Oct 23, 2014 8:31 AM
Would football be richer without small clubs?
The Associated Press
FREIBURG, Germany (AP) From a corner office of Freiburg's homely stadium, club chairman Fritz Keller gazes over one of the loveliest views in football. Autumn's reds, browns and golds streak the surrounding Black Forest. Buzzards wheel in the air above.
But from a football business perspective, this beauty is sterile desert. Black Forest boars make for fine stews, but they don't buy tickets to games. Thick woods aren't good places to find young players who could become football's next superstars. Nature lovers will adore the woodland city's tinkling waterways where herons fish. But in the increasingly expensive business of football, it is far easier to bag sponsors and revenue in thickly populated urban and industrial areas like Dortmund and Munich.
No accident, therefore, that those cities are home to Germany's biggest teams. Freiburg plays in the same Bundesliga as those giants. But because it is landlocked in southwest Germany, hemmed in by the Black Forest to the east, France to the west and Switzerland to the south, the club isn't in the same league financially and never will be. Freiburg executives accept that fact but also worry that no matter how hard they try, the gap between the haves and have-nots of football seems only to grow.
"This is the end of the world," Keller said of his spectacular vista, "but it's a nice end."
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in an occasional series exploring how small clubs in Europe's top leagues fare against increasingly wealthy and dominant rivals.
On match day, the overpowering smell of grilling sausages seeps into every corner of Freiburg's Black Forest Stadium. Its capacity of 24,000 is the second-smallest of the Bundesliga. The stadium is so cramped that the pitch is some three body-lengths shorter than it should be. But for less than the cost of watching Arsenal or Manchester United in England's Premier League, a Freiburg fan can take his or her kid to a game and buy drinks and hotdogs for them both.
The likes of Beyonce and Jay Z go to Paris Saint-Germain, transformed by Qatari petrodollars into football's new place to see and be seen. In Gareth Bale, Real Madrid boasts football's first 100-million-euro player. But Freiburg offers football on a human scale.
Club executives speak proudly of how Freiburg lives within its modest means, spends only what it earns, trains young players instead of buying them, hasn't accrued monster debts like so many other clubs in Europe's top leagues and isn't dependent on rich investors' whims.
"A football club is not a toy," Keller, the chairman, said in an Associated Press interview. "A football club is a community of a lot of great people."
Despite losing last weekend to Wolfsburg, Freiburg's players still mingled with their adoring public after the match, signing shirts and posing for selfies with wide-eyed girls who'd written "Freiburg" and "Forward!" in black on their young faces. The stadium bubbled with fervor and the pounding of drums. A fan with a bullhorn led chanting in heaving stands awash with giant flags.
The 2-1 loss made it eight games in a row that Freiburg has failed to win this season. Playing in red, the team was comprehensively out-witted. Wolfsburg, the Bundesliga champion in 2009, fielded expensive stars Kevin De Bruyne, a speedy Belgium international, and Luiz Gustavo, a Brazilian. Both its goals came from a former Freiburg player, Daniel Caligiuri. Double-ouch.
Still, Freiburg fans remained good-humored and philosophical, lingering at the stadium to share beers, cigarettes and chat while their kids played and kicked balls.
"You must be able to suffer sometimes, to take pain," said Burkhard Poschadel, a ticket-holder since Freiburg first won promotion to the Bundesliga in 1993.
But the business realities of the modern game are brutal. For every euro Freiburg earns, Bayern earns roughly eight. Freiburg's big rivals spend more on just one or two players than it spent hiring its entire starting XI.
This has been a bumper financial year for Freiburg, with windfalls from selling two of its best players to richer Bundesliga clubs and because it played in the Europa League last season. Qualifying ahead of bigger teams for that UEFA competition was a fabulous feat of overachievement by Freiburg. Still, its expected revenues of 70 million euros ($89 million) in 2014 are relatively small potatoes for mega-clubs that regularly play in UEFA's even more lucrative Champions League. Dortmund, for example, pocketed 88 million euros ($112 million) for reaching the Champions League final in 2013 and quarterfinals this year.
But working in Freiburg's favor is that it recognizes and embraces its own limitations. Club executives and fans alike say that simply being in the Bundesliga is its own reward. They don't expect to become champions but they do want the adventure to last and hope the team will avoid end-of-season anguish by qualifying as early as possible for the next Bundesliga campaign. They are fiercely proud of their homegrown players and love it if they make life tough for visiting clubs' big-bucks superstars. It can feel like a win when their Davids hold Goliaths like Bayern to a draw.
The financial disadvantages Freiburg labors under can make setbacks more digestible, too.
"People understand our situation and they give the players time," head coach Christian Streich said in an AP interview.
"Another club philosophy," said Andreas Steiert, who runs the club's football school, is "not to complain about things we don't have but to be satisfied with what we have and try to make the best out of it."
The academy is key to Freiburg's survival, because it produces players the club otherwise couldn't afford to buy. The best players also bring vital revenue when, after making names for themselves at Freiburg, the club sells them on. This July, it cashed in on academy graduate Matthias Ginter, selling the defender to Dortmund as his star is rising and he breaks into Germany's national team.
Freiburg invests more in its academy 6 million euros (US$7.5 million) per year than it would ever spend to buy a player from another club, said Keller. So important is this conveyor belt of talent that Freiburg has set aside a rainy day fund it would use to keep the school open if maybe when the club drops out of the Bundesliga's top tier.
"We need something under our pillow," Keller said. "Our football school is our insurance."
The club also wants to build a larger stadium by the city airport to hold 35,000 people. Freiburg residents will be asked to vote on those plans next February. The view won't be as spectacular but extra revenue from the new ground would aid Freiburg's battle to stay in football's rat-race.
"We have people with a big heart. We have people who love this area, who love the food, the wine and the beer from this area, and they love the football from this area," Keller said. "These (small) clubs are the soul, the real soul, of football."