How Wolfsburg went from bland and boring to one of the Bundesliga's best
I began writing columns about German football for ESPN in September 2002. Unless I missed one somewhere along the line, last week's edition was my 383rd column. Only two of which have dealt with VfL Wolfsburg.
The first of those was published more than ten years ago, when the Wolves topped the Bundesliga table for the first time in club history (see: "The big, green W", September 20, 2004). The second followed four and a half years later, when the club were about to win the league (see: "Wolfsburg deserve debut success", May 19, 2009).
No matter how you look at it, that's sparse coverage. The reason is not that I have an aversion to the team. Professional writers don't nurture such feelings, though you could say that perhaps a few people in Germany do. Many German fans openly resent Wolfsburg because they are one of only two clubs in the professional game to be wholly owned by a company and are thus considered an aberration.
There are also quite a few representatives of other clubs who have been overtly critical of the fact that this company, Volkswagen, by and large subsidises the club, giving the Wolves what they see as an unfair advantage.
One is Frankfurt chairman Heribert Bruchhagen, who recently called the signing of Andre Schurrle "uncanny", because it was so out of sync with normal Bundesliga dimensions. (Schurrle, a pretty good but not great player, is now the third most expensive footballer ever bought by a German club.)
Another detractor is Dortmund's chairman Hans-Joachim Watzke. Three years ago, he argued that tradition-laden clubs like his own were the lifeblood of the league and should be given a bigger slice of the television money compared to what he called "the works teams" with their much smaller fan bases.
Barely two months after Watzke suggested this, the market research company Media Control found found that just 5,000 people had watched the game between Wolfsburg and Leverkusen on Sky Germany. Since television ratings are given in millions, this translated into an audience rating of zero, underlining Watzke's argument.
It's this general lack of interest that could explain why there have been only two Wolfsburg columns in more than a dozen years from me. Unlike normal news reports or feature articles, my columns are only rarely about topics of the moment that will be outdated soon, so I saw no point in putting my two cents' worth in about Bas Dost's scoring spree or the Schurrle move.
More often than not, my columns deal with historically important events, or they look at fan issues, or they chronicle things that touch upon the game's culture. Sometimes they grapple with offbeat subjects, interesting characters or arcane statistics. And it seems Wolfsburg have rarely made much of a contribution to any of these departments. Putting it bluntly, it seems the club's, well, a bit bland, really.
As I said above, many people resent Wolfsburg's corporate ties. But that's it. There's no public outrage. The Wolves just don't make the blood boil like RB Leipzig do these days, or Hoffenheim did a couple of years back.
That's not to say Wolfsburg have always been colourless, though. In 2002, the club made headlines by signing an ageing Stefan Effenberg, who promptly proceeded to, as the esteemed "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" put it , "divide VfL Wolfsburg", not least because of special treatment such as driving a "private luxury car which is more expensive than the cars produced by Wolfsburg's main sponsor".
Under Felix Magath, the club was often in the news, too. Sometimes because of his training methods, such as when he built what came to be known as the "Hill of Pain" during his first stint at Wolfsburg. Sometimes because of his transfer methods, such as when he set a Bundesliga record by giving 36 different players a game during the 2011-12 season.
He had so many footballers at his disposal because he bought or loaned seemingly at random. In early 2012, the respected "Suddeutsche Zeitung" paper acerbically said: "The noteworthy thing about it isn't that players are replaced on a grand scale. This happens every six months at Wolfsburg since the 2009 title. Noteworthy is rather that Magath still strives to give the impression that this bizarre personnel merry-go-round follows an elaborate masterplan."
However, the days of being ridiculed in the nationwide press for the shenanigans of a glamorous player or a high-profile coach are over for the Wolves. Now all they seem to do is win football games on a regular basis because of two key changes that were made a bit over two years ago.
In the weeks leading up to the 2012 Christmas season, Wolfsburg were looking for a new coach, somebody to follow Steve McClaren and Magath. The overwhelming favourite, if you believed the press, was Bernd Schuster. On December 20, the German news channel ntv reported: "Volkswagen continues to go for the big names: Only small details are missing from the Schuster deal."
But two days later, the club instead signed a 48-year-old by the name of Dieter Hecking, whose biggest claim to managerial fame was that he had won promotion to the Bundesliga with Alemannia Aachen in 2006. Like many Westphalians (Hecking grew up in Soest, a modest city 30 miles east of Dortmund), he was not the world's most flamboyant character but preferred to get the job done in a slightly dour, no-nonsense manner.
The man who made this decision on behalf of the club was sporting director Klaus Allofs. He himself had joined the club barely five weeks earlier, after a long and very successful period as the key man at Werder Bremen, one of those tradition-laden and universally popular clubs Watzke might have cited as the opposite of what Wolfsburg represent.
Yet Allofs set out to prove that old and new, tradition-laden and nouveau riche, may not be mutually exclusive anymore in football. In fact, you could say that what he has done in the past two-and-a-half years is combining one big, green W (Wolfsburg's) with another (Werder's).
When Allofs joined Wolfsburg, Werder's former defensive linchpin, the Brazilian Naldo, was already there. Last summer, Allofs also added midfielder Aaron Hunt to Wolfsburg's squad, who'd been at Werder for more than a dozen years.
As it goes without saying that the difference between the two clubs is that Allofs has the kind of money at Wolfsburg that he could never spend in Bremen, which is why Werder were unable to hold onto playmaker Kevin De Bruyne, loaned out for one season from Chelsea. Wolfsburg, on the other hand, didn't bat an eyelid while shelling out 22 million euros to sign the Belgian eight months after Bremen were forced to let him go back to London.
But Allofs isn't turning Wolfsburg into a more monied version of Werder simply by signing former Bremen men, or by making the deals Bremen dreamed of but could never see through, such as landing Schurrle. No, his most important deal so far was exactly the sort of unspectacular but smart move that used to be a Werder trademark -- signing Hecking, a coach with the same roughhewn charm and no-nonsense demeanour that was so typical of Thomas Schaaf, Bremen's long-time manager.
On Sunday, Werder and Wolfsburg met on the field of play and the game felt a bit like passing the baton. Werder, which Schaaf built into one of the most attack-minded and entertaining Bundesliga sides during his long reign, took the lead three times before half an hour was up.
But the Wolves came back every time and scored three goals in the first eight minutes after the re-start to win the game 5-3. It was the fifth time this season that Wolfsburg have scored four or more goals in a league game. In one of these games, the opponents were Bayern Munich.
Allofs and Hecking have well and truly ended the days of replacing players on a grand scale every six months. Instead they managed to create a side that reached the round of 16 in the Europa League, will surely qualify for next season's Champions League and is also fun to watch.
They have done so in a manner that combines down-to-earthness (Hecking) with professionalism (Allofs) and ambition (Volkswagen). And during the winter break, the club proved it now also has class. The way the Wolves dealt with Junior Malanda's tragic and untimely death was widely lauded as "touching and moving", to quote the "Suddeutsche Zeitung", which had once spoken so disparagingly about how the club was run.
Putting it briefly, Allofs and Hecking have turned the "works team" into a club which, yes, you might still call a bit bland. But you could just as well call it absolutely respectable.
And that surely warrants a column.
Uli covers German football for ESPN FC and has written over 400 columns since 2002.