A DIVE THROUGH HISTORY FEATURES

WOLFSBURG: A GERMAN SUCCESS STORY

After years of struggle, Wolfsburg made a huge name for themselves in 2009 with an exciting team led by Felix Magath that would go on to rule Germany.

The city of Wolfsburg had enjoyed very little taste of footballing success in the wake of the 21st century. The German Cup hovered under their nose in 1995 before Borussia Mönchengladbach snatched it from their grasp in the final, but promotion from the second-tier for the first time two years later brought new hope as the millennium’s end approached.

The reign of football’s most fittingly named manager, Wolfgang Wolf, saw the Wolves evolve into a driving force in Germany’s top flight just 10 years on from third-tier turmoil during an extraordinary era for the club. 

Wolf’s Wolfsburg tenure began with a miraculous escape from relegation from the Bundesliga by a solitary point having been appointed with two months to go in the 1997-98 season, and just one year later the routine relegation fear was categorically erased with the confirmation of UEFA Cup football.

Top-flight promotion was plausible but phenomenal nonetheless, but the prospect of European football was simply impalpable prior to Wolf’s appointment. Two years on from trips to Meppen, Mannheim and the like, Wolfsburg were travelling to Madrid to see their team rub shoulders with Atletico at the Vicente Calderón. Things could not get better.  

By this point, you would be right to question why such a remarkable story has warranted such little detail, especially considering the decades of stagnation that came before, but this was just the start for Wolfsburg. The taste of success was well and truly on the horizon and all that was left for me to eat were my words. Things could, in fact, get astronomically better.   

Five years on from Wolf’s departure in 2002, the Wolves found themselves stuck in somewhat of a regressive rut having narrowly avoided relegation in the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons. The head coach coup of Felix Magath, recently sacked by Bayern Munich after a comparatively substandard fourth placed finish (especially considering he achieved unprecedented league and cup doubles in the consecutive seasons prior) came with a sense of optimism that the heady European days were fathomable once more.

His exceptional recent record at Stuttgart and Bayern was certainly cause for excitement for the Wolfsburg fans. But given the financial backing he received in his debut summer, it was clear that the club had new-found ambition and belief in Magath’s mastery, and it soon became apparent that they had placed their trust in the right man. 

With the signings of Diego Benaglio and Josue alongside Grafite and Edin Džeko, Wolfsburg soon developed an identity, a free-flowing system and a blossoming strike partnership to match. In Magath’s first season in the job, he guided the Wolves to their highest ever Bundesliga finish. The 2007-08 campaign brought promise, hope and a spot in the UEFA Cup to a team seemingly destined for the drop twelve months before; Magath was the man of the moment. 

The subsequent summer of 2008 was vital for a number of reasons: the squad needed bolstering to not only cope with the demands of European football but to compete as well. Most importantly, however, Magath had built a team that had climbed from 15th to fifth in a year, Wolfsburg first and foremost had to retain their key players, their unity, their identity. 

Nevertheless, retain they did, and whilst the core of first-team regulars remained, the signings that followed suggested that they were by no means solidified starters. Andrea Barzagli, Zvjezdan Misimović and Christian Gentner, in particular, all brought various qualities along with a real sense of purpose through the door. 

Wolfsburg were undoubtedly a stronger outfit than they were last season, a force to be reckoned with, on paper at least. But were those the reckonings of blind optimism and inevitable mediocrity at the hands of Bayern Munich and the like in UEFA Cup terms? Believing the latter at this stage would be decidedly more justified, particularly come December. 

Magath’s men had a quite bizarre start to the season by all accounts. Heading into the winter break, Wolfsburg remained unbeaten at home having dropped just two points in eight games at the Volkswagen Arena. On the road, however, they were yet to win a match picking up four points from nine away fixtures. 

The problem was alarmingly clear, despite having a striker already in double figures after continuously blowing teams away on home turf, Wolfsburg found themselves slumped in midtable with little else other than a fortress and a firing Grafite to show for it. 

Oh, and a place in the UEFA Cup knockout stages after going unbeaten in their group. A run that was soon put to bed by in the following round by Paris Saint-Germain, at which point the league was back underway with promise, they had climbed three places to sixth on the back of three straight wins including that allusive away win. 

Not to mention yet another home victory over momentary table-toppers Hertha Berlin after a late Edin Džeko brace saw the Bosnian join his Brazilian counterpart on double figures.

This was the first glimpse of Wolfsburg going toe-to-toe with a top team and emerging victorious, something they desperately needed to maintain with a trip to new league leaders and the other team yet to lose at home, Hamburg, up next. 

The Volksparkstadion encounter was the first real test of Wolfsburg’s title credentials, it was evident that they could beat anyone at home in their current form, but could Felix Magath lead his team to the place where he is held a hero and damage their chances of a first league triumph since his playing days? That would really throw the cat amongst the pigeons, or the Wolves amongst the Dinosaur, so to speak. 

Wolfsburg were first out of the blocks in true home game fashion, grabbing an early lead through Grafite from the penalty spot, and that lead was doubled by the same man soon after. The game followed a similar pattern to that of Wolfsburg’s trip to Allianz Arena in October which saw Bayern overturn a two-goal deficit to win. Though, as the Hamburg faithful watched on in frustration and awe of Magath’s masterpiece, it was clear that his side had undergone vast improvements since then and the season’s tide was turning in his favour.

Grafite’s powerful, predatory instincts combined with Džeko’s poise and prolific nature; Misimovic, Gentner, Josue all dominant, diligent and delightful to watch in equal measure, protected by a youthful yet fruitful backline. Magath’s men were improving week after week as their unstoppable early-season home displays became a weekly exhibition irrespective of their environment.

One month on from their crucial win in Hamburg, Wolfsburg were up to third as they welcomed second-placed Bayern to the Volkswagen Arena on the back of seven successive league victories. A single point separated both teams from Hertha at the top and the tense opening exchanges reflected the stakes at play.

Chances were few and far between as half time approached, but after Gentner met Misimović beautiful inswinging corner to power past the hapless Michael Rensing, the hosts had a vital lead to hold onto going into the break. That lead was, however, protected for all of 70 seconds as Jürgen Klinsmann’s men bounced back to equalise through Luca Toni, leaving the game perfectly poised for a compelling second half standoff. 

The teams came out in an equally tentative manner for the second half, Wolfsburg were knocking on the door with intent as the hour mark neared, but no one could foresee the minutes that followed. 

A Džeko double was compiled by a neat Grafite finish straight after. The door they were knocking on had flew off its hinges along with Bayern’s hopes of leaving Wolfsburg with anything but a defeat. Ten minutes on from stalemate and it was 4-1 to Wolfsburg, and by that point, The Wolves had well and truly turned on the flair courtesy of their very own brilliant Brazilian. 

Three minutes on from Wolfsburg’s fourth and his 19th of the season, Grafite received the ball on the left flank, just inside the opposition half with four men and the keeper to beat and little option but to try and weave his way through. Past Ottl and Lell he glided with ease before the onrushing Rensing was left in his wake with equal finesse, facing away from goal and with three defenders between him and the goal, he manufactured a gorgeous backheel out of tangled feet, leaving Bayern’s scrambling in desperation and humiliation as the ball trickled over the line.

A goal for the ages scored by a man worthy of such a title, and with an unforgettable performance from Grafite and co., the Wolves had claimed the German pole position with eight games to play. 

From that point onwards, the form of their front pairing alone put their ensuing success in little doubt. In the last eight games, the strikers netted 19 goals between them to take their combined Bundesliga tally to 54 for the season, seconded by Hoffenheim’s Demba Ba and Vedad Ibišević, who managed a measly 32 by comparison.

On the final day of the season, Magath’s men welcomed 10th place Werder Bremen to the Volkswagen Arena with a draw enough to see them lift the trophy, but after a relentless four-month stint since the winter break, this campaign could only be concluded in one way. Goals from Bosnian duo Džeko and Misimović either side of a brace from Grafite and an own goal secured a 5-1 win and the previously inconceivable Bundesliga title in suitably devastating fashion.

Wolfgang Wolf laid the foundations for a sustainable, suburban house upon his departure in 2002, only to find a pool-laden mansion in its place seven years on. Wolfsburg’s journey post-Wolf never threatened to exceed their European endeavour. Consequently, the arrival of Magath and his managerial magnificence transcended the realms of possibility in 2007, and for that, he should be forever immortalised in the city of Wolfsburg.

BY BRAD JONES

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