A year later, on the eve of Salzburg’s debut against Belgium’s Genk on Tuesday, he is a little more phlegmatic about it. Salzburg’s place in the group stages of this year’s competition was confirmed early in May; there would be no need for another qualifying ordeal, no nail-biting, nerve-racking, late-summer playoff. Because both of last year’s finalists, Liverpool and Tottenham, had qualified for the competition by finishing in the top four of the Premier League, there was a spare automatic spot. It went to Salzburg.
If that sounds like a stroke of good fortune, it is not. Champions League spots are allocated by virtue of UEFA’s ranking system for national leagues, used as a gauge to discern which countries have performed best in UEFA competitions over a five-year period.
Salzburg qualified because the Austrian Bundesliga is now ranked as the 11th-best league in Europe, just ahead of Switzerland, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands. It is ranked that highly, largely, because Salzburg — despite its endless disappointment in the Champions League qualifiers — has shone in the second-tier Europa League over the last two years. In 2017, it reached the semifinals.
Salzburg kept stumbling on the direct route. Its reward came from a more circuitous path. “We have taken the hard way,” Freund said.
In doing so, he wonders if the club might have benefited from its failures. “Maybe it has been very healthy for us,” he said. Salzburg’s years of waiting have not forced the club to rethink its approach, to radically alter its vision, but instead to hone its methods, to polish its thinking. It has at least reached its goal not because it changed, but because it did not.
Since 2012, when the influential German coach Ralf Rangnick arrived at the club as sporting director, Salzburg has had a “crystal clear” idea of what it has to do, and what it has to be. It wanted to play, in Freund’s words, “aggressive, physical, fast, vertical football, not tiki taka.”
To do that, Salzburg developed a specific “picture” of the players it needed, and gave its youth coaches the task of producing them, and its scouts the job of finding them.