Four brick smokestacks, a Volkswagen factory, a canal, wild architecture, an outlet centre, a football stadium and a train station. Anyone in Germany will tell you this is what they've seen in Wolfsburg, a small city on the western part of the old border dividing the European country until 1990.
Wolfsburg is an outpost on the fringes of Berlin, the first city and the first stop some 50 minutes away from the capital on the high-speed InterCity Express (ICE) train. Sometimes, the ICE won't stop, and within seconds, social media is flooded with the news that once again the train driver ignored Wolfsburg -- just like everyone else in Germany does.
But there is more to the city; it just needs a second look. The chimneys look straight out of a Pink Floyd album cover; the Volkswagen factory is attached to the Autostadt, an automotive-themed complex where you can watch your car be built before driving it home. The wild architecture is best summed up by the Phaeno Science Center, designed by Zaha Hadid and named one of the great modern buildings by The Guardian. The Mittellandkanal is the longest artificial waterway in Germany, cutting right through the city. And the stadium belongs to VfL Wolfsburg, a Bundesliga club for 24 years and on course to qualify for just their third-ever Champions League campaign ahead of Saturday's match against Borussia Dortmund (9:20 a.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+).
Initially, it didn't look like they would compete for the Champions League in 2020-21. Wolfsburg started the season in a 4-3-3, but after four consecutive league draws, manager Oliver Glasner tweaked it to a 4-2-3-1, allowing Maximilian Arnold and Xaver Schlager to act as the double pivot in front of the reliable back four, where United States international John Brooks is enjoying his best season since arriving at Wolfsburg in 2017. "He is playing a really strong season," sporting director Marcel Schafer told ESPN. "But it's natural: Sporting success always turns the spotlight on the individual's performance." The new system led to impressive defensive discipline, conceding just 30 goals after 30 games -- the second-best record in the Bundesliga -- with Koen Casteels keeping 13 clean sheets. At the other end, Wout Weghorst sits fourth in the standings with 20 Bundesliga goals.
Over the years, the club developed a rich history on the pitch and colourful identity off it, but players have come and gone all too quickly because Wolfsburg is a city sometimes ridiculed, or disregarded, even by those who live there. But there's more to it; dig a little deeper, and you will be rewarded.
To understand where Wolfsburg are in 2021, you must understand where they were in 2007. German manager Felix Magath was on holiday in the Caribbean, having just been released from his contract as Bayern Munich manager earlier in the year. He was taking a break from the coaching machine, but he couldn't resist the offer he received from then-Volkswagen CEO, Martin Winterkorn. "Come to Wolfsburg," he said. "Build your own team, we'll have you covered."
Wolfsburg had been promoted to the Bundesliga in the summer of 1997. Still playing in their old stadium, they soon turned into a mid-table side, albeit barely noticed by the German public. By 2002, the club left their old VfL-Stadion am Elsterweg and moved to the other side of the Mittellandkanal and closer to the four chimneys welcoming those arriving in Wolfsburg. The Volkswagen Arena can host up to 30,000 fans. However, the following years saw them struggle in the league, twice just escaping relegation under former Germany international Klaus Augenthaler.
"I enjoyed the time at Bayern," Magath told ESPN. "But it also showed me that I rather develop players then just keep them happy. Wolfsburg looked like a good place for me. I had the finances to build a team, and I needed them. I trusted myself to get the club into the [top tier]."
There were only 12 players left from the old team when Magath was appointed, and even while on holiday in the Caribbean, he set to work. Back in Europe, players started to receive calls. Magath was not only the coach; he was the sporting director as well. In Teplice in the Czech Republic, Edin Dzeko packed his bags and moved to Wolfsburg. Within a couple of months, he was fluent in German and, more importantly, banging in the goals for his new club, partnering up with Grafite, who had been signed from Le Mans in France.
In Munich, then-23-year-old Schafer also received a call; he left second-tier side 1860 Munich and headed up north. He had crushed his knee when he was 17, told by his doctors not to put his money on having a professional career, but he bounced back after 10 months on the sidelines and was excited by the chance to join a Bundesliga club. "I had never been to Wolfsburg before. After three years playing for 1860, I wanted to make the next step. I seized the opportunity," said Schafer, who went on to make more appearances than any outfield player in club history.
In Magath's first year, the club qualified for the UEFA Cup. The next summer, he shipped out iconic midfielder Marcelinho and brought in Zvjezdan Misimovic from relegated 1.FC Nurnberg. "It wasn't easy, but I needed a playmaker, someone to set the stage for my attackers," Magath said. "Marcelinho wasn't the guy."
Magath also signed Italian World Cup winners Andrea Barzagli and Cristian Zaccardo from Palermo. The former would go on to become a star player for the club. "They thought they were in the wrong movie," Magath says. "We did a lot of running in preseason. That's the way I tick, and they weren't used to it, but Barzagli, he adapted really well. He was our man in defence."
At the halfway stage of the 2008-09 season, Wolfsburg were ninth. Magath was not happy, and he set the team a target: win the league. "I just wanted to get the point across that the season was not over," he said.
Will never get tired of watching this Grafite goal against Bayern Munich 👏 pic.twitter.com/EkVe0gNN1J— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) March 26, 2021
Wolfsburg clicked and were unstoppable. In early April of 2009, they hosted Magath's former club, Bayern. Die Wolfe beat them 5-1, jumping to the top of the Bundesliga table. Grafite, the Brazilian attacker from Le Mans, scored a stunning goal by walking through the entire defence, storming into the box from the left and then finishing the move with a back-heel. Dzeko added a brace, too, and Misimovic and Schafer set up three of the goals. With the clock ticking down, Magath replaced goalkeeper Diego Benaglio with Andre Lenz. The crowd went wild and Germany was stunned by the coach's boldness, his willingness to rub salt into Bayern's wounds.
To this day, Magath maintains this was not the case: "I was the sporting director, too. And in the winter, Lenz signed a new deal. I couldn't offer him a high, fixed salary, but bonuses for playing. I promised his agent to give him playing time if the result was right in a match. I never expected the fuss which followed."
Wolfsburg went on to win the league in 2009, a sensation. There was a sort of randomness to the success, but money and a clear plan had helped Magath achieve what he had set out to do and more: He created one of the great sides of Bundesliga football. But times would soon change.
In the first decade of the 2000s, several teams won the league: Bayern, Dortmund, Werder Bremen, VfB Stuttgart and, finally, Die Wolfe. They were the last side to beat either Dortmund or Bayern to the title, with the pair winning every league crown since. Bayern themselves have won eight straight and are on the verge of their ninth.
Magath felt he no longer had what he needed. He didn't feel his work was valued by the multinational corporation and its football division, and announced his departure before the club had been crowned champions. He joined Schalke 04 in July, and Wolfsburg moved on. First Armin Veh took over. He lasted six months. Steve McClaren was appointed ahead of the 2010-2011 season. Nine months later he, too, was gone. Magath returned for a second stint, in 2011, but couldn't rediscover the magic. German football moved on. Dortmund became Bayern's primary challengers, with RB Leipzig also rising to the top since, all while Wolfsburg struggled. In the four seasons following their title success, Wolfsburg's league finishes were 8th, 15th, 8th and 11th.
Volkswagen upped the ante in response, injecting fresh cash into its football division. Kevin De Bruyne arrived from Chelsea, 2014 World Cup winner Andre Schurrle followed a year later, Nicklas Bendtner signed on a free transfer after leaving Arsenal. Teaming up with Luiz Gustavo, Ivan Perisic and Bas Dost already at the club, they went on to win the German Cup and finish runners-up in 2014-15.
"The club shopped in a different shelf back then. It was ambitious," Schafer said. "I always say that in 2009 we had maybe the best team here and in 2015 we had the biggest individual class." It's a damning comment for a team that, again, fell apart. Bendtner disliked everything about the city, and things did not get better when Julian Draxler joined during the final days of the transfer window in 2015 to replace De Bruyne, who went on to become one of the Premier League's greats at Manchester City. A year on from Draxler joining the club, the Germany international told a reporter from Der Spiegel that the best thing about Wolfsburg was that it was just a 50-minute train ride to Berlin.
"Wolfsburg is a great place to live," Magath says as he looks for the right words. "If you are not out for ... entertainment every single night. There are a lot of things you can do. I lived out near the woods, and I enjoyed it." Schafer also highlights that Wolfsburg is a great place for young families: "It wasn't love at first sight. You need to get to know the city to rate it. You must allow yourself time. I think it's a great place to raise my three kids."
The 2015 team fell apart the following year after one Champions League highlight, against Real Madrid. They took a 2-0 quarterfinal lead into the second leg at the Bernabeu, but they couldn't hold on. Wolfsburg finished that season outside the European places and struggled from there on, twice staying in the Bundesliga via the relegation playoffs.
Schafer, by now approaching the end of his playing career, wasn't there. Always planning a second career in football, he had moved to Florida to play for the Tampa Bay Rowdies during the final years of his career. While Wolfsburg struggled for survival, Schafer soaked in the American way of life. He looked at how teams in the United States have set up their operations and training methods. "There is a bigger focus on the individual work, there is more staff," he says. "Individualisation," he reiterates, "is one of the keys also in football training."
America to this day remains a central topic for the club. Prior to the pandemic, Schafer travelled to Chattanooga, Tennessee -- another city with a Volkswagen plant -- several times, and Wolfsburg have since struck a partnership with the local team, Chattanooga FC of the third-division NISA. The Wolfsburg sporting director speaks highly of them, saying he was impressed that sometimes 8,000 fans would show up for their games. "It was always fun to go there, and we want to intensify this partnership, especially when the pandemic is over." For now, Wolfsburg help the club with their women's team and also are the jersey sponsor for their away kit.
In the summer of 2018, Schafer returned to Wolfsburg as sporting director under sporting executive Jorg Schmadtke. The club returned to the top half of the table and now follow a clear plan much more in line with what they can realistically offer.
These days, the club have deployed a new scheme to sign players. Following the example set by other clubs, but with that extra bit of financial power moving them ahead of mid-table sides, they have set out to become a stepping stone for younger players.
"When you come here, you must be convinced both from a sporting point of view and from the rest you will have here. We make sure that you take a close look at what to expect before you join," Schafer says, noting that prospective signings are shown around the city. "We can't compare ourselves to London, to Paris, that's obvious." The club has since attracted talents, and convinced them of living and working in that remote location right at the Mittelandkanal.
Last summer, Maxence Lacroix, 21, joined from Ligue 2 side Sochaux. He knew what to expect, after speaking to left-back Jerome Roussillon, and threw himself into his new challenge. Ridle Baku, 23, who arrived as a right-back from Mainz and is now a weapon higher up the pitch, did the same. He's now a fully fledged Germany international.
"It's a top place for young players," Schafer says. "You can focus on the essentials, on your job as a footballer."
For years, the Volkswagen-Wolfsburg connection wasn't placed in the storefront by the club, but it's different these days. "We are proud to be part of Volkswagen," Schafer says. "It's our parent company. We want to embody the company's values. Work, development. And it makes us proud our team works hard, plays with a lot of intensity, runs a lot. You have a great chance to be successful if you're authentic, and authenticity in Wolfsburg means: you must work and develop. Volkswagen do not support us, we are Volkswagen. That makes us proud."
With only four games left in the 2020-21 season, they hold a five-point lead over fifth-placed Dortmund, and the prospect of Champions League football returning to the Mittellandkanal excites Schafer. "It would be a great thing for us," he says. "There is still a lot of work to do. It would be a deserved reward for the players."
Wolfsburg's system is one built on fitness, strength and team cohesion. The players learned Glasner's system through intense training and repetition. The style sees them (in a Thomas Tuchel-esque manner) suffocate the opposition, with the view to then moving the ball forward as quickly as possible through their rapid wing-backs, or directly to Weghorst. But this is also a team that prides itself on its physicality. As a team, they have won the most duels in the Bundesliga (3,398) with Brooks winning the third-most aerial duels in the top flight (157). Baku tops the charts for the most sprints (930) and "intensive runs" (2,419), with Weghorst second in both.
Whatever happens in the final weeks of the season, Wolfsburg have shown once again that the city is about more than four brick smokestacks, a Volkswagen factory, a canal, wild architecture, an outlet centre, a football stadium and a train station. Neglected by many, the city and its club deserve a second look.