There are few places in the world where the values of tradition and connections between fans and their teams are held in quite as high a regard as in Germany. And if the controversial foundation of RB Leipzig in 2009 caused some concerned whispers to spread at the time, the Saxony-based side’s inaugural season in the Bundesliga has now seen full-blown shouts of discontent emerging – their club being the epitome of all that’s wrong with modern football in the eyes of many.
Leipzig haven’t allowed the fierce animosity towards them to halt their progression, though. ‘The most hated club in Germany’, as they’ve been dubbed on numerous occasions, are also one of the most smoothly run, and thanks to smart work by (director) Ralf Rangnick and (manager) Ralph Hasenhüttl they’ve made a hell of a start to life in the top tier. Just two points behind leaders Bayern Munich after nine games, Red Bull’s most ambitious football entity remain unbeaten and have shown very little potential for any kind of major drop-off. They are, almost certainly, here to stay for the long haul.
Given their beginning to the season, and how rare it is to see a newly-promoted side do quite so well, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Die Roten Bullen comfortably charged to the 2. Bundesliga title last year. In reality though they actually only narrowly scraped a second-placed finish ahead of FC Nürnberg; ending up five points behind the champions, SC Freiburg.
Naturally, Leipzig’s greater investment into the squad has carried them ahead of Freiburg this year. They’ve drawn a lot more attention too, an understandable consequence of their divisive background, excellent infrastructure and exciting young team that’s getting them the good results that are putting the club well into European contention. Yet despite the comparative lack of coverage afforded to Freiburg there are only six points between the two promoted teams right now, a testament to their own impressive, and almost entirely under the radar, start to the new campaign.
Freiburg’s tally of 15 points from nine thus far, including a perfect record at their 24,000 capacity home, the Schwarzwald-Stadion, has got them sitting pretty in eighth at this early stage of the season. Their most recent outing also saw them get their first three points on the road: a 3-1 victory against a Werder Bremen side who have been on an upward trajectory since the recent appointment of Alexander Nouri.
In terms of their respective pasts as clubs there are few similarities between Leipzig and Freiburg. While the former are very much the new kids on the block, the latter are a more established feature of the German football landscape. They’ve been on-and-off participants in the top division from 1993/94 onwards, their very first year in the Bundesliga, and this latest one has now become their 17th. On four occasions since they’ve endured the pains of relegation (most recently in 2014/15), managing to bounce back and get themselves promoted again in the season straight afterwards on three of those instances.
Outside of that, though, there is some resemblance between the pair – if Leipzig have established a strong structure for them to build upon through a progressive set of staff and quality facilities, then Freiburg have done the same by ensuring that stability is a highly prominent feature of the club. Current manager Christian Streich has been in charge of the first-team since December 2011, and has been at Freiburg in some form of coaching capacity since way back in 1995.
Even prior to Streich, elements of consistency within have been in place. Volker Finke, their manager between 1991 and 2007, is the longest serving coach in the history of professional football in Germany. He was the one who got them into the Bundesliga in the first place, then impressively pushed them on even further to qualify for the UEFA Cup for the first time in their history in 1995 (and again in 2001). It was during those early years of Finke's stint there that the nickname of Breisgau-Brasilianer, or the ‘Breisgau Brazilians’, came to be associated with the team due to the flowing, dynamic style of attacking football which he had them playing in.
They had good reason for that name to resurface relatively recently in the 2012/13 season too, when Streich got them into a European competition himself: their fifth-place finish being enough to earn them a spot in the Europa League. A quick drop soon ensued after that, with talented players leaving for bigger things and relegation coming just two years later, but what the charismatic 51-year-old achieved then shouldn't be underestimated. Freiburg aren’t one of Germany’s glamorous clubs with a deep and illustrious history – that season's the second-highest they’ve ever finished in the league system.
So given his strong affiliation with the fans and the success he’s brought to them, the question of Streich’s future upon them going down wasn’t one that particularly needed to be raised. There was no reason to panic. They’ve reaped the benefits of stability more than most over the last couple of decades. And as we all now know, it’s an environment that’s worked out pretty nicely for them again in the last 18 months or so since that heartbreak of going down in May 2015.
Last season’s 2. Bundesliga title win held a couple of similarities to the season when they were first promoted, in fact. In both years Freiburg finished five points ahead of their nearest challengers, while scoring almost exactly the same amount of goals per game (2.21 last year, compared to 2.22 in 1992/93). Qualifying for European football within two years of that promotion like Finke’s side did back then is, it’s fair to say, a pretty unlikely event, but if they can at least re-secure their position in the Bundesliga again then what they’re doing can be considered a resounding success.
And, as their bright start shows, there are plenty of reasons to believe they can do that. A 3-1 home win against a talented Borussia Mönchengladbach side is probably their best result to date, while in their toughest game, an away trip to Borussia Dortmund, they put up a good fight before eventually succumbing to a 3-1 defeat. Streich has a very young, energetic team at his disposal too; three of the five youngest starting line-ups in the Bundesliga so far this season have come courtesy of Freiburg. Dortmund and, funnily enough, Leipzig, are the only two who have put out more youthful sides. Certainly a reason for those at the Schwarzwald-Stadion to be optimistic about the future.
That orientation towards players who are promoted from within is something that stems all the way back to Streich’s early days at the club. He started with the youth teams, having lots of success with the Under-19s in the latter half of the last decade in particular – helping to bring talented players like Matthias Ginter and Ömer Toprak through – before eventually moving up to become the first-team manager.
After over 20 years there, few people know their club better than Streich does. And very few clubs trust their manager more than Freiburg do. It’s the kind of stability from the board and backing from the fans that all coaches dream of being given. In all likelihood that probably won’t be enough to get them to finish ahead of Leipzig again anytime soon. Though if they can simply stay in the same division as them, then that’ll suit the Breisgau Brazilians just fine.