Tuesday, May 22, 2007

TSA Report: SC Freiburg 2-0 TuS Koblenz

Volker Finke doesn't want the flowers. The coach of SC Freiburg has just watched his team miss out on promotion to the Bundesliga 1; but that's not why he doesn't want any flowers. The man who is attempting to present Finke and his trusted assistant Achim Sarstedt with valedictory blooms, club president Achim Stocker, heads a board which has brought to an end Finke's extraordinary 16-year stewardship of this small club in southern Germany.

The expression on Finke's face seems to suggest where Stocker should place his flowers.

As venues for bitter internecine conflict go, Freiburg in picturesque Baden-Wurttemburg (a few stops on the super-smooth ICE train south of Baden-Baden, where the English World Cup squad plotted their masterplan last June) is not the first place that would spring to mind.

Lying like a restful dog at the feet of the Black Forest, this university town ticks all the boxes in the bucolic central European template. Mediaeval cathedral flanked by bustling market square? Check. Winding, pedestrianised cobbled streets? Check. Earnest students scurrying amid dandering tourists, fed and watered by the best of biergartens? Check.
Far, also, from the traditional hotbeds of German football, the industrial sprawl of the Ruhr Valley and the southern automobile-producing cities of Munich and Stuttgart. It is, for example, Vfb Stuttgart (home of Mercedes-Benz and Porsche) and Schalke 04 (from the grim coalmining town of Gelsenkirchen in the Ruhr) who had contested the previous day's conclusion to the Bundesliga 1 title, Stuttgart's victory being watched in Freiburg by a packed house in O'Kelly's Irish Pub, in a corner of which about a dozen tourists, expats and foreign students joined us in watching the FA Cup final.

Volker Finke's achievement in dragging little Freiburg up amongst the big powers in German football, therefore, was not just to win football matches, but to implant football culture outside of any of its usual habitats. Just two seasons after Finke and Sarstedt taking over in 1991, Freiburg were promoted to the top division for the first time. After surviving their first season in the top flight, they went on to finish in third place in the 1994-95 season, playing a well-admired passing game and bringing UEFA Cup football to the Dreisamstadion.

This was a feat repeated in 2000-01, the club having in the meantime endured the first of three relegations from 1.Bundesliga in Finke's time. The first two of these, in 1997 and 2002, were compensated for by immediate return to the top flight. However, demotion in 2005 was followed by a tantalising fourth place finish the following season, one spot behind the promotion places.

When the 2006-07 season opened poorly, to the extent that relegation to the Regionalliga became a possibility, the club's board adjudged it to be harbinger of the end of Finke's reign, and it was announced following a 4-0 home loss to Karlsruhe that this season would be his last.
Immediately, however, Freiburg embarked on a 13 game unbeaten run, winning 11, to bring about the previously improbable chance of Finke's final season being marked by his fourth promotion.

Despite defeating TuS Koblenz 2-0 on Sunday, Freiburg once again finished fourth, thanks to third place Duisburg's 3-0 victory over Rot-Weiss Essen, and Hansa Rostock's securing of second with a 3-1 win against Unterhaching.

Freiburg tied up the win by early in the second-half against barely interested visitors; the home side's inspiration came from 21-year-old Jonathan Pitroipa from Burkina Faso, a quick and mesmeric attacker, and Alexander Iashvili, a wily, creative Georgian of the type which seems patented in the Caucasus. The latter did manage to miss a late penalty, failing to add to Sascha Riether and Karim Matmour's earlier strikes, a fact that would prove academic as the results from elsewhere came through.

In some ways, not winning promotion allowed the occasion the status of fond farewell, rather than becoming the celebration that might have drowned out the coach's departure. Judging by his reaction to the flowers proffered his way, Finke's exit did not sit easily with the man himself. Indeed, his bearing had something of the indignance of the powerful usurped, like a Nixon, Ceaucescu or Haughey even; as if to say, how dare they?

Although the feeling among the support was understandably positive toward the coach with whom the club had achieved so much, there were, apparently, elements who did not disagree with the coup. And although the vast majority professed their adoration and gratitude - many thousands held banners saying "Danke Volker" and "Wir Sind Finke" (We are Finke) - the mood did not develop into a demonstration in favour of his retention.

The tone was, in fact, reminiscient of Brian Clough's parting at Nottingham Forest. Both enjoyed massively successful eras in which unfashionable, provincial clubs had punched vastly in excess of their weights, to the extent that they themselves had become synonymous and unmistakeably identified with their teams.

Both bowed out on disappointing notes, and while Finke's departure having just missed out on promotion did not carry the bitter taste of Clough's post-relegation farewell, the sense of the inevitability of the parting, and of the passage of time, was similar.

That is one perspective. Another might be that, like Alan Curbishley's time at Charlton Athletic, a team's success under the stewardship of one man had been so prolonged as to convince those within the club that this very success was now their prerogative, rather than the continued gift of their talented manager. The responsibility for ensuring this is not the case rests now with Robin Dutt, erstwhile of Stuttgart Kickers, and Finke's replacement.

"Wir Sind Finke" was indeed a fitting slogan for the occasion. Germany's longest-serving manager was gone, but the achievements of the club in his time meant, as the slogan suggests, that he will always be inextricably linked to the team from the sleepy town in the shadow of the Black Forest.

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Blogger Andy Fromknecht said...

Just wanted to say, nice article, I myself just returned from a semester abroad in Freiburg, and spent most of my Sundays in Dreisamstadion cheering on our SC Freiburg.

Your observations on the team are right on, the feeling in Freiburg was that of sadness over the loss of Finke, but still optimistic of the future.

One thing that has to be mentioned is that Freiburg is in danger of losing some of its brightest stars because of Finke's departure. Pitropia, who is our best player and the most creative on the ball, is rumored to go to HSV (Hamburg) and many are arguing that if Finke stayed on, that Pitropia would be staying.

Personally, as someone who watched the 13 game unbeaten streak from a first person perspective, while Freiburg showed amazing skills, they aren't ready to make the jump to the First Bundesliga yet emotionally.

It's like the Cleveland Cavs, last year they weren't ready emotionally to make it to the NBA Finals, this year they have the experience to be a success. Ultimately, SC remaining in the 2nd Bundesliga is for the best for Freiburg and I hope that next season I'll get to watch my team succeed with the same gusto they did this year.

3:03 p.m.  
Blogger Tommy77 said...

Glad you enjoyed your time there, some friends of mine were at University there for a year which happened to coincide with the club's second promotion, in '98 - shame your year couldn't have ended the same way.

11:11 p.m.  

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