There was a time, exactly ten years ago in fact, when Bayern Munich wasn’t the top dog in Germany. In 2015 VfL Wolfsburg won the DFB-Pokal (German Cup) and the DFL-Supercup, they also came runner-up to Pep Guardiola’s Bayern. However, Wolfsburg, a team born out of the Volkswagen workforce football team in 1945, had already claimed their one and only Bundesliga title, back in 2008/09. On their way to that magnificent achievement, which Leicester City echoed more recently in 2016, Wolfsburg scored 80 goals and hammered Bayern 5-1 as Felix Magath’s heroes claimed a title for the previously unfashionable side.
Wolfsburg, a new city of just 80 or so years, is probably more famous for the aforementioned car manufacturer, has long since been a proving ground for players such as Ricardo Rodríguez, Kevin De Bruyne, Julian Draxler and Mario Mandzukic, rather than one which would be capable of winning the title. The team has had an unspectacular history; playing amateur football for much of their time and only making their first appearance in the Bundesliga in 1997. In the years before their sole title win they were a little too close to relegation for their liking as successive seasons between 2006 and 2008 saw them only survive in the final weeks of the season. This before a dramatic turnaround, led by former Bayern manager, Magath, saw Wolfsburg finish in the UEFA Cup places in fifth in 2007/08.
Magath took over the hot seat at Wolfsburg in 2007; a highly decorated player who won the UEFA European Cup Winners Cup in 1977 and the UEFA European Cup in 1983 with Hamburg SV, he also played in successive World Cup Finals in 1982 and 1986 and won UEFA Euro 1980 in Italy. Magath was described by a former player as “the last dictator in Europe” after earning a reputation as a disciplinarian as a manager. He became infamous for his focus on hard training, discipline and physical condition. His methods clearly worked as his managerial career brought successive doubles with Bayern between 2004 and 2006.
On the pitch, previously unheard of Wolfsburg duo, Edin Džeko and Brazilian, Grafite, set a Bundesliga record for being the only two strikers from the same team to record more than 20 goals each for a single season. Džeko, well known to English and Italian football fans, was a delight to watch at Wolfsburg. A strong and powerful striker, he was a scorer of simple goals, but as is the sign of a top goal poacher he scored 26 in 32 games in 2008/09. Grafite, a 2007 signing from the French side, Le Mans, was part of the victorious 2005 Copa Libertadores side at Sao Paulo. He scored 28 goals in 25 league games during Wolfsburg’s victorious season. Finally, behind any great forward line usually lies a maestro and making the third vertex of the media-dubbed “magic triangle” was attacking midfielder, Zvjezdan Misimović, his 20 assists during the 2008/09 season were a huge factor in Wolfsburg’s success.
Wolfsburg started the 2008/09 season, Magath’s first full season as manager, much like any other, their inconsistent performances saw them draw three consecutive games 2-2, snatch a point away to Hertha Berlin and just weeks later they were on the other end of late drama as Kevin Kurányi and Schalke 04 stole a point at the Veltins-Arena. The final three weeks of October neatly encapsulated the fortunes of Die Wölfe as they smashed Arminia Bielefeld, 4-1 at home. Next, they squared off away to Bayern and raced into a two-goal lead within half an hour courtesy of Grafite and Džeko. However, this was 2008 Wolfsburg and Bayern scored four without reply to win 4-2. Not a team to dwell for too long, Magath’s men bounced back a week later as they trounced Borussia Mönchengladbach, 3-0 at home. Their inconsistent displays continued as they recorded seven wins and six draws from their first 18 games.
The turn of the year saw Wolfsburg’s season take a dramatic turn for the better and they recorded a staggering, momentum building ten-game winning streak and 14 wins in 16 games, stretching from 7 February 2009 to the season’s end. Bosnian striker, Džeko, can rightly claim to have been a contributing factor to the title victory as he scored in all but three games between their February epiphany and the end of the season.
Neatly nestled in among their club-record run was a statement victory over closest challengers, Bayern. The eventual 5-1 scoreline was much more than a win, it was a clear indicator of not just how far Wolfsburg had come since their relegation battles just a couple of seasons earlier, but also just how close they were to actually winning the Bundesliga for the first time. Midfielder, Christian Gentner kicked things off with a thumping near-post header midway through the first half. Bayern’s contribution to the scoreline was a controversial one as Luca Toni’s effort, on the stroke of half-time, was adjudged to have crossed the line and the teams went in level. The second half brought a rousing response from Wolfsburg as they blew away their more illustrious opponents. Džeko was at his predatory best as he poked home from close range and then raced clear of the Bayern defence to make it 3-1 just after the hour. Grafite, rounded off the scoring with two goals, one the product of some half-hearted Bayern defending, as they allowed him to turn in the area and shoot low past Michael Rensing. His second, however, was a moment of pure magic as he collected the ball around 15 yards to the left of the penalty area, ghosted past two Bayern defenders, cut inside in front of Rensing and backheeled the ball past the flat-footed, stranded defenders into the opposite corner. A joyous occasion for all Wolfsburg fans as the fairytale became reality in front of their eyes during that breathtaking second half.
Wolfsburg kept pace with their Bavarian challengers, dispatching Dortmund 3-0 with just three games left. The tide turned on the penultimate league weekend, however, as Wolfsburg, in sumptuous form, beat Hannover 96, 5-0 away, while Bayern slipped up away to Hoffenheim, as they could only draw 2-2. This gave Wolfsburg the vital advantage going into the final game. Bayern won 2-1 at home to VfB Stuttgart while Wolfsburg capped an emotional and thrilling day with a 5-1 demolition of Werder Bremen, with Džeko, Grafite and Misimović all on the scoresheet. Usually, a time when title-chasing teams falter, Wolfsburg bagged nine points and 13 goals in their final three games and proudly lofted the league trophy in front of the Volkswagen Arena faithful.
Like Leicester though, Wolfsburg faded overnight. What could have been the start of a real period in the spotlight never really materialised. Magath had already agreed to join Schalke at the start of the 2009/10 season and new manager Armin Veh was sacked during the winter break with the club treading water in mid-table. After dropping into the UEFA Europa League they made the Semi-Final where they lost to Fulham.
Since then they have been very much the Wolfsburg of old, despite their second place finish in 2015, they haven’t challenged the more famous teams of the Bundesliga. However, for that one glorious season ten years ago, Wolfsburg were the team to beat, a maverick, powerhouse, propelled from the lower reaches of the division to the pinnacle of domestic success and Magath, Džeko and Grafite will long be hailed as idols in Lower Saxony.