Bundesliga Return: Remembering Wolfsburg’s 2009 Title Win Against all Odds


Worlfsburg's Title Upset

Before Leicester City, there was Wolfsburg. Before Jamie Vardy, there was Edinaldo Batista Libânio, or as he was more commonly known, Grafite. And before 2010, there actually was a time that a team other than Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund managed to win the Bundesliga title.

It would be many years before VfL Wolfsburg would become the staple of the Bundesliga they are today, where they currently place seventh in this most protracted of seasons. Hailing from a young city that is yet to celebrate its centenary, the side formed to represent the autoworkers of local car manufacturer Volkswagen, would lead a largely humdrum existence in the German second and third tiers before reaching the Bundesliga for the first time in 1997.

However, it was in 2008/09 when the stars aligned and Wolfsburg reach the pinnacle of Germany. Here, we look back on the time this club upset all the odds to win the Bundesliga.

The rise until that year

They would survive that inaugural season by two positions and one point, led by a man in Wolfgang Wolf who seemed to have been named at birth with prophetic knowledge of his destiny to one day become manager of Die Wölfe (The Wolves). UEFA Cup qualification would follow in 1998/99 as Wolfsburg finished 6th. This would prove the high point of Wolf’s tenure however, as his side settled into a rhythm of carefree mid-table finishes before his departure in March 2003, their average position during this time a respectable 9th.

This trend would continue until the enduring of consecutive relegation battles, in 2006 and 2007, prompted the club’s board to appoint renowned disciplinarian and future Fulham manager, Felix Magath. Magath arrived with a stellar reputation as both player and manager, having lifted the European Cup with Hamburg (scoring the only goal in the 1983 final) during the club’s golden era and winning successive doubles as manager with Bayern Munich between 2004-2006 - the first manager in German football to achieve the feat.

His success as a manager was accompanied by a reputation for making exacting demands of his players and for doing so in an unforgiving and authoritarian fashion. Bachirou Salou, who had played under Magath at Eintracht Frankfurt in the late 90s, famously referred to his former boss as ‘the last dictator in Europe’. In keeping with this tyrannical theme, the eccentric German and chess enthusiast had also acquired the nickname ‘Saddam’ (in reference to former Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein), before arriving at the Volkswagen Arena. Training sessions were said to border on the militaristic in their intensity, while fines would be handed out for unnecessary back-passes or for failing to carry out defensive duties during games.

However ruthless Magath’s methods may have been, they worked. In his first season, Wolfsburg, having finished 15th the year before, would achieve their highest league position in their history, finishing 5th and qualifying for the UEFA Cup for only the second time. Making the achievement even more impressive was the fact Magath had done so by fielding an essentially brand-new team from the one that had played the year before.

The German had signed over a dozen players in the summer of his appointment, including: nomadic Brazilian striker Grafite, Bosnian prospect Edin Džeko, holding midfielder Josué, Porto centre-back Ricardo Costa and domestic purchases, Marcel Shäfer, Sascha Reither and Christian Gentner. Each one of them becoming first-team regulars in Wolfsburg’s best-ever season which also featured a run to the DFB-Pokal Semi-finals.

Preperations for the famous campaign

A historic high it may have been for the club from Lower Saxony, yet they were still not considered anything like title contenders going into the 2008/9 season. The expectation being that they would revert to type, much as they had done in the season after they last had qualified for Europe, under Wolfgang Wolf.

Instead, the consensus at the time was that the title would likely be retained by the hegemonic force of German football, Bayern Munich, who were seeking their 21st top flight title. Beyond the aristos of Bavaria, a Stuttgart team containing young local talents Mario Gómez and Sami Khedira were expected to challenge having won the league in 06/07, while Hamburg were also considered capable of winning the Bundesliga for the first time since Felix Magath had led their attack, under new boss Martin Jol, who had arrived from Ajax that summer.

Wolfsburg largely fielded the same side that had performed so admirably the previous year, albeit with the additions of £12.6m record signing Andrea Barzagli at centre-back and Zvjezdan Misimović; a young playmaker who had been a solitary shining light in a relegated FC Nurnberg team the season prior, scoring 10 goals in 28 appearances.

The team made a solid start to the season, recording 2 wins and 3 draws in their first 5 games, although Magath - a manager who often regarded defence as the best form of attack - was concerned at the rate of goals being conceded, his defence shipping almost 2 per game in the opening period.

The manager’s concerns would not be assuaged as the season continued. Defeat away at Karlsruher at the end of September marked the beginning of a capricious run of form consistent in its inconsistency, as the team demonstrated an ability to score four in victory one week and conceding four in defeat the next, the former usually at home and the latter usually away. Indeed, whilst the Volkswagen Arena was emerging as something of a fortress over the first half of the season - unbeaten in 8, winning 7 - away from home their struggles were evident, failing to win a game and picking up only 4 points by the time the winter break arrived in mid-December.

Shaking off a troubled start

Despite being somewhat of a comedown after the high of European qualification, relative to the league Wolfsburg were performing precisely as expected - yo yoing between 6th and 9th - and instead it was two clubs from opposite ends of the German footballing ecosystem that had dominated conversation: newly-promoted 1899 Hoffenheim stunned Germany by being top at Christmas, powered by the goals of Vedad Ibišević and Demba Ba, while it appeared Bayern Munich were still struggling with the summer loss club legends Ottmar Hitzfeld and Oliver Kahn in several unconvincing performances under new manager Jürgen Klinsmann.

What followed is now sewn into the tapestry of German football folklore. After snatching a 1-1 draw at FC Köln via a long-range Grafite effort in their first match back from the winter break, Wolfsburg embarked on a thrilling ten-match winning streak that saw Magath’s side enter something of a collective flow state.

The “magic triangle” of Misimović, Džeko and Grafite accumulated 22 goals 13 assists between them in a superlative run of form that peaked in a 5-1 evisceration of Bayern at home. In a game memorable for all kinds of things, Grafite would round off a ludicrous fourteen-minute spell - in which Wolfsburg scored four - by scoring a solo goal of such quality that idiosyncratic German commentator Gritz von Thurn und Taxis was compelled to describe it as, “definitely the goal of the season, if not the best goal I have ever seen since the Bundesliga started in 1963”.

It was a clear career highlight for Grafite - a powerful, precise number 9, - who had not taken the gilded route to Europe so many Brazilian strikers do and only eight years earlier had been forced to sell bin-bags door-to-door in order to make a living.

A shock 2-0 defeat against second-bottom Energie Cottbus with five games to go would provide Die Wölfe a sobering reality check, although they remained top on account of their two closest challengers, Schalke and Bayern, playing against each other. A game notable for being Jürgen Klinsmann’s last in charge at the Allianz Arena.

Wolfsburg took heed of their wake-up call and as was typical of Magath’s teams at the time, finished strongly, winning four of their last five and refusing to relinquish the top spot they had gained on that day against Bayern, sealing the title by two points (from Bayern) with another 5-1 victory at the Volkswagen Arena, against Werder Bremen. Grafite finished the season with 28 goals in 25 starts, ahead of partner Edin Džeko on 26, with the two breaking the Bundesliga record for the most prolific strike partnership - set by Gerd Müller and Uli Hoeness in 1971/72 - by a single goal. Of those 54, 13 had been assisted by Misimović, who would record a league-high 20 in total.

Bundesliga Folklore

Whilst Wolfsburg’s forward triangle undoubtedly played with an enchanting swagger, it is impossible to escape the fact that, much like Leicester City’s Premier League triumph in 2015/16, their staggering march to the Bundesliga title was truly a collective effort. From the crucial role played by full-backs, Marcel Schäfer and Sascha Reither, to the arrival of Andrea Barzagli as one of Europe’s foremost centre-backs and the ever-present midfield fulcrum of Christian Gentner and club captain Josué, each player contributed in a campaign that becomes that little more precious each year the Dortmund-Munich duopoly continues.

In a season that began the same month the world was treated to a rare total solar eclipse, a team playing in green and white would provide the footballing universe with a spectacle that to-date has occurred just once in 74 years.

By Michael Murphy

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