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Christian Streich: The Teachings of the Philosopher of the Black Forest

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Long but fantastic article that shows why so many people in Germany appreciate Christian Streich not only as a coach, but also as a person:




The Teachings of the Philosopher of the Black Forest

Christian Streich, the coach of unassuming Freiburg, acts as German soccer’s unofficial social conscience. The Bundesliga’s recent stoppage gave him a chance to reflect on his relationship with his sport.



Christian Streich has to go. He is conscious that it is nearing 10 a.m., and training is about to start. His S.C. Freiburg players — he calls them his “colleagues” — will soon be out on the field, wondering where their coach has gone. With a hint of apology, he wonders if we might, perhaps, make these the last couple of questions?

His answers to them include a recent history of Freiburg, the club in southwest Germany he has coached for the last nine years; an overview of the region’s economics and geography, paying special attention to how both intersect with the city’s soccer culture; and a brief but eloquent hymn to the beauty of the Black Forest.

By the time he finished, 10 a.m. had come and gone.

Streich loves to talk. He talks with his eyes, which dance around as he tries to find the right word. He talks with his hands, which perform a complex mime in the air not so much to emphasize a point, but to act it out. He answers at such length that he grins with apology, more than once, at the task he has set the translator.

But the 54-year-old Streich should not be thought of as a blowhard, captivated by the sound of his own voice, expounding rather than talking. What Streich really loves, more than talking, is thinking: exploring an idea to its deepest recesses, interrogating his own positions, investigating his assumptions. He just likes to think out loud.

He also likes to think about any subject under the sun: from ethical consumption (encouraging his players not to buy “chickens tortured for all of their short, undignified lives”) to the rise of the far-right (“if you do not make your stance clear, you share the responsibility once things go in a bad direction”) to soccer’s indulgence in hyperbole (pressure, he said, is not found in a relegation struggle, but when “you fear for your life so much you put yourself and your kids on a boat across the Mediterranean”).

At times, he might have reason to worry he is more famous for what he says than for what he does: that being portrayed as German soccer’s resident philosopher somehow detracts from the quietly impressive job he has done. At Freiburg, he has turned a team of slim budgets and modest ambition into a mainstay of the Bundesliga. (He does not, it is worth pointing out, grant many interviews).
But at other times, Streich becomes a crucial voice: something approaching an unofficial spokesman for German soccer’s social conscience, someone from inside the sport who is prepared to examine — or even just acknowledge — the complexities and hypocrisies of his relationship with soccer. This is one of those times.

The Paradox of the Squeezed Lemon

All the best philosophers have a paradox. This is Streich’s. “I have a son,” he said. “He’s 10. He loves soccer, of course. What else could he do? Poor boy.” Often, they watch soccer on TV together. Streich has to, professionally. His son chooses to, by inclination.

“When the game is over, or it’s halftime, I turn it straight off,” Streich said. “I try to reduce it to just the game. I know a lot of people who do the same. They don’t watch any advertisements, or listen to any criticism from people who don’t understand it, or who are always negative.”

And yet Streich is well aware that the soccer-industrial complex — the ads and the arguments and the analysis, the part that he does not see as healthy for his son — pays his salary.

“I profit from damaging influences,” he said. “Damage is done when a game is on television and an ad for gambling comes on. The ad is on so that we earn so much money. That is wrong. The ad shouldn’t be there, because kids are watching the game, and there’s an ad here telling them to bet. But lots of people get sick when they bet.”

There is a lot about modern soccer that Streich wrestles with, you sense. A few years ago, he became convinced that its current incarnation — the way it will make any accommodation it can with money, the way it is in thrall to vested interests — was no longer sustainable.

“I thought soccer wouldn’t survive this,” he said. “For many years, soccer has been on a knife edge. It is a product, and you can squeeze it like a lemon. You can keep squeezing and juice keeps coming. And there is still juice left now, but the question is how long the people who love it want to watch this lemon get squashed and deformed.”

More recently, though, his view has changed. “Now I think it will survive everything,” he said. “Even when there are people trying to exploit it, the game belongs to those who love it, and we won’t let it be taken from us by those who only think of money.”

Streich loves his sport. But that does not mean that he does not see its flaws; if anything, it means he sees them all the more clearly. He sees the complexities and hypocrisies. All the best philosophers have a paradox.

‘It Is Not Escapism.’

Last month, the Bundesliga’s decision to return — making it the first major soccer league to try to restart — seemed to bring Streich's paradox to life: a real-world example of the tension inherent between the business and the sport of soccer.

It was, as all involved openly acknowledged, primarily a business decision. Failure to complete the season, said Christian Seifert, the Bundesliga’s chief executive, might have endangered the continued existence of more than a dozen clubs.

But to Germany’s powerful organized fan groups, the very idea of playing soccer when fans are not allowed into stadiums — or even to gather in groups to watch on television — was anathema. To them, this was the final squeeze of the lemon. Soccer without fans, in their eyes, is not soccer at all.

Streich, though, did not find the return as awkward as might have been expected. It did not undermine his belief that soccer cannot be destroyed by those who would exploit it. On the day that Germany’s lockdown restrictions had eased sufficiently enough to enable his players to train as a group, he was struck by the look on their faces.

“They’re economically rich,” he said. “But they were so happy. They love this game. There is no player on the pitch who thinks about the money all the time.”

They all started playing, after all, for the sport itself; that was what carried them through the arduous hours of practice, long before anyone offered to pay them.

And even if the desire to return had economic reality at its heart, that did not, in Streich’s eyes, diminish its meaning. As the pandemic has raged across the world and sports leagues have sought ways to return — La Liga returned over the weekend and the Premier League will be back on Wednesday — they have both cast themselves and been cast as a way to help wearied populations find some joy, a chance to escape grinding reality.

To Streich, though, that is a misunderstanding. Soccer is “part of reality,” he said, not an escape from the world.

“It is part of the basis of life for many,” he added. “It is not escapism. For me, it was like eating. As a child, I played soccer more than I ate. It is a cultural artifact. You meet up with a friend, you go to the stadium, you see your friends, you win, you lose, you’re sad, you’re happy. That’s not escapism. It’s culture.”

Its return is a business decision, of course, but it is one that can, in a sense, prove the worth of the sport. More than that, though, it is a step on the long, slow journey back to something approaching normalcy. It is, to Streich, a chance to have “part of life” back.

‘We Have to Tell Them the Other Story.’

What struck Streich, during his first taste of a geisterspiel — a ghost game, as fixtures behind closed doors in Germany are known — was that his players could hear him. Normally, his instructions leave his mouth and drown in a wave of sound. Now, though, his voice travels. He has not experienced that, he said, since he was a youth coach.

The differences he noticed that day against RB Leipzig were all like that: superficial, trivial. For the most part, the game he saw was the same. Not as “emotional,” of course, without fans inside the stadium. “Not as powerful,” because of the absence of color, noise and fervor in the stands. But on the field, instantly recognizable.

“The game is a bit different, but it is not worse,” he said. “Some things are easier for the players, because they are under less stress. For us, it’s about showing that in a new and difficult situation for many people that we can also can play good football. That is what we want to show.”

In every crisis, there is a chance, and this is soccer’s. Everyone wants fans to return, for games to be staged as they once were. But until that day, soccer must seek whatever positives it can from its situation. It must embrace its reality, rather than run from it.

“Lots of people are afraid in Germany, as in other countries,” Streich said. “There is a fear of bankruptcy. Many people are existentially threatened. There are conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theorists tell a story, and people love stories.

“So we have tell them the other story, the real story. That’s our big responsibility, that we tell good stories during this difficult time. We could say, for example, if we now play without fans in the stadium, you aren’t distracted, you can really see what we’re doing.” To Streich, it is a chance to see the game in its purest form, to understand, on a deeper level, what is happening on the field.

He does believe this is an opportunity. Many of the flaws he sees in soccer have their roots in its eager embrace of what he calls the “basic problem of neoliberalism, where ego is at the top of the list.”

Since the shutdown, though, he has seen a shift: a desire to work together, an awareness that the health of each club depends on the health of the game as a whole, that the success of the enterprise rests on the individual acting for the greater good.

“If we are really disciplined, and we do it, then we have shown that in a sport that is heavily criticized — loads of money, people who are out of touch with reality — we have done something for ourselves, something that links us together,” he said.

That is what Streich, the philosopher of the Black Forest, thinks about the most: the way that soccer unites disparate parts. “Why are nearly all philosophers obsessed with football?” he said. “Because it’s so interesting to observe individual people and see them merge into a group and play together.” That is the story the game can tell. It is the story he wants to tell during the pandemic. But for now, it is past 10 a.m. Training awaits. Christian Streich has to go.



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