Triumphant Wolfsburg aiming high after DFB Pokal success
Saturday night saw a fairytale ending in Berlin, even if it wasn't the one that most of the watching world had been waiting for. Wolfsburg sent Jurgen Klopp on his way from Borussia Dortmund empty-handed with a 3-1 win in the DFB Pokal final, but while it flattened the dreams of the estimated 100,000 ticketless Schwarzgelben fans taking over the capital, it was a fitting end to an intense season for Dieter Hecking's players.
If the prematch talk was of feelings running high for Dortmund, then emotion was rarely far from the surface in the Wolfsburg camp either. The revival of their fortunes under Hecking had gathered significant pace this season, and had continued despite the devastating blow of losing of their teammates -- when 20-year-old midfielder Junior Malanda was killed in a car accident on Jan. 10, during the winter break.
When Kevin De Bruyne, a good friend of Malanda's, hammered home from long range to put the Wolves in front, he pointed to the green heart with the "19" inside it (Malanda's squad number) featured on the team kit for the occasion as a tribute. Shortly after, when De Bruyne was scythed down by a wild Mats Hummels challenge, the club's normally sanguine sporting director Klaus Allofs leapt from the bench to vociferously protest. The whole occasion meant a lot to the Lower Saxony club.
While most were focused on how Dortmund were striving to keep a lid on their emotions, it was just as intense for Wolfsburg. "We've kept playing for him (Malanda) since the winter break," De Bruyne told German broadcaster ARD after the game. "We had him with us and he'd have hoped for us to win it."
It didn't look like they would succeed in the early stages, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang giving Dortmund the lead in the first five minutes and the out-of-touch Marco Reus spurning a golden chance to make it two -- a miss that Hecking later suggested, not without foundation, was the turning point of the entire match.
Instead, the pivotal moment came halfway through the first period, when Mitchell Langerak's ineffectual parry of Naldo's driven free kick allowed Luiz Gustavo to pop up with an equaliser.
As so often this season, De Bruyne then took centre stage and when Bas Dost took advantage of more poor Dortmund defending to send Die Wolfe into the break with a 3-1 lead, it was typical of the efficiency with which they have cut a swagger through most of the Bundesliga season.
Even without the backdrop of doing it for Malanda, it was a hugely significant moment for the club. It represents only Wolfsburg's second major trophy, after 2009's surprise Bundesliga title gleaned under Felix Magath. This time, there is the sense that there is something to build on.
Resources have never been the problem, of course. Founded in 1945 as an augmentation of the works team from the Volkswagen factory for which the town was built, the club is a rare exception to the Bundesliga's famous 50+1 ownership rule (along, notably, with Bayer Leverkusen.) The car giant has funded the club generously, though a lack of prudence and accountability has often seemed more of a hindrance than a help.
The 2009 title win was a shock, and one that the club was wholly unprepared for. Much like Stuttgart's triumph of three years before, it was won with a turbo-charged ending to the season, which in Wolfsburg's case took in 14 wins in the last 16 matches. They had been ninth at the winter break. While propelled by the prolific strike partnership of Edin Dzeko and Grafite, as well as the creative incision of Zvjezdan Misimovic, it was hardly built on solid ground.
When Magath left for a better contract at Schalke straight after the title win, it all began to unravel. Wolfsburg and their new coach Armin Veh -- who had led Stuttgart to that 2006 win -- struggled with the demands of the Champions League and got stuck in mid-table. Veh's successors did even worse, with Steve McClaren and Pierre Littbarski falling short, and Magath brought back in March 2011 to save the club from a humiliating relegation. The former Bayern Munich coach's second spell, however, was far less successful than his first, and he was replaced by Hecking in 2012.
Magath may have been hugely successful in that first period in charge, but he was essentially at the root of the problem. Nowadays infamous in England (after his spell at Fulham) as well as Germany for his old-school, uber-disciplinarian methods, Magath will only be tolerated by players for a certain period. His commandeering nature not only meant that he had a limited shelf-life, but that he also left a gaping power vacuum when he went away.
Today, Hecking is just the coach, if that doesn't sound too reductive -- there is a management structure above him, much like there is at Bayern, with the canny Allofs leading the football side of the operation. Wolfsburg are still not afraid to spend, but they don't do so blindly. De Bruyne looked expensive when he was purchased in January 2014 but now appears to be a bargain. Even Andre Schurrle retains value, an integral part of the Germany squad with cachet beyond the Bundesliga.
Moreover, they are carefully selected pieces to fit nicely into Hecking's puzzle. Another forward, Max Kruse, whose signing from Borussia Monchengladbach was confirmed just before the season's end, is the next. With Volkswagen's backing meaning that stars like Ricardo Rodriguez, Diego Benaglio and Luiz Gustavo can be financially satisfied and retained longer than other clubs with similar attendances would be able to, there is strength to go with the stability.
An improved deal to extend De Bruyne's contract to 2020 is expected to officially confirmed soon.
Does this all mean Wolfsburg are ready to step into Dortmund's shoes as Bayern's major challenger? Maybe not -- the Bavarian reaction to Dortmund's title wins in 2011 and 2012 was to make themselves stronger than ever. Yet Wolfsburg have an organisation to go with their clout that makes them, like Bayern, able to look beyond just Germany. They will not be a side to be trifled with in next season's Champions League.
Andy Brassell is a writer/broadcaster/producer for BBC, Guardian, Mirror, Talksport, BT Sport, WhoScored. Follow him on Twitter @andybrassell.