Christian Streich: The skinny-dipping managerial maverick shaking up the Bundesliga
As his team sealed a 2-0 victory over Cologne in November, Christian Streich’s eyes pricked with tears.
Note, ‘fellow coaches’. This is an important point to Streich. Those alongside him in the Freiburg dugout are not his coaching staff or assistants.
Streich – nominally the head coach – insists they have played an equal and important part in Freiburg’s achievement, and should be recognised as such.
The win over Cologne had taken the long-time relegation battlers from one of Germany’s Black Forest backwaters, to second in the Bundesliga, just a point behind 10-time defending champions Bayern Munich.
After the game, reporters constantly questioned Streich about his emotions.
“It was just the wind in my eyes,” he said.
No-one was convinced.
His team are on the move. And they are moving Streich and a whole city in the process.
Streich’s tears have flowed regularly in recent times.
In September 2021, after Freiburg played their final game at their much-loved but outdated Dreisamstadion, he clambered into the north stand, took a megaphone from the ultras and led them in an emotional lament.
In May, as he stood in front of 20,000 fans and thanked them for their support during a gut-wrenching shoot-out DFB Cup final defeat by Leipzig, his eyes glistened once again.
Announcing his latest contract extension, the 57-year-old choked up when asked what the club and their show of faith meant to him.
Streich is perhaps the Bundesliga’s most emotional coach. He is a combustible, cantankerous touchline presence, roaring on his team and occasionally berating officials and opposition.
The tears are not usual. But then these are not usual times in his 28-year relationship with the club either.
This weekend, the Bundesliga restarts with upstarts Freiburg still in second, pushing into unknown territory.
The rise of a club that has spent six seasons in the second tier since the turn of the millennium has been been steady, but consistent.
There is no big financial backing from a German corporate giant or an overseas billionaire.
Their payroll comes in at 54m euros (£48m). It is a fraction of RB Leipzig or Borussia Dortmund’s budget – 168m euros (£149m) and 215m euros (£190m) respectively.
It is a world away from the 373m euros (£331m) that Bayern plough into their squad.
But Freiburg have two advantages over the bigger spenders.
The first is continuity. Most of those in the boardroom have been there for decades.
Sporting director Klemens Hartenbach is one of the shorter serving, having been in position for 15 years. He and Streich shared a flat in the 1980s, where they listened to the Beatles and cooked together.
In the dressing room, the players spend an average of almost five years at the club, a slower turnover than everywhere else in the German top flight. There is a sense of familiarity and family around the club.
The other advantage is Streich himself.
His managerial qualities are obvious. He polishes young players and produces teams that consistently punch above their weight.
Dennis Aogo is typical of his work.
Aogo arrived at Freiburg as a raw 15-year-old back in 2002, when Streich was still a youth coach at the club.
“Without Christian Streich, I wouldn’t have become a professional football player,” Aogo says about his former coach, the gratitude clear in his voice.
“I would have gone off the rails.
“Three years before my breakthrough, I was at a crossroads. In the Freiburg academy, players got fired once they had got three warnings.
“I was allowed to stay although I had way more than three. There were parties, fights, skipping school, staying out late – the typical stuff you do as a teenager.
“But you can’t do that when you want to become a professional.”
As Aogo put it, Streich and Stefanie von Mertens, then head of the academy, saw something in him.
“They got me into line. The worst thing was when I wasn’t allowed to train,” he added.
“Streich put me on a diet, I had to reduce my weight by half a kilo per week and had to do extra running with the athletic coach.”
Streich’s regime sparked an obsession with becoming a professional. Aogo trained on his own and cycled to the training camp to watch the first team’s training sessions.
Aogo realised his ambition, playing 257 games in the Bundesliga for Freiburg, Hamburg, Schalke and Stuttgart, making 12 Champions League appearances and winning 12 international caps for Germany, one of which came at the 2010 World Cup.
Since then many more people have come to know Streich. His quirky charisma and everyman charm has made him one of the most popular figures in German football.
Streich still speaks in his distinctive hometown dialect of Alemannisch, rather than the standard German of the big cities. He wears a casual jumper and jeans, rather than any expensive designer clothes.
When he was sidelined for October’s Europa League match against Nantes after testing positive for coronavirus, Streich had to ask around if he could watch the game on free-to-air television or if he needed to subscribe to another channel.
“If so, I’ll have to find somebody who can install it for me,” he said.
In December 2021, there was more inconvenience. An away game against Borussia Monchengladbach was moved to a Sunday, leaving Streich, who had tickets to a concert by concert by guitar virtuoso Marc Ribot, bitterly disappointed.
“I wouldn’t have given away those tickets for the Champions League final or any money in the world,” he said. “I was genuinely annoyed when I heard the date of our game.”
His players did their best to make it up to their manager, scoring all six goals in a 6-0 thrashing of Monchengladbach in the first half.
As this episode suggested, Streich has a hinterland well beyond football.
When the German top flight paused this winter, he did not travel to the usual footballer destinations of Dubai or Majorca; instead he took in the culture of Morocco. In his younger days, he would set off with little more than a backpack and the vaguest itinerary.
“I love to meet new people, I am not afraid to go anywhere unknown,” he said when asked about his trips.
A return to normality and privacy, an escape from his increasingly high profile, is also part of the attraction.
In the beginning of his 11-year stint as Freiburg manager, he underestimated how recognisable he had become.
Touring his home country on his bike, he happened upon a picturesque little beach. Only as he made his way down from the road, did he realise it was a nudist area.
Streich’s reaction was not to retreat, but instead to whip off his clothes and dive into the water. As he emerged, one of his friends quietly reminded him that he was only a furtive cameraphone shot from going viral.
It is easy to forget about such dangers in Freiburg.
The town – population a little over 200,000 – has a tendency of leaving stars alone. Players can party after games without being photographed.
Streich, on foot or on bicycle, is also familiar sight in the streets. Many locals have their own stories of standing next to him at the bar, sharing a cigarette or enjoying concerts with him.
When BBC Sport asked one of his favourite bars, a lively pub which stages gigs, book readings and football screenings, about Streich, they were not interested in any publicity.
“He comes here in his private time and we don’t want that to be a topic out in the open,” they replied via email.
Make that same request in Munich, and the bar owners might have given you the exact dates and drinks of the VIPs they serve.
But, in Freiburg the connection between the club, city, and its culture is more precious.
So to understand Streich, you have to stroll through Freiburg.
On a sunny winter’s day in January, the pavement cafes are packed.
Pretty shop fronts face out on to the Dreisam river in the old town. Residents leave out a selection of books for passers-by to browse as they stop and take in the view.
It’s an attractive city – travel guide publisher Lonely Planet ranked it third as on a list of place to visit in 2022 – but many Germans have wondered if Streich could be tempted away.
Teams such as Schalke, Bremen and Monchengladbach have reportedly made pitches to him.
Streich is said to have pondered each for a while but, in the end, always opted to stay.
Former Bayern Munich president Uli Hoeness said even the perennial German champions once had him in mind as a manager.
“That is not realistic, I couldn’t train Bayern Munich,” Streich told local broadcaster SWR, as he reflected on scrutiny and pressure that would come on a bigger stage.
“I would be a has-been after four weeks.”
So will he ever move on?
“No chance. Elsewhere they would have to engage an interpreter as well,” jokes Kurt, who sports a white beard and a black beret, as he sits in the Come Inn Sport Bar.
Next to Kurt sits Timo, an IT worker with his dog at his feet and a beer in hand.
The bar around them is decorated with Freiburg scarves and pictures of players. Its two television screens show a friendly Freiburg are playing during their mid-season training camp.
Owner Emir Ali is a regular, watching matches whenever his job allows him to.
“Streich is one of our own,” he says. “Always with the heart on his sleeve, a no-nonsense guy. He greets us in the streets as if we were close friends for a long time.”
“He is so important for the young players,” adds Timo. “When they come through the ranks and think about fast cars and money, Streich gets their feet back on the ground.”
“Don’t mention our new youth talents on the BBC,” adds Kurt. “We don’t want the rich English clubs knowing!”
Robin Koch, who signed for Leeds for a reported £13m in August 2020, and Caglar Soyuncu, who moved to Leicester two years earlier for around £19m, are among the Freiburg talents picked off by the Premier League clubs.
Kevin Schade, who signed with Brentford in January in a deal that is expected to turn into a £20m permanent transfer, is the latest.
Despite the departures, Streich has always forged new unknowns into the next big things.
The three supporters in the bar shake their heads in disbelief how far their small club has come.
They talk about all the relegation battles, the big players they had to sell and the local rivals that they have left in their wake.
“Do not forget, it was the Freiburger FC which was the bigger club in the city long time ago, elitist, superior. Freiburg was just the workers’ club,” one adds.
Freiburger now play in the fifth tier.
Not far from the bar, in front of the university, a crowd of students supplemented by locals demonstrate against police violence and racism in government bodies.
The concern for social justice is a common theme in the city and it is shared by Streich, whose pre-match press conferences regularly veer off script into the importance of social responsibility, the dangers of social media and other issues.
During the migrant crisis of 2015, in which more than a million people claimed asylum in Europe after being displaced by unrest and violence, mostly in the Middle East, Streich spoke out.
“Now is time to open ourselves to these people, to welcome them and break down anxieties,” he said.
“Europe for long decades was lost to war and also exploited Africa for centuries. Learning from history is important right now.”
His matchday press conferences can last more than an hour as he switches to other subjects. The club receives, and generally turns down, up to seven requests to interview Streich every day.
The local newspaper publishes a weekly video – Streich of the Week – which invariably showcases the manager’s thoughts about the world beyond football..
Germany’s Green Party even nominated him to take part in a ceremonial vote to elect the country’s federal president.
“As Bundesliga managers, we are heard, we reach a wide audience,” Streich said when he asked about his willingness to speak his mind, despite being criticised and mocked in some quarters for dealing in topics beyond his remit. “We therefore have to talk.”
Lutz Hangartner has seen Streich’s small-town appeal expand to a wide audience.
Sitting at a table at the Schloss-Cafe above the city, Hangartner, sporting a side parting, blue-and-white ironed shirt and black jacket, spreads pictures and old newspaper clippings across the table in front of him.
Hangartner coached a teenage Streich in the 1980s, while he was a player at Freiburg’s cross-town rivals Freiburger FC. They have remained close friends since.
“He was obsessed about football in a positive way,” says Hangartner. “But he was short-tempered on the pitch so I had to control him.
“What he always maintained was the curiosity and will to improve in any field.”
When Streich ended his playing days – admitting he was “too slow” for a top-level career – his first thought wasn’t coaching.
“He had a girlfriend who was a teacher and she encouraged him to catch up on his A-levels,” explains Hangartner.
During his childhood, Streich was needed to serve customers and chop cuts at his parents’ butchers shop. He had only been a visitor, rather than a serious student, at secondary school.
But he rediscovered a childhood love of books, broadened his mind and expanded his horizons. He went on to university to study history, German and sports.
“He was so overwhelmed to sit in the rooms where famous historians and philosophers had taught,” says Hangartner.
“Christian was 28 years at the time, his fellow students were much younger. But he absorbed everything, especially history books.”
Streich initially trained as a teacher, but, confronted by a class of expectant 12-year-olds found himself trembling with trepidation. Instead he went back to what he knew best. Hangartner recommended him as a youth coach to Freiburg. Streich duly backed up his friend’s judgement, leading his young charges to three cup wins and a German age-grade title.
In December 2011, it was time to install him as the head coach of the first team.
Since then many other players have echoed Aogo’s words, saying Streich’s trust, impartiality, empathy and detailed advice have lifted their performances to unexpected levels.
He can see certain qualities in people. And knows how to make them blossom.
It is a talent that could take him almost anywhere. But Freiburg is a connection that has kept him at home.
“We can bring the world to us, by books, by food, by music,” said Streich recently. “And we bring the world to the pitch, with all the players with different backgrounds in one team.”
Next season, might well see his team bring the Champions League – the best of the club football world – to Freiburg for the first time.
Just don’t expect Streich to wear a suit for the occasion.
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