If you go down in the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise.
Well, perhaps not such a surprise if you’ve been following German football for the last few seasons, but for many, the rise of SC Freiburg from “yoyo team” to upper-middle staple of the Bundesliga may raise a few eyebrows.
Deep in the southwest of the country, in the heart of the Black Forest, Freiburg may seem geographically isolated in German terms, though its proximity to both the Swiss and French borders ensure a certain European flavour to the area
Current Bundestrainer Joachim Löw was born 40 kilometers from here, started his career with die Breisgauer, and returned twice to play for them, but on the whole, this is a club which has shied away from the limelight. It doesn’t have a political identity such as does FC St. Pauli, nor does it possess the big-city cache of a 1. FC Köln. Even its most-local rivals, Karlsruher SC and VfB Stuttgart, are over an hour-and-a-half drive away.
It would therefore be easy to dismiss SC Freiburg as a non-descript provincial club, forever back and forth between the top two German divisions. Whilst major multinationals lend their names to other clubs in Germany, SC Freiburg’s sponsors are small local businesses, the latest being a local milk producer and a bike company.
But things are beginning to stir.
At the start of 2021, the club plans to move from the Dreisamstadion – its home since 1954 – to a new stadium on the outskirts of the city. The Dreisamstadion is, in German terms, a “reines Fussballstadion” with no running track and perhaps the most-attractively located ground in the Bundesliga, as it is overshadowed by the rolling forests of the Schwarzwald.
Away fans have long complained about the appalling view from the away end, and parts of it do show its age, but with its closely hemmed-in stands, this is a ground with a certain uniqueness and certainly one that can generate an atmosphere.
Why then move?
“This is a decision made with the brain, not the heart,” says Simon, a season-ticket holder. “We all love the old ground; it’s our home. But a new stadium is the only way our club can compete in the future.”
Chris Alexander, who runs an English-language Twitter page dedicated to the club, agrees. “I would much prefer we could stay where we are,” he says, “but ultimately our hand has been forced.”
The plans are modest. An upgrade of 10,000 places might not set the pulses racing, but this is a pragmatic move, designed in no small part to boosting profits from VIP and hospitality. “A huge stadium wouldn’t feel right,” opines Simon.
There are cautionary tales all over Europe, stories of clubs moving to soulless new homes, leading to diminishing atmospheres, disaffected fanbases, and ultimately decline on the pitch. No doubt that success on the pitch will help dictate success off it, but what does success look like for SC Freiburg?
Many believe becoming a mainstay in the Bundesliga, with the occasional dalliance in Europe, is a realistic goal, but will that keep the fans coming in through the turnstiles?
Alexander: “I’m not sure my personal expectations will increase too much, and certainly not overnight. I always like to think of Freiburg as a “top 25” club and therefore susceptible to the odd relegation every now and again. It would be nice to get back into European competition, but I wouldn’t expect it every year. One in every five seasons would be a nice bonus!”
There is queue of around 10,000 people for season tickets, so the stadium should be full most weeks, and there is even an aspiration to attract fans from the nearby French and Swiss regions.
The club has grown its fanbase in the last ten years, especially since current coach Christian Streich took the reins. Membership has doubled and home tickets are like gold dust. Alexander thinks the new stadium strikes the right balance.
“The new capacity is probably about right, because we should still get close to a sellout most weeks while we’re in the Bundesliga, but it won’t have lots of empty places if we get relegated. 40,000 might have been a step too far, and the intense atmosphere may have been lost.”
As with most clubs moving grounds, the main challenge will be how to recreate an atmosphere. The new ground will actually have a higher percentage of standing places than the Dreisamstadion, so early signs are promising.
SC Freiburg has a strong local identity, and the future looks bright, but this is dependent on it being able to compete with its rivals. The new stadium is one part of the solution and could well help propel the club to the next level, but there is no escaping that something intangible will be lost.
“It’s a thin line between trying to maximize the revenue, planning for the future and keeping the core of the fans satisfied and upholding this special connection,” concludes Simon.
A reminder perhaps that in this corner of Germany, whilst the club is aiming for the sky, it must not lose sight of what got it there in the first place.