The city of Wolfsburg and its primary club VfL Wolfsburg had enjoyed very little taste of footballing success in the wake of the 21st century. The DFB-Pokal hovered under the club’s nose in 1995 before Borussia Mönchengladbach snatched it from their grasp in the final, but promotion from the second-tier for the first time two years later brought fresh optimism as the millennium’s end approached. The reign of football’s most fittingly named manager, Wolfgang Wolf, would see the Wolves evolve into a driving force in Germany’s top flight just a decade on from third-tier turmoil.
Wolf was appointed with just two months remaining of the 1997-98 season and his tenure at the club began with a miraculous escape from Bundesliga relegation with just a solitary point to spare. One year later the routine relegation fears were categorically erased with the confirmation of UEFA Cup football. Top-flight participation was plausible, but the prospect of European football was simply unimagainable prior to Wolf’s appointment. Two years on from trips to places like Meppen and Mannheim, Wolfsburg travelled to Madrid to play Atlético at the Vicente Calderón. Things could hardly get better.
Things could and would get astronomically better. Five years on from Wolf’s departure in 2002, the club found itself stuck back in somewhat of a rut fighting – and narrowly avoiding – relegation in both the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons. Something of a coup arrived with the appointment of Felix Magath, a former double winner but recently sacked by Bayern Munich after a comparatively substandard fourth-placed Bundesliga finsh.
Magath’s exceptional recent record at Stuttgart and Bayern brought a new mood to the club and the confidence to back him financially in the transfer market. With the signings of Diego Benaglio and Josué alongside Grafite and Edin Džeko, Wolfsburg started to develop an identity, a free-flowing system and a blossoming strike partnership to match. In Magath’s debut season in the job he guided the Wolves to a highest-ever Bundesliga finish. The 2007-08 campaign brought promise, hope and a place in the UEFA Cup for a team seemingly destined for the drop twelve months earlier. Magath was the man of the moment.
The summer of 2008 was vital for a number of reasons: the squad needed bolstering to not only cope with the demands of European football but to compete even stronger domestically as well. Magath had built a team that climbed from 15th to fifth in a year, so Wolfsburg first and foremost had to retain their key players, their unity and their identity. And retain they did: whilst the core of first-team regulars remained, the signings that arrived suggested that they were by no means uncontested starters. Andrea Barzagli, Zvjezdan Misimović and Christian Gentner, in particular, all brought various qualities along with a real sense of purpose.
Wolfsburg undoubtedly represented a stronger outfit than the previous season, a force to be reckoned with on paper at least. Magath’s men had a quite unusual start to the season. Heading into the winter break, Wolfsburg remained unbeaten at home having dropped just two points in eight games at the Volkswagen Arena. On the road, however, they were yet to win a match having picked up only four points from nine away fixtures.
The problem was alarmingly clear: despite having a striker already in double figures after continuously blowing teams away on home turf, Wolfsburg found themselves slumped in mid-table with little else other than a firing Grafite to show for it. Oh, and a place in the UEFA Cup knockout stages after going unbeaten in their group, a run that was soon put to bed in the following round by Paris Saint-Germain.
By this stage in the second half of the season, the league challenge was back underway. Wolfsburg climbed three places to sixth in the table on the back of three straight wins – including that first elusive away win – not to mention yet another home victory over brief table-toppers Hertha Berlin. A late Edin Džeko brace put the Bosnian striker into double figures for the season, a landmark his Brazilian counterpart Grafite had already managed.
This was the first glimpse of Wolfsburg going toe-to-toe with a top team and emerging victorious, a feat they desperately needed to maintain with a trip to new league leaders Hamburg up next. The Volksparkstadion encounter was the first real test of Wolfsburg’s title credentials, especially against the other team in the League yet to be defeated at home this season. Could Felix Magath lead his team to the place where he was revered as a hero from his playing days and damage their chances of a first league triumph since he was running their midfield? That would really throw the cat amongst the pigeons, or the Wolves amongst the Dinosaur, so to speak.
Wolfsburg came first out of the blocks with Grafite grabbing an early lead through a penalty and doubling that lead shortly after. The game could have followed a similar pattern to that of Wolfsburg’s trip to the Allianz Arena in October which saw Bayern overturn a two-goal deficit to win, but this time, as the Hamburg faithful watched on in frustration at Magath’s tactical mastery, it was clear that his side had matured considerably since then and the season was turning in his favour.
Grafite’s powerful, predatory instincts combined with Džeko’s poise and prolific nature; Misimovic, Gentner, Josué all dominant, diligent and delightful to watch in equal measure, protected by a youthful yet fruitful backline: Magath’s men were improving in every game as their unstoppable early-season home displays became a weekly exhibition irrespective of their environment.
One month on from that crucial win in Hamburg, Wolfsburg were up to third in the Bundesliga table and they welcomed second-placed Bayern to the Volkswagen Arena on the back of seven successive league victories. A single point separated both teams from Hertha at the top and the tense opening exchanges reflected what was at stake. Chances were few and far between as half time approached, but after Gentner met Misimović’s beautiful inswinging corner to power past the hapless Michael Rensing, the hosts had a vital lead to hold onto going into the break. That lead was protected for all of 70 seconds as Jürgen Klinsmann’s men bounced back to equalise through Luca Toni, leaving the game poised for a compelling second half standoff.
The teams kicked off the second-half with a similar intensity. Wolfsburg knocked on the door with intent as the hour mark neared, but no one could imagine the action that would follow. A Džeko double was rounded off with a neat Grafite finish shortly after; the door Wolfsburg had been knocking on flew off its hinges along with Bayern’s hopes. Ten minutes earlier it had been a stalemate and now it was 4-1 to Wolfsburg.
Three minutes after Wolfsburg’s fourth and his own 19th goal of the season, Grafite received the ball on the left flank, just inside the opposition half with four men and the keeper ahead of him. With little option but to try and weave his way through, he glided with ease past Ottl and Lell before the onrushing keeper Rensing was left in his wake with a moment of gorgeous finesse. Facing away from goal and with three defenders between him and the target, the striker manufactured a gorgeous backheel to leave Bayern scrambling in desperation and humiliation as the ball trickled over the line.
A goal for the ages scored by a man worthy of such a title, and with an unforgettable performance from Grafite and co., the Wolves claimed pole position in the title race with eight games to play. From that point on, the form of their front pairing left little doubt as to the destination of the title. In those last eight games the strikers netted 19 goals between them to take their combined Bundesliga tally to 54 for the season, well ahead of the next best striker pairing in the division of 32 by Hoffenheim’s Demba Ba and Vedad Ibišević.
On the final day of the season, Magath’s men welcomed mid-table Werder Bremen to the Volkswagen Arena and a draw would have been enough to see them secure the title. The relentless four-month run since the winter break meant that this campaign could only be concluded in a suitably emphatic manner however: goals from Bosnian duo Džeko and Misimović either side of a brace from Grafite and an own goal secured a 5-1 win and the previously inconceivable Bundesliga title was won in devastating fashion.
Wolfgang Wolf laid the foundations for a sustainable, suburban house upon his departure in 2002, only to find a pool-laden mansion in its place seven years on. Wolfsburg’s journey post-Wolf never promised such highs, but the arrival of Magath and his managerial magnificence transcended the realms of possibility.