Wolfsburg revel in being underestimated in Manchester United’s Champions League group

By on September 7, 2015

There is a reason why teams like Southampton won’t soon be challenging the Premier League big boys for the title. In Europe, and the Premier League in particular, the gap between “super clubs” and the rest of the pack is growing, fueled by the money at the very top. Some viewed Financial Fair Play as a way to narrow the gap, but it is can also be used to close the bridge spanning that gap.

As such, title hopefuls across Europe are rushing to cross the divide and join the increasingly exclusive group of super clubs, for fear of being forever stuck on the wrong side of the competition. Money is obviously key, with Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City, and Chelsea being overused but very real examples. Other big clubs were lucky enough to ride earlier waves of money infused into football in the late nineties and at the turn of the century.

In Germany, for example, though four clubs qualify for the Champions League, matched only by England and Spain, only Bayern Munich expects to throw their around in the late stages. Two years ago, Borussia Dortmund emerged as dark horses to meet Bayern in the final, but in Germany, everybody is in the shadow of Bayern. There is even a term, “Bayern Hunter” (more traditionally, Herbstmeister) to signify the perpetual cycle of disappointment borne upon the chasers. Despite the success of years of work, Borussia Dortmund were the latest chasers to go down in flames.

In 1998, the doors to superclub status were firmly shut behind Bayern, separating them from everybody else. Well, almost everybody. Germany’s “50+1 rule,” meant to preserve the culture of football, prohibits any individual from owning more than 49% of a club, preventing rich owners coming in and taking a club straight to the top (think PSG in France). As Wikipedia puts it, the rule is meant to “protect clubs form the influence of external investors,” for better, or worse. Clearly, Bayern were firmly entrenched at the top decades before 1998.

VfL Wolfsburg, however, is one of the few exceptions. Volkswagen owned the club since its inception in the early 1940s (the city Wolfsburg itself was built around mass production car factories in the 1930s) and were allowed to remain in control of the club, having been in charge for more than twenty years before the rules were made. As such, injections of cash have played a crucial part in them challenging Bayern’s autocracy in recent times.

In 2004, they topped the Bundesliga table for the first time in their club history and five years later, won the league title twelve years after promotion to Germany’s top division. However, those days were also known for Wolfsburg’s erratic spending and taste for glamorous coaches and players — the following season, they finished eighth.

Felix Magath took the reins at the club as they slumped all the way into a relegation fight at the end of the 2010/2011 season but brought them back into the headlines for the wrong reasons; namely, for playing thirty-six different players during one incredible season of flux at the Volkswagen Arena.

However, the club’s new sporting director Klaus Allofs, made the move to replace Magath with the pragmatic, no-nonsense coaching style of Dieter Hecking, who has helped lead the club back up the Bundesliga table. Despite the flow of money from Volkswagen, Hecking and Allofs have undertaken the strategy of a selling club in the transfer market. The club picked up two young starlets who weren’t given ample time to shine at Chelsea, Andre Schurrle and Kevin de Bruyne, and the two led the club to a second place finish in the Bundesliga last season along with cult hero Bas Dost, who Wolfsburg picked up from the bottom of the Netherland’s Eredivisie.

The success reached the point last season where they (reluctantly) were passed the burden of becoming the next Bayern hunters. It’s a cursed status in German football, but Wolfsburg are one of the few clubs in Germany to be able to challenge Bayern (Bayer Leverkusen the other). With the influx of a €40 million profit from this summer’s transfer market (after the excellent signings of young Julian Draxler, Max Kruse and experienced center-back Dante), Allofs has finally built a sustainable model for Wolfsburg. Already, the squad that he has assembled is worth some €43.2m more than it cost to the club, per Transfermarkt’s figures.

This season, the club is back in the Champions League, but have been largely overlooked in Manchester United’s group despite that fact that their current third place position in the Bundesliga table shows that there is no sign of their form subsiding. United won’t be facing the likes of Bayern come their first group stage meeting with Wolfsburg later this month, yet it hasn’t been long since Germany’s chasing pack have emerged as dark horses in Europe. It was United’s neighbors Manchester City whom Borussia Dortmund upset in the Champions League group stages of the 2012/2013 season on their way to the final.

And in five years time, with Allofs’ direction and Hecking’s leadership, Wolfsburg may well have gone further than a disadvantaged and somewhat restrained Dortmund and caught Bayern (just a month ago they beat Bayern in the German Super Cup), joining the Bavarians in the ranks of European super-clubs.

Homepage photo credit: funky1opti, via Flickr

About Alex Morgan

Alex Morgan, founder of Football Every Day, lives and breaths football from the West Coast of the United States in California. Aside from founding Football Every Day in January of 2013, Alex has also launched his own journalism career and hopes to help others do the same with FBED. He covers the San Jose Earthquakes as a beat reporter for QuakesTalk.com and his work has also been featured in the BBC's Match of the Day Magazine.