The 2008/09 Bundesliga was definitely one for the outlier. Bayern were going through a transitory phase, Dortmund were recovering from their latest financial crisis, 2007 champions Stuttgart had gone off the boil, Schalke were being Schalke and Leverkusen were being Neverkusen. If there was any time to jump in and snatch the Meisterschale from under the nose of the traditional power houses, of the time, it was this season.
This was the season that Andrej Voronin inspired Hertha BSC finished 4th. It was also the season that Ralf Rangnick’s upstart Hoffenheim team entered the fray and rose to the top of the table in the Hinrunde before falling away following their move to a new stadium in Sinsheim. This was also the season in which the Relegation Play-off was reintroduced to the Bundesliga and characteristic of the season, it was one of only two seasons in which the second tier side (Nürnberg) overcame their higher division opponents and gained access to the first division.
At the midway point of the season, 12th December 2008, VfL Wolfsburg were ninth. At its conclusion they had won the title. Their first and quite possibly their last.
Wolfsburg is a city that exists primarily to make Volkswagen cars(it was actually Adolf Hitler who established the city for that very purpose back in 1938). It’s football club, owned by the car manufacturer, was essentially an amenity for the town and the employees of VW. Beyond this the club was unambitious. However, in recent years VfL seemed to become part of a broader marketing strategy for VW. After chugging along nicely in the 1. Bundesliga mid-table, the so called Grey Mouse decided to change gear.
Magath was hired in the summer before the 2007-08 season. A top draw and much decorated midfielder for Hamburg and West Germany, became a coach, who worked at HSV, Nürnberg, Werder and Eintracht Frankfurt with varying degrees of success. His reputation as a front line coach was established at Stuttgart when he took them from relegation candidates to title contenders and the Champions League from 2001 to 2004. Indeed, his young team made up of homegrown talent such as Timo Hildebrand, Kevin Kuranyi and Andreas Hinkel were characterised by Raphael Honigstein in his book Das Reboot as at the forefront of the new trend of Bundesliga clubs given their youngsters a chance.
Inevitably, Magath moved to Bayern Munich and in the two seasons in charge he won the double twice. He was fired halfway through the 2006-07 season with his team in fourth place and having been knocked out of the DFB Pokal by Alemannia Aachen. Six months later and he’s back at work, not just as head coach but sporting director, combining the two jobs in a role more akin to a British style club manager.
With a reputation for hard work and discipline, Magath’s forte was in organising his players through rigorous training exercises which pushed them right to the edge and at times, beyond the precipice. As Titus Chalk once remarked in Four Four Two:
“Renowned for running players into the ground in training, he has even earned a famous Asterix-style nickname “Quälix”, which rhymes with Felix, but comes from the German verb ‘quälen’ – to torture.”
Magath exercised this additional power to dramatic effect, bringing in a host of new additions to the squad including goalkeeper, Diego Benaglio, defender Sascha Rieter, midfielders Ashkan Dejagah and Josue. Andrea Barzagli arrived from Palermo for nearly £12 million.
In addition, Magath paid just under £3.5 million for the Bosnia striker Edin Dzeko from Teplice to join the Brazilian, former rubbish bag salesman Grafite (The bags were for storing rubbish. They weren’t bags that were rubbish).The transformation was instant. The previous season, Die Wolfe had finished the Bundesliga season fourth from bottom. One season later they were fifth and in the UEFA Cup.
The last piece in the jigsaw came at the start of the 08-09 season in the form of Bosnian Playmaker, Zvezdan Misimovic. To clarify, Misimovic was born in Germany to a family of Bosnian guest workers. He was signed to replace the outgoing playmaker Marcelinho who opted to return to his native Brazil.
Misimovic started his playing career in his hometown of Munich for Bayern but despite a decent stint in the second team, only made 3 appearances for the senior side. He came to Wolfsburg via Bochum and then Nürnberg. Misimovic exemplified Magath’s talent for improving players. After a rigorous training program involving beach volleyball and medicine balls, Misimovic had dropped a few kilos and was in great shape. Playing just behind Dzeko and Grafite he supplied 20 assists in the title winning season. A feat only bettered at Wolfsburg by Kevin de Bruyne.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the upturn in form began at around the same time the team were knocked out of the UEFA Cup by PSG in February 2009, 5-1 on aggregate. From Bochum on the 7th of that month to Bayer Leverkusen on April 18th, Die Wölfe did not drop a single point. The most emphatic of these victories was against Bayern Munich.
“I believe that we have an advantage in Wolfsburg.” said Grafite in an interview with Welt before the Bayern game and only days after his 30th Birthday. “Thanks to Felix Magath, we are the league’s fittest team.” After the game nobody could have disputed this or VfL’s title credentials. Wolfsburg won the game 5-1. Grafite scored twice. His second was an extraordinary goal in which the birthday boy embarked upon a mazy run that bamboozled the by now shell-shocked Bayern defence before back healing the ball into the back of the net.
At the end of the match Magath decided to put insult to injury, embarrassing Bayern by subbing off his first choice goalie Diego Benaglio bringing on second choice keeper Andre Lenz for the last few minutes of the match.
The victory was significant, not only in that was a comprehensive thrashing of their title rivals but also because it was Bayern Munich. If you can see off Bayern in such a manner few could argue that you were unworthy champions. The result put them up to the top of the table for the first time all season and it was there that they stayed.
They lost twice more: surprisingly to soon to be relegated Energie Cottbus and then two games later to Stuttgart. However, a 3-0 win over Dortmund was followed by a 5-0 thrashing of Hannover which took them into the last game of the season needing a win to clinch the title. This was done in fine style by beating Werder Bremen 5-1. The holy trinity of Misimovic, Grafite and Dzeko were all on the score sheet that day. The latter two combined to score 55 goals in the season, eclipsing Gerd Muller’s and Uli Hoeness’ record set in 71-72.
It would be easy to regard Magath’s triumph as one for the underdog. However, while it was an unlikely victory, the backing of their corporate owners and the fact that Wolfsburg are regarded by many as a “plastic” club meant that the new champions were seen as a portent for the commercialisation of the sport where corporate interests supercede those of the fans and their traditional values.
As the beer flowed on the pitch during the title winning celebrations the odds of Wolfsburg successfully defending their title were already lengthening. Felix Magath had accepted an offer to take over at Schalke 04. His successor, Armin Veh, could not keep the momentum going. Over the next couple of seasons the squad broke up and while they have certainly had their moments, the perfect storm that was the 2008/09 season was never replicated. Now, they find themselves celebrating the avoidance of relegation via play-off to Eintracht Braunschweig. With their owners, Volkswagen, facing some uncertain times, it may require an even greater confluence of circumstances for Wolfsburg scale those heights once again.