Wolfsburg still have a bright future despite UEFA Women's Champions League defeat

EINDHOVEN, The Netherlands -- After the triumphant waves of "El Cant del Barça" had faded into the warm afternoon air around the Philips Stadion, the unmistakable opening bars of "Immer nur Du" ("Always the now") began to sound through the speakers. From the playful claps along with "BARÇA, BARÇA, BAAAAARÇA!" a muted sea of green scarves lofted as the moody 1980s power ballad started up and the underdogs of the day began to sing along to their own song about brotherhood and football.

Barcelona may have won the UEFA Women's Champions League on Saturday, rallying from 2-0 down to win 3-2, but Wolfsburg still have plenty to celebrate.

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The song is an ode to the town of Wolfsburg as much as the team that hails from the area, one built up to house the Volkswagen factory and its workers. The line "Hier gibts Wunder am Fließband" ("miracles happen here") is a direct reference to the assembly line of a factor, but it comes in a first verse about the feeling of joy and escapism when in the Volkswagen Arena.

The chorus invites fans to intone, "V-F-L" after each "immer nur du", crying out Only you, VfL.

It is an unapologetic banger about the men's team that grew like the town, their ups and downs in the unforgiving Bundesliga and joy of reaching European competition, even if those turns in Europe tend to be brief. However, unlike the men's team they sprung from, the women's arm of Wolfsburg has been one of the key players both home and away in women's football for over a decade. Indeed, the lyrical guitar backing the singer has cracked across the speakers at the AOK Stadion -- the smaller ground next to the VW Arena where the women play most of their matches -- on cold European nights since 2012.

Wolfsburg have been a mainstay of the Champions League since their first foray in 2012-13, a season of unbridled success that saw the team loft the title after a win over Lyon in the final. While the men's team were forced into a relegation play-off in both the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, besting Eintracht Braunschweig and Holstein Kiel respectively to keep their German Bundesliga top-tier status, the women's team were winning back-to-back Frauen-Bundesliga titles.

Just three days after the second leg of Wolfsburg's win over Kiel in May 2018, the women took to the pitch to contest another Champions League final against Lyon.

Over the past few years -- and in part thanks to the rise of Barcelona, their opponents in the 2022-23 final -- the job for Wolfsburg has been asserting themselves in Europe and keeping themselves relevant. Wolfsburg as a city can't boast the same cosmopolitan appeal of Barcelona, Rome or London. Roughly two-and-a-half hours' drive from Berlin, it carries the feeling of industry, unable to escape its short history as a town built around a car plant, the biggest driver of the best players to the area the strength of the team. Yet with Bayern Munich on the rise (again) in the Frauen-Bundesliga along with the increased competition amongst professional teams in Europe, the question is how this team stays relevant for years to come.

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The squad, even with a historically German core, has lost some of its squad diversity and variety in recent years, and they've been forced to strengthen more with Bundesliga players rather than having the unchecked ability to pluck players from across the globe. Yet being back in a European final this month shows they can clearly still compete with the best of the best across the continent.

At half-time in Eindhoven, the Wolfsburg contingent were in dreamland, chanting and singing as their team surged to a 2-0 lead. It took just two second-half minutes for the tears of joy ("Freudentränen im akkord") to dry as Barcelona proved they also belonged. In the end, the club that had achieved so much completed their second-half comeback with former Wolfsburg star, Fridolina Rolfö, providing the knockout blow.

The growth of women's football has meant the landscape across Europe is looking a little more homogenised these days; clubs are often aligned with the men's equivalents, leaving less space for clubs like Wolfsburg that don't boast the same stature in men's football. Even though the men's team from Wolfsburg have delivered moments of magic and flirtations with glory over the years, they've never reached the status of Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund.

In recent seasons we've seen not just four-time Champions League winners FFC Frankfurt be forced to merge with Eintracht Frankfurt, but fellow former greats Turbine Potsdam slide out of the Bundesliga altogether thanks to a mess of bad management and an inability to keep up with the evolving game. Wolfsburg aren't a "small" club, per se, but unlike a Barcelona, Chelsea, PSG or Roma, they're not the main players in their respective men's leagues nor club with global renown. As "El Cant del Barça" goes, we've got a name that everyone knows, but for 45 minutes in Eindhoven, it really was nur du, VfL.