he encourages these aspects of the game to the detriment of football ability. His sides will always attempt to play attacking football, with varying degrees of success, and on their day, they can be a match for anyone. Two draws with Bayern this season are a perfect example of that.
Fortunately, he has a strong youth academy at his disposal. He knows it inside-out and has been able to use it to put his teams together. Coupled with Streich’s youth coaching background, it has been successful in producing a line of Bundesliga-quality players. Oliver Baumann, Daniel Caligiuri, Dennis Aogo, Ömer Toprak and Maximilian Philipp all came through and went on to become top-tier professionals, with current Germany manager Joachim Löw also coming through the system. Löw is a club legend and can regularly be seen taking in a game at the Schwarzwald Stadion.
Secondly, he has a strong scouting team, which possesses an impressive knack of being able to pick up quality footballers for cheap prices. With Freiburg’s finances, that in itself is worth its weight in gold.
During an interview with SPORTBILD, Streich explained, “Our Chief Scout, he knows me for 30 years. He looks at many other things outside the football pitch. We need hungry, socially competent boys that are crazy about football. You can forget all of the other things. When a player has that, he can also have a few other minuses. He will still be in the right place of Freiburg.”
Looking back through the players who were picked up for €6 million or less makes for good reading. Werder Bremen star and former German international Max Kruse was signed for €500,000. Nils Petersen, the club’s leading all-time Bundesliga scorer, was signed for a measly €2.8 million. Others, such as Roman Bürki and Admir Mehmedi, were also signed for small amounts and have since gone on to play in World Cups and the Champions League.
Of all the signings, however, few have had an impact as big as Vincenzo Grifo. The German-born Italian had always shown promise but had not turned that into consistent performances at either Hoffenheim, FSV Frankfurt or Dynamo Dresden before being picked up by Streich for €1.5 million in 2015.
In two seasons there, he was the club’s standout performer. He played 64 games for Freiburg, scoring 23 goals as well as contributing 26 assists. Even as a classy player, Streich managed to strike the work rate that he requires from all of his players into him.
Neither Borussia Mönchengladbach, his new side who signed him in 2017, nor Hoffenheim, where he returned to in 2018, saw the best of him. Despite an Italian cap last year, it was no surprise to see him return to his Freiburg in the January transfer window. It was also not a shock to see him return to close to his best form under Streich as he helped the side secure their Bundesliga status.
The bond between the two is clear, and Grifo cannot talk glowingly enough about his manager.
“Streich is a father figure. In Freiburg, you always have to give your all, even as a 20-year-old player. You must always get to your limit. It feels like we run 10 kilometres more than our rivals during games. That’s what the coach demands. And then he comes from around the corner and says: Vince, how do Italians celebrate Christmas? He does not forget that we, players, have hearts.”
Perhaps that is the strongest appraisal of a man who has become a Bundesliga stalwart and a Freiburg legend. Grifo, the clubs fans, and supporters all around the country will hope that Streich’s lovable personality will still be found around German football for a good while yet.