There is no doubting that the Bundesliga is one of the best leagues in the world, with the recent acquisition of Sadio Mane showcasing the pulling power that Germany can have on the world’s elite talents. Yet in a country with so many good teams and players, league titles have become somewhat of a mandatory requirement at Bayern Munich.
With their recent Bundesliga triumph in the 2021-22 season, Die Roten became the first European team in history to win 10 consecutive league titles. Bayern Munich legend Phillip Lahm recently raised his concerns about the competitiveness of the league, also highlighting the detrimental effects that the lack of competition can have on Bayern’s Champions League chances.
From a neutral perspective, I am not sure what Bayern are expecting when their transfer strategy is centred around stealing their main rivals’ best players. Whether you call it lazy scouting or ‘buying the league’, it certainly is damaging to the overall competitiveness of the Bundesliga. Red Bull Leipzig have shown promise since their rise through the divisions, looking like a team that could compete with Bayern for the Bundesliga title. So what do Bayern do? They go out and sign their best centre-back and central midfielder. Dayot Upamencano and Marcel Sabitzer were both signed directly from RB Leipzig, with the latter pretty much warming the bench in his first year at the club.
Although, this isn’t anything new. Robert Lewandowski was poached from their biggest rivals at the time, Borussia Dortmund, in one of football’s best Bosman transfers of all time. His time at Bayern has undoubtedly been a roaring success. He has won the league in every season since his transfer and has contributed with a shed load of goals. In the 2021/22 season, he overtook Klaus Fischer to become the 2nd highest goal scorer in Bundesliga history. Seemingly wanting a new challenge outside of Germany, it looks highly unlikely that Lewandowski will go on to overtake the great Gerd Müller’s record.
Müller’s incredible record of 365 league goals looks even more impressive when you consider that he played in a front two with German compatriot Uli Hoeneß. During their day, they broke all sorts of Bundesliga records, including the most prolific strike partnership – a record which stood for 38 years. Although in 2009, that record was broken. Not by Lewandowski, nor by Bayern Munich, but by a Wolfsburg strike duo managed by Fulham flop Felix Magath.
This piece will tell the story of Wolfsburg’s unlikely title win, spearheaded by the unique strike duo of Edin Džeko and Edinaldo Batista Libânio, better known as Grafite.
The season of transition
In 2006/07, relegation looked like a real possibility for a Wolfsburg side that were evidently lacking confidence. Manager Klaus Augenthaler was dismissed just before the end of the season, with Die Wölfe loitering on the brink of relegation from the first division. They eventually survived by the skin of their teeth, finishing just three points ahead of Mainz in 16th place, guaranteeing another year of Bundesliga football. As the season came to an end, it was clear that change was needed to avoid a similar season. A managerless ageing squad presented the Wolfsburg chairman with an opportunity to give the club a much-needed overhaul.
Fresh from being sacked by Bayern in January 2007, Felix Magath was named the Wolfsburg head coach and Director of Football in a combined role. Considered a real coup by many German fans, the former Bayern man was entrusted with the task of turning around Wolfsburg’s fortunes. With carte blanche in the transfer market, he oversaw a whole host of changes to the first team squad, spending £30 million in his first transfer window. In came a whole host of young talents, including former Switzerland goalkeeper Diego Benaglio, as well as Iranian’s talisman Ashkan Dejagah.
A lacklustre season in front of goal from Wolfsburg in the 2006/07 season saw Magath keen to bolster his attacking options. In an attempt to spruce up his forward line, he ventured into European markets, spending a combined £10 million to bring Bosnian striker Džeko and Brazilian forward Grafite to the Volkswagen Arena.
Džeko was purchased from the Czech side FK Teplice, after finishing the previous season second in the goalscoring charts. A household name around the world now, it is important to highlight that the Bosnian was an unknown quantity when he signed for Wolfsburg, aged just 21.
Grafite on the other hand was signed from Ligue 1 side Le Mans on deadline day. Many blasted the decision to buy the Brazilian and he was subsequently given the label of ‘panic buy’ ahead of the upcoming season. When you look at his statistics, it is easy to understand why the fans were concerned with his signing. Grafite had never really been a prolific striker outside of his native Brazil, nor was he a youngster with bags of potential like his compatriot Džeko. Nevertheless, Magath had full trust in his new striker, installing him straight into the starting lineup.
Wolfsburg fans had low expectations of the 2007-08 season, expecting it would be one of transition due to the wholesale changes to the squad and coaching team. To their surprise, the changes paid off much quicker than expected. In his first year at the club, Magath guided his side to a 5th place finish – a 10-place improvement on the previous season. Not only did his Wolfsburg side turn on the style in the league, but they also gave an excellent account of themselves in the DFB Pokal, reaching the semi-finals.
His new strike duo notched 18 goals in their maiden Bundesliga campaign, an impressive feat considering.
The 2008/09 Season – Pre Christmas
Not resting on his laurels, Magath pulled out the chequebook again, signing Džeko’s international teammate Zvjezdan Misimovic from newly relegated FC Nürnberg. With the team operating in a resolute 5-2-1-2 formation, Misimovic was seen as the creative spark required to get the best out of the newly formed strike duo. The signing was greeted with a real buzz, as Wolfsburg fans had high hopes for the upcoming season.
10 games in, and the buzz had been destroyed. After winning just three of their first nine fixtures, including a 4-2 defeat to title favourites Bayern, Wolfsburg slipped down the Bundesliga table. Their inconsistencies continued to cost them massively, as they found themselves in ninth place at the midway point in the season. It looked for all the world that they were heading for another season of mid-table mediocrity.
Their attacking trio showed signs of promise, but a slow start for Džeko saw Die Wölfe over-reliant on Grafite’s output. With 11 goals at the halfway point, the Brazilian forward was on course for his most prolific season, slowly adhering himself to the Wolfsburg fans as their unlikely hero. Despite this, the talk of Germany had shifted to a different strike duo. Hoffenheim’s forwards, Demba Ba and Vedad Ibišević, exploded onto the Bundesliga scene under Ralf Rangnick’s guidance. The winter break had come at the ideal time for Wolfsburg.
The 2008/09 Season – Post-Christmas
A Grafite equaliser on the 31st of January secured a point away from home against FC Köln in their return to action. Whilst Hoffenheim and Bayern’s form began to falter after the winter break, Wolfsburg’s form was on a completely different trajectory. Magath’s team came back looking like a completely different outfit.
A reinvigorated attacking trio took the Bundesliga by storm. Džeko had found his shooting boots, Grafite had continued his goalscoring habits from the first half of the season, and Misimovic began to supply the two forwards with quality goalscoring opportunities. Their telepathic relationship and ruthlessness in front of goal saw them labelled the ‘Magic Triangle’ by the Wolfsburg fans, who were enjoying what they were watching.
Following on from the 1-1 draw with Köln, Wolfsburg went on an incredible run of eight wins in a row, which saw them skyrocket up towards the top end of the league table. By the beginning of April, Džeko and Grafite had almost doubled their output from the previous campaign – with a combined 31 league goals. Even more impressive was the consistency in which they were scoring. From the turn of the year, one of Džeko and Grafite had found themselves on the scoresheet in the Bundesliga.
With the humiliation of the 4-2 defeat earlier in the season still fresh in the memory, Wolfsburg welcomed Bayern to the Volkswagen Arena on the 4th of April. Bayern Munich’s form had dipped heavily following the Christmas break, and manager Jürgen Klinsmann was heavily scrutinised by the German media for his mismanagement of the Bavarian club.
With the teams level on points with an identical goal difference, all was to play for in the return fixture. Like all top of the table clashes, there was a nervy feel to the first half of the game. Wolfsburg opened the scoring, with midfielder Christian Gentner finding the breakthrough in the 44th minute until Luca Toni equalised with the last kick of the half, just seconds later.
A tentative performance from Wolfsburg with very few chances, nobody could have predicted what would happen next. It seemed inevitable that one of the prolific duo were going to score at some point in the game. Džeko continued his excellent post-Christmas goalscoring form, notching a quickfire brace to put his side 3-1 up with just 20 minutes left on the clock. It wasn’t long before Džeko’s strike partner joined him in the limelight. Grafite scored his first goal of the game in the 74th minute, giving his side a three-goal advantage and putting the victory beyond doubt. If his first goal raised the roof, then his second goal brought the house down.
That Grafite Goal
Grafite scored one of the most humiliating goals in history, doubling his tally on the night and securing his cult hero status at Wolfsburg. Receiving the ball out wide on the left-hand side, he charged towards the Bayern Munich goal, twisting right back Andreas Ottl inside out, before gliding between Ottl and the oncoming Christian Lell’s challenges as he approached the six-yard box. He continued to taunt the Bayern players on his mazy solo run, this time slaloming past the on-rushing Bayern keeper Michael Rensing which left him facing the wrong direction.
The chance appeared to have gone begging, as the Bayern defenders flooded the space in between the ball and the goal. Showing the confidence of a man that couldn’t stop scoring, Grafite had the audacity to backheel the ball goalwards past not one, not two, but three Bayern defenders as it trickled its way into the corner at minimal speed. The backheel was so soft that Rensing had actually got back to his feet by the time the ball had crossed the line. The camera’s panned to the wild celebrations around the Volkswagen Arena, as the Bayern defenders were left in complete disbelief at what they had just witnessed. Some say that Ottl never recovered from the humbling he received from the Brazilian.
A 5-1 triumph against their biggest challengers in the Bundesliga, it was a pivotal day in the title race for Wolfsburg. The manner of this defeat was the final nail in the coffin for Klinsmann, who was sacked just a matter of days later, a feeling that Magath knows all too well. Die Wölfe’s title credentials had been scrutinised by German fans all season, yet they ended the weekend three points clear at the top of the table. With the prolific duo Džeko and Grafite showing no signs of slowing down, Wolfsburg went into the latter stages of the season as firm favourites for the title.
Victory over Bayern came in the midst of their ten-game streak of consecutive wins. However, their winning streak was ended shortly after, in a shock 2-0 defeat to relegation threatened Energie Cottbus, dampening their title hopes. It also marked the first time since the turn of the year that neither of Wolfsburg’s dynamic strike duo found themselves on the score sheet – a run lasting an impressive 11 games. Three wins out of the following four games meant that the title race would be decided on the final day.
Final day drama
With a 2-point lead on both Bayern Munich and Stuttgart, Wolfsburg went into the final match day knowing that three points would guarantee a first Bundesliga title. Bayern & Stuttgart were to face off against each other on the final day, meaning that second place and Champions League qualification was already mathematically secured for Magath’s side.
Standing in the way of Wolfsburg and Bundesliga glory was an exciting Werder Bremen side. With footballer-cum-wrestler Tim Wiese in net, towering presence Per Mertesacker at the back, midfield playmakers Mesut Özil and Diego pulling the strings, and Bundesliga veteran Claudio Pizzaro leading the line, Werder Bremen were certainly no pushovers. In fact, they had actually beaten Wolfsburg twice in the 2008/09 season already – once in the league and in the DFB Pokal quarter-finals.
What looked like a difficult game on paper, was all but over by the half time whistle. Goals from Wolfsburg’s formidable ‘Magic Triangle’ and an own goal from former Watford defender Sebastian Prödl sealed a dominant 5-1 victory for Magath’s side, who clinched their first and only Bundesliga title to date.
The 2008-09 season was a record-breaking season for Wolfsburg in so many different ways. Not only did they win their first-ever league title, but their prolific double act also seared their name into the Bundesliga history books. In a season where Die Wölfe scored 80 goals, Džeko and Grafite were responsible for 54 of them – breaking the highest-scoring duo record set all the way back in the 1971/72 season by Gerd Müller and Uli Hoeneß. Džeko finished the season with 26 goals, whist an incredible 28 goals in just 25 games earned Grafite the Golden Boot. The Brazilian had gone from being labelled a panic buy to having his name chanted in all four stands of the Volkswagen Arena in the space of two years. Add to this the often overlooked 20 assists and seven goals from Bosnian midfielder Misimovic, and you can see the incredible influence that the ‘Magic Triangle’ had on Wolfsburg’s season.
To put the icing on the cake, Grafite won both the Bundesliga Player of the Year award and Bundesliga Goal of the Season for his spectacular backheel against Bayern, capping an unbelievable season for the Brazilian. In a league that has since become monopolised by Bayern Munich’s unrivalled dominance, Wolfsburg’s victory remains the anomaly in the record books.
Whilst telepathic on the pitch, Džeko and Grafite’s careers headed in completely opposite directions following this season. Džeko established himself as one of the best young strikers in the world, earning himself a move to Premier League side Manchester City. Two league titles later and Džeko made the move to the Serie A, where he is still playing now at the age of 36. Just as clinical now as he was in his earlier years, the Bosnian has aged like a fine wine.
Unlikely hero Grafite on the other hand was never able to recapture the form he showed during Wolfsburg’s title win. He stayed at the Bundesliga club for a further two years but failed to reach the prolific heights of the 2008-09 season. Where his 28-goal season came from will remain one of football’s most beautiful unsolved mysteries. He moved to the UAE in 2011, signing for Dubai based side Al-Ahli, before retiring in his homeland Brazil in 2017.
The brains behind the operation didn’t stick around too long either. Before the 2008/09 season had even ended, Magath was announced as the Schalke manager for the following Bundesliga campaign. Things didn’t quite work out for him at Schalke, and he was sacked just one year into his reign. He actually returned to Wolfsburg just 48 hours after his sacking, saving the club from relegation to the second division in the 2011/12 season.
Magath is remembered fondly by Wolfsburg fans, but the same can’t be said for Fulham fans. In one of only two managerial spells outside of Germany, he was unable to steady the sinking ship which saw the cottagers relegated to the Championship. A disastrous start to the Championship season, combined with rumours of a fallout with some of the senior members of the squad spelled the end of the road for Magath at Fulham. His sacking was greeted with jubilation around London, somewhat tarnishing the reputation he had built up in Germany.