While VfL Wolfsburg have been accustomed to being heavily derided due to the fact they’re one of only a couple of German clubs owned by a company, in their case Volkswagen, they’re, however, still a club who possess a fascinating history.
Officially founded in 1945 following the second World War, Vfl Wolfsburg literally means “Club for Physical Exercise Wolfsburg” and it initially offered seven different varieties of sporting activities: football, handball, gymnastics, tennis, cycling, boxing and chess. With Wolfsburg being a newly formed and named city after the destruction of the war, and with neighboring town, Fallersleben, being home to what was essentially the Volkswagen factory, many of the club’s members were unsurprisingly car manufacturers. And, as a consequence, this was inherently where the correlation between the two parties began.
The football side began playing in the famous green and white kit the team now run out in today, which actually came about after local trainer, Bernd Elberskirch, mustered up 10 green jerseys and used donated white sheets sewn into shorts by some local women to complete the uniform. Indeed credit must be given for their creative resourcefulness.
From humble beginnings, where they encouragingly won two amateur titles, the Wolves eventually made it into the Oberliga Nord, the top tier of German football for them at the time, in 1954. Doing so within 10 years of being founded undoubtedly proved their desire and hunger for success.
Defender Günther Litzenberg remembered the joyous occasion fondly as the players were hoisted aloft and carried all the way to a local hotel to celebrate their promotion, recalling: “They brought us to the hotel in rapturous style – carried along the way on the shoulders of the fans.”
Due to there being no financial bonuses for achieving such a tremendous feat back then, the players received bunches of red carnations fittingly wrapped up in green and white ribbon. That wouldn’t have mattered to the club’s inspirational players, who largely consisted of metal workers, welders and office clerks working at Volkswagen, for they were just over the moon at being in the top division.
“We did have the status of licenced players and were released from our working duties at 2pm, so that we could go to afternoon training,” explained club legend, Litzenberg, who incredibly featured over 600 times for his beloved club.
Helmut Bräutigam’s take on the triumph also adds some intriguing perspective, with the former keeper saying: “In the years beforehand, we just weren’t matured enough and our opponents were simply better. 1954 was exactly the right time for us.
“Without that promotion in 1954, the club wouldn’t be where it is today.”
Although Wolfsburg struggled to adapt to rigours of life in the top flight, they did, however, manage to stay up in their first season. Their fondest memory of that first season was unquestionably when they beat the eventual champions, Hamburger SV, 1-0, in front of 15,000 die hard supporters.
They would continue to flirt with relegation thereafter, which culminated in them suffering the drop in 1959.
Not long after, in 1961, a real treat was bestowed upon the club, when Volkswagen helped organise a friendly against Brazilian giants, Santos, who remarkably brought over Pele for the showpiece friendly. Santos, featuring six Brazilian internationals and World Cup winners, were expected to wipe the floor against the now second division Wolfsburg. But this certainly wasn’t to be the case, as the German side put in a manful shift against their wildly talented opposition, despite ultimately losing 6-3.
For the 10,000 fans that rolled into ground that day it proved to be an unforgettable experience, in a match where Santos produced some scintillating attacking football. Meanwhile, being able to see their team put in such a spirited shift vs. their extraordinarily gifted adversaries meant Wolfsburg also came out of the match positively.
Wilfried Reckels, then only 22, the man charged with the task of marking the great Pele, who was himself just 21, reflected on the special moment with great jubilation.
“The match was a true sensation for us. At the time, Pelé was known all around the world, and he was my direct opponent. It’s a day I will never forget and even now I often chat with friends or acquaintances about that very unique experience,” he told the Wolfsburg official website.
Having been unable to propel themselves back into the top flight for over three years, their excellent 1962/63 campaign saw them finally get back up. Coached by master tactician, Ludwig Lachner, the team, filled with plenty of the club’s very own youth products, took the league by storm. Moreover, they embarked on a sensational crusade in the parallel-run German Amateur Championship too, making it all the way to the final, where they unfortunately lost to Stuttgart.
“The fact that we had managed to make it so far at all was a sensation,” opined former striker Gunter Otto. It was something very special for all of us to have the opportunity to play in front of such a massive crowd.”
“In spite of the final result, the game and the season were the highlights of my career.”
After the final, the players were duly welcomed back to the city by a convoy of Volkswagen Beetles, with many humorously having to add “almost” to their pre-printed “Champions” signs.
Come the 1966/1967 season and Imre Farkaszinski was once again installed as Wolfsburg manager, after his initial stint in 1958 ended in relegation and him being relieved of his duties. The iconic Hungarian’s second spell was more fruitful, however, making a far better fist of things having gained vital experience and knowledge from his disappointing first spell. Managing to transform the inconsistency plagued club into a real force to be reckoned with in the Regionalliga Nord division served as a testament to his brilliant work. For nine uninterrupted years he’d remain in the job, with his greatest accomplishment coming when he obtained promotion to the Zweite Bundesliga (Second Division) in 1974.
Interestingly, Farkaszinski would amazingly return for a third term as manager in 1983. Upon departing the club for the final time, having been manager for a total of 13 years, thus making him Wolfsburg’s longest serving manager ever, he could be hugely proud of all he did for Die Wolfe.
While the Lower Saxony side retained their place in the second division from 1963 (the year the Bundesliga was founded) to 1975, after two years yo-yoing between the second and third divisions, the club would embark on an agonising 15 years without being in the top two tiers of German football. Attendances inherently suffered and such poor results continued to see crowd numbers dwindle.
All this changed for the 1992 season, though, with Wolfsburg finally earning promotion back into the second division. Confronted with a colossal 46 game schedule, the Wolves finished a credible 14th, showing they were there to stay.
Holger Ballwanz, former player and now employee at the club, spoke glowingly about how things were back then, noting: “For the first home game against VfB Oldenburg, we had 9,500 fans. Things were of course a lot smaller back then, but it made the unity within the team all the greater.”
An exemplary second season ensured a fifth place league finish. Indeed a tangible reward for all their perseverance and hard work battling away.
Wolfsburg continued along on their steady upward trajectory by making the Dfb Pokal Final in 1995, a match they would unfortunately lose 3-0 against Borussia Mönchengladbach in front of 75,000 at Berlin’s Olympiastadion, but nonetheless, their progress was hugely encouraging. “It was the first time you really got the feeling that something can happen here,” insisted Ballwanz.
Then, in 1997, at long last, Wolfsburg achieved promotion to the Bundesliga for the first time by securing a coveted second place in the 2. Bundesliga. They couldn’t have done in it more dramatic fashion either, beating fellow promotion aspirees, Mainz 05, 5-4 to cement their place in the top flight.
“I think it’s important that the experience from then remains present. Looking back, it was the most important game in my career – a piece of history which we must carry on through the generations,” said Roy Prager, a key component in the magnificent accomplishment.
Prager would then go onto etch his name into history, scoring the club’s first ever goal in the Bundesliga, in their 1-0 victory over Rostock. Wolfsburg went from strength to strength thereafter, quashing the many doubters who thought they would go straight back down, as they proceeded to obtain a barely believeble sixth place finish. It could’ve been even better too, but, with fourth in their sights, they suffered a 6-1 hammering at the hands of Duisburg on the last day.
The next few campaigns saw Die Wolfe consolidate itself as a solid mid table side and make their mark in Europe by regularly featuring in the Intertoto Cup.
As Volkswagen began to become more heavily involved with the club, they now found themselves as an established top flight outfit and able to splash the cash to acquire some superb players like the €9 million signing Andres D’Alessandro back in 2003.
But lacklustre 15th placed Bundesliga finishes in the 2005/2006 and 2006/2007 league crusades certainly weren’t in keeping with the ambitions of the hungry club.
Upon appointing the enigmatic Felix Magath, formerly of Bayern Munich, in 2007, Wolfsburg’s appetite for success would quickly become a reality. After an exceptional first season, where a fifth place finish eventuated, Wolfsburg spectacularly won the Bundesliga in Magath’s second season. An extraordinary feat indeed for the club who just two years previous were flirting with relegation.
Magath’s punishing training methods paid off emphatically, as he built a physically, mentally and technically strong side. Wolfsburg were imperious throughout their historic, record breaking campaign, as they claimed the title by two points over Bavarian giants, Bayern Munich. Over the course of the season they broke the record for the longest winning streak in the Bundesliga, with 10, while also becoming the only team to have two players surpass 20 goals in a season, with Grafite bagging 28 and Edin Dzeko scoring 26. Moreover, the 20 assists supplied by Zvjezdan Misimović was another record breaking tally.
After their magical triumph, which included a 5-1 win over Bayern Munich and a last day win by the same scoreline against Werder Bremen, over 100,000 ecstatic Green-Whites fans converged on the town hall to celebrate the improbable success.
“We have put together a young and hungry team with fantastic prospects,” explained Magath, who had already announced he’d be departing prior to Wolfsburg winning the title.
“It’s a dream, I never believed we had the chance to win the title, but the boys deserve it. And leaving now will be very difficult.”
Qualifying for the Champions League for the first time in their history was another exciting byproduct of winning the Bundesliga.
Armin Veh was charged with the task of leading the club’s title defence, but unfortunately he couldn’t replicate Magath’s remarkable results, leading to him being sacked just 10 games into the 2009/2010 season. Lorenz-Günther Köstner replaced Veh and managed to lead the club to a decent eighth place in the league and to the quarter finals of the Europa League, following their group stage exit from the Champions League. Overall, it was a disappointing term for the club, but Dzeko’s excellent performances provided a real bright spark, as the Bosnian ended the season on 22 goals to be crowned the Bundesliga’s top scorer.
While the club obviously hasn’t been able to recreate their sensational title winning success of 2009, with the likes of Steve McClaren, Pierre Littbarski and Felix Magath in a second stint all failing to obtain satisfactory results, Dieter Hecking, who took over in 2011, did, however, steer the team towards a brilliant second place finish in 2014/2015. Hecking also notably led Die Wolfe to an impressive Dfb Pokal Final win over Borussia Dortmund, in a season where superstar Kevin de Bruyne would claim the Bundesliga player of the season.
Looking ahead for the Lower Saxony side, while it’ll be massively challenging for them to overcome Bundesliga powerhouses like Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen, they need only look back on their fascinating history and at that miraculous 2009 title win to draw inspiration and realise that even the most seemingly impossible dreams can, in fact, come true.