It didn’t take long for the news that Arminia Bielefeld had taken a shock lead against RB Leipzig to make its way to Christian Streich on the Freiburg bench, the 56-year-old and his assistants frantically screaming at their players, waving them forward with flailing arms.
Suddenly, with 20 minutes remaining, the improbable was no longer impossible. With Leipzig losing, a Freiburg win would see them qualify for the Champions League for the first ever time — but they were 0-1 down to Bayer Leverkusen themselves.
The news reached the traveling Freiburg supporters in the away end, who promptly upped the volume. Their team needed two goals. They got one through Janik Haberer.
Nico Schlotterbeck played his last game for Freiburg, with the defender heading to Dortmund next season.
The news also reached mark Flekken in goal, who went up for a last-ditch corner in injury time.
“When you hear from the bench that Champions League [qualification] is possible after all, then you throw everything forward,” he told reporters post-match. “If you don’t try, then you might as well not bother at all.”
But, for Flekken and Freiburg, it wasn’t to be. The corner was cleared, Leverkusen broke, Ezequiel Palacios lobbed the ball into the empty net from the halfway line, and Freiburg’s Champions League dream was over. In fact, with RB Leipzig having already equalized themselves, the deal was sealed anyway.
Nevertheless, the overwhelming feeling among the Freiburg squad and staff at full-time in the BayArena was not of disappointment, but of pride.
“Of course, you dream of certain things,” forward Vincenzo Grifo said. “Champions League, Juventus, Real Madrid … but, after a season like this in which we’ve won so many close games, we’re just all incredibly proud. We’re in the Cup final next week, a highlight in many players’ careers, and we’re in the Europa League next season. What more could you want?”
Streich: ‘You’re mad!’
Indeed, the scale of Freiburg’s achievement shouldn’t be underestimated. Every season, the primary aim in the Black Forest is simply to remain in the Bundesliga. If someone had told Christian Streich before the start of the season that his team would be in with a chance of qualifying for the Champions League on the final day, DW asked, what would he have said?
“You’re mad,” Streich replied, simply. “I’d have said they’re mad.
“We’re SC Freiburg. We’re not Borussia Dortmund, we’re not RB Leipzig, we’re not Bayer Leverkusen. We’ve just played against one of the top teams in the Bundesliga and we matched them for large periods. I can only pay my players a huge compliment.”
And so, Freiburg will take their place in the Europa League group stage for the second time after 2013/14, along with Union Berlin, who secured their place in the competition for the first time with a 3-2 win over VfL Bochum.
Pride in defeat: Freiburg celebrate a sixth-place finish with the traveling support after a late loss at Leverkusen.
Stuttgart safe, Hertha in playoff
Like Freiburg, Union also theoretically have no economic right to be where they are. Both clubs’ budgets and financial possibilities are dwarfed by clubs above and below them, and both remain 100% under the control of their members — no shares sold to investors, no outsourced limited companies to run the teams.
Indeed, a glance at what happened at the bottom of the Bundesliga on the final day emphasizes just how well Freiburg and Union have done.
After a dramatic last-minute winner from Wataru Endo against Cologne kept Stuttgart in the league, sparking ecstatic scenes in the Neckarstadion, Hertha Berlin will now face a playoff against the third-placed team in the 2. Bundesliga (Werder Bremen, Hamburg or Darmstadt) to keep their top-flight status — despite businessman Lars Windhorst’s having invested €375 million ($390 million) in the club.
Not that Stuttgart, with the economic might that surrounds them in Baden-Württemberg, the home of Germany’s automobile industry and one of the wealthiest parts of the country, should have been in such a situation in the first place, battling relegation after a tumultuous season in the boardroom.
The Swabians won’t like to hear it, but they could take a leaf out of their local rivals’ book in Freiburg. It wasn’t quite enough for the Champions League, but a great deal better than a relegation battle.
Edited by Michael Da Silva