Freiburg: From small Black Forest club to Champions League hopefuls


Just one game away from possibly joining the elite of European football, Freiburg have gone from one-time Black Forest minnows to UEFA Champions League pretenders under coach Christian Streich.

It probably doesn’t sound that outrageous for last year’s DFB Cup runners-up to be getting involved in the battle for the Bundesliga's top four spots. Yet it was still a pretty big surprise when Die Breisgauer moved to the top of the table on Matchday 5 earlier this season.

A hard-fought, clinical display saw them win 3-2 away at Bayer Leverkusen, and meant that last year’s sixth-placed side were leading the way at the end of a matchday for only the second time in their history. The other occasion came after the opening round of the 2000/01 season.

Watch: Leverkusen went top in September with victory in Leverkusen

Matthias Ginter’s celebration after stooping to head in Freiburg’s equaliser at the BayArena was symbolic of a new confidence that the Black Forest club rightfully displayed during their best-ever start to a season this term. With a stony-faced expression, the returning Germany international pointed to the club badge on his shirt as if to say to the cameras, “This is my club. We are SC Freiburg”.

After that match, coach Streich was compelled – by his professionalism and nature – to hurriedly emphasise the “luck” that was involved."

Watch: When Ginter spoke after Freiburg’s superb start

But none of what has come to pass this season has been down to luck.

Playing to their strengths – and that’s set pieces - this season's Europa League challengers have stayed the course in the top-flight. The likes of their leading goalscorer and assist provider, Vincenzo Grifo, as well as Ginter, forward Nicolas Höfler and captain Christian Günter have excelled, as have Ritsu Doan and Michael Gregoritsch, as Freiburg followed up an outstanding 2021/22 campaign with another season to remember for fans at the Europa-Park Stadion.

Indeed, with Doan, Gregoritsch and Ginter all arriving as new signings last summer, it underlined once more the excellent work the club frequently does in the transfer market.

Watch: free-kick King Vincenzo Grifo

Even with those crucial new additions, the key thing for coach Streich was that the core of the team that qualified for Europe and reached the DFB Cup final last season remained intact. Only Nico Schlotterbeck left for Borussia Dortmund, being replaced by the more experienced Germany international in Ginter as he returned to his boyhood club.

That continuity is not something they take for granted in Freiburg. Although Streich is the longest-serving coach in the Bundesliga by some distance - over 11 years - the past has shown that the squad is often picked apart on the back of successful campaigns and they have to start over. That was not the case this time for a club now on solid financial foundations and playing in a modern new stadium.

For years Freiburg were a popular side among supporters of other teams because they had that quaint, small-club feeling, and were seen as the little team from the Black Forest in an enchanted corner of Germany who never really posed a threat. However, they are sporting proof that you can almost sneak your way to the top of the game. They have gone about their business quietly and unassumingly.

Watch: Christian Streich – Freiburg Fairytale

Are we looking at another Wolfsburg or Leicester City who one day could upset the Bundesliga big boys and take the title? They’d never say that’s their objective in Freiburg. In fact, Streich has declared a number of times that the goal in a season that also includes European football is to avoid relegation.

Recent results suggest otherwise, however. The Black Forest club are guaranteed at least fifth place this season as they sit level on points with Union Berlin in fourth and nine ahead of Leverkusen going into the final round of games. Streich’s ensemble also got to the DFB Cup semi-final's this season, losing out to the side that beat them in last year's showpiece, RB Leipzig.

Indeed, less than a year on from coming so agonisingly close to a first major title in the DFB Cup – a defeat that can often break a team – Freiburg looked more determined than ever in 2022/23. And there’s no suggestion they’ll be dropping out of Germany’s upper echelons any time soon.