Wonderous Wolfsburg: the league triumph that shocked everybody

wolfsburg 2008
wolfsburg 2008

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On May 23rd 2009, VfL Wolfsburg thrashed Werder Bremen 5-1 in front of a capacity home crowd at the Volkswagen Arena to lift the Bundesliga title for the first time in the club’s history, a momentous moment in German football that still gets mentioned today. They were a team full of unlikely heroes, plus a manager with unorthodox methods that managed to get the best out of his team, winning a league high 21 games and scoring 80 goals along the way.

Summer transfer window

Heading into his second full season in charge of the Wolves, head coach Felix Magath looked to bolster his squad, building on an impressive 5th place finish in the Bundesliga in the previous campaign.

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Magath was backed in the market, as Italian defenders Andrea Barzagli and Cristian Zaccardo were signed from Serie A side Palermo for a combined fee of €19 million, playmaker Zvjezdan Misimović was bought from relegated FC Nürnberg for €3.6 million, and German midfielder Christian Gentner made his initial loan from VfB Stuttgart permanent at a price of €2.2 million.

While the Wolves strengthened that summer, they also lost Marcelinho, the talented Brazillian midfielder who departed Germany to return to his native Brazil, which was a big loss for Magath. The summer market threw up some surprises, and it was unknown whether Wolfsburg would sink or swim.

A slow start 

Nothing much was predicted of Magath’s team, meaning their start to the season didn’t come as a shock to many. The Wolves would win just two of their opening seven Bundesliga games, keeping one clean sheet during this period. Meandering in mid-table, Wolfsburg would travel to Munich to play the reigning champions at the Allianz Arena in late October. Magath’s team were winning 2-1 at half-time, courtesy of goals from strikers Grafite and Edin Džeko, but Jürgen Klinsmann’s Bavarians overpowered the outsiders in the second-half, as strikes from Mark van Bommel, Tim Borowski and Bastian Schweinsteiger steered Bayern Munich to 4-2 win.

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Christmas break

December saw the start of the Christmas break and heading into it, Wolfsburg were still not raising too many eyebrows, having won six Bundesliga matches out of seventeen, situated in 9th place after a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Werder Bremen. The league form was uninspiring, but the Wolves were progressing well in European action, sitting top of their UEFA Cup group after going unbeaten in the group stages, finishing above Italian giants AC Milan, coming from two goals down to draw 2-2 against the Rossoneri at the San Siro.

On that night, Milan’s squad featured the likes of Alexandre Pato, Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf, Filippo Inzaghi and Andriy Shevchenko, and were managed by Carlo Ancelotti. The Wolves could take huge pride in this feat, putting them in good stead to improve on their league standing after the winter break, and possibly progress in Europe. This was the final game before the winter break, and what happened afterward was nothing short of remarkable.

An unstoppable upturn in form

On the first Bundesliga game after the winter break, Wolfsburg drew 1-1 with FC Köln. Not inspiring in itself, but after this game, Magath’s team would embark on a club record ten straight league wins, propelling the Wolves into title contention. Magath employed a very attacking philosophy in this run, as strikers Grafite and Džeko scored a combined 21 goals in this period, demonstrative of Magath’s new-found aggression in forward areas.

A few years after the Bundesliga success, Džeko stated in an interview with The Guardian;

”I owe Wolfsburg everything. Without them, I would not have had the chance to play for Manchester City or Roma.”

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This strike duo lives long in the memory of many European football fans, as the Brazilian flair of Grafite combined with the Bosnian brute force of Džeko made for an excellent and prolific partnership. Other key figures in this Wolfsburg side include full-back and club legend Marcel Schäfer, who played every minute in this particular Bundesliga campaign, holding midfielder and club captain Josué, goalkeeper Diego Benaglio, who kept eleven clean sheets as well as Ashkan Dejagah, the Iranian winger who featured heavily in this run and Magath’s time at Fulham years later.

Despite Wolfsburg’s successes in the league, Magath’s team would prove to be unsuccessful in cup competitions during 2009, losing by an aggregate score of 5-1 to Paris Saint-Germain in the UEFA Cup in February, which was followed by a quarter-final defeat at the hands of Werder Bremen in the DFB-Pokal the following month, where they lost 5-2 at home. This meant the focus was fully switched to the league, where Wolfsburg needed everyone fit to keep up their impressive league form.

The Bundesliga was reaching its climax, and notable results in this run include a thrilling 4-3 win over Schalke in March, a narrow 2-1 triumph at Borussia Mönchengladbach in April and a crucial 2-1 home victory against Bayer Leverkusen in April the week after.

Perhaps the most iconic game of this run came against league favourites Bayern Munich at the Volkswagen Arena. Wolfsburg were looking for vengeance after their 4-2 defeat earlier in the season, and they sure got it. Marksmen Grafite and Džeko each bagged a brace while Gentner also scored to humiliate the reigning champions, as Wolfburg put a serious statement out to the rest of the Bundesliga.

The famous goal from Grafite is also fondly remembered by football fans around the world, as the Brazilian collected the ball on the edge of the box before slaloming past three Bayern defenders, taking the ball past the onrushing Michael Rensing to convert it into an empty net.

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Magath looked to be on the verge of something special, taking his mid-table side to the cusp of domestic glory. Wolfsburg would proceed to gain more breathing space on Bayern at the top of the Bundesliga table in May, defeating Borussia Dortmund 3-0 in Jürgen Klopp’s first full season in charge, followed by a 5-0 thumping against Wolfsburg’s historic rivals, Hannover 96.

Bayern had since sacked manager Jürgen Klinsmann, replacing him with the vastly experienced Jupp Heynckes who won ten points from a possible twelve in the build-up to the Bundesliga’s final round of fixtures, where the title was still up for grabs. Bayern would beat VfB Stuttgart 2-1 on the final day, but this result would prove to be irrelevant as Wolfsburg cruised to a 5-1 victory against Werder Bremen, as Grafite (2), Džeko, Misimović and Sebastian Prödl (og) guided Magath’s side to the title, a historic feat that may never be replicated in German football again.

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After the game, Magath stated to the German press;

“At the start of the season, I really didn’t think we had a chance of winning the title, but I knew we had a good team and we played well and deserved the title.”

Life after Wolfsburg

Since winning the Bundesliga in 2009, Wolfsburg have not repeated this achievement but did come close in the 2014/2015 season, finishing second to a dominant Bayern side managed by Pep Guardiola. The star player for Wolfsburg in this particular season was Kevin De Bruyne, who Wolfsburg purchased from Chelsea in 2014 for a cut-price of €22 million.

De Bruyne was voted Bundesliga Player of the Year, scoring 16 goals and assisting 28 in all competitions, an impressive tally that earned the Belgian playmaker a move to Manchester City in 2015, where De Bruyne and Guardiola would join forces to create arguably the best midfielder in world football today.

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In terms of the manager, Magath signed a deal a four-year contract with Schalke 04 before the 2008/09 season even ended, becoming head coach and director of football. Schalke would finish as runners-up in Magath’s first season in charge, before he departed in 2011 due to a decline in results and growing friction with the players.

Magath would reunite with Wolfsburg just two days after his Schalke dismissal, employed to try and save his former title winning side from relegation. Wolfsburg survived, but their league form failed to reach the heights of years gone by, and Magath was sacked a year later.

Two years down the line, Fulham took a gamble to try and maintain their Premier League status, employing Magath on an eighteen-month contract, giving the German coach his first job in English football. Magath was reunited with former Wolfsburg title winners Dejagah and Sascha Riether at Fulham, but ultimately the gamble didn’t pay off as Fulham slumped to Premier League relegation, winning just two of their final eight league games. Fulham would stick with Magath for the upcoming Championship season, but this decision would prove to be a mistake as Fulham lost six of their opening seven games, leading to Magath’s dismissal.

In terms of players from the famous Wolfsburg side, golden boot winner Grafite would fail to produce the same staggering numbers again, sticking with Wolfsburg for a further two years before joining Dubai-based Al Ahli in 2011, which was followed by a move back to Brazil in 2015.

Strike partner Džeko would also depart Wolfsburg in 2011, joining Manchester City and winning the Premier League in his first season with the Citizens, scoring a vital but often forgotten equaliser in their infamous final day clash against Queens Park Rangers in 2012. Džeko would win another Premier League title in 2014, scoring 50 goals in 130 games at City. A permanent move to Roma came in 2016 and Džeko has played his football in Italy ever since, joining Inter Milan in 2021.

Italians Barzagli and Zaccardo would return to Italy after their time in Germany, with Barzagli joining Juventus, where the defender would win eight consecutive league titles, whilst Zaccardo joined Parma, then AC Milan respectively. Club captain Josué would stay with Wolfsburg until 2013, while club legend Schäfer retired in 2018, making 256 appearances for the Wolves.

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This particular story sent shockwaves around European football in 2009, with a complete outsider toppling the old guard to secure a momentous league victory. Scenes like this may never be repeated, but with FC Union Berlin currently sitting on top of the Bundesliga, is history about to potentially repeat itself?