Flashing the fingers in the face of football: The immeasurable importance of the 2008-09 season.

Though the majority often wont to forget this short-lived epoch, there was once, long ago, a time when football as we know it was turned on its head by a strange group of international journeymen and chancers based in the windswept Ostniedersachsenisch factory town of Wolfsburg, a city better known for its prominent role in the cheap car industry, its train station, and its eery resemblance to hell. This was a time of vigorous upheaval in German football, a transitional period for the national team and the league, a time before German football was fashionable, when I could rattle off the names of players like Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira and people would look at me in bemusement rather than in respect. Though I say this at the obvious risk of sounding old, cliched, and foolish (two out of three ain’t bad), I will state that those were good days.

 There is only one time that I can be talking about, that glorious northern year stretching from the autumn of 2008 to the summer of 2009. Though it may have been but two years prior to our current annum, this season was, as the Small Faces put it, long agos and worlds apart from the current incarnation of the Bundesliga, and yet it was in this beautiful and timeless period that Germany’s highest tier began to attain its present form. It was in this season that TSG Hoffenheim were to make their top-flight debut, and also the year that Jürgen Klopp would embark on his first season as coach of Borussia Dortmund. It would also transpire to be Robert Enke’s last full season in the net for Hannover, before he tragically committed suicide in November of 2009.

The drama of the season would unfold before any football took place. Jürgen Klinsmann and his wonderful personality had set up camp in Munich as the coach of Bayern, who were heavily tipped to take to Salatschussel by a wide margin. A poll conducted among the league’s coaches before the season had all of them excepting one answering that they thought Bayern would win the league. The only coach who did not pick Bayern was Wolfsburg’s Felix Magath, who said that he was unsure who would claim the title. Magath had been greatly lauded in Germany for his work taking Wolfsburg to 5th place the previous season, and, with some high profile signings in the form of the Italian defenders Christian Zaccardo and Andrea Barzagli, it was believed by all but Magath himself that Wolfsburg would be able to once again achieve a strong position.

Elsewhere in the north, and ambitious project was being constructed at Hamburg by Dutch coach Martin Jol, who, using money in the range of 25 million euros brought in from the late sales of defender Vincent Kompany and attacking midfielder Rafael Van Der Vaart to Manchester City and Real Madrid, respectively, brought in a flurry of signings, namely Marcell Jansen from Bayern, Dortmund’s Mladen Petric, and Brazilian fringe internationals Alex Silva and Thiago Neves from Sao Paolo and Fluminese respectively. It looked to be a new dawn for Hamburg, and they were being tilted as possible contenders to break the monotony of what was seen by most to be another season of Bayern domination. You in the back, stop laughing!

Amongst all these dawns, both false and real, one team would go mostly unnoticed. This was a recently promoted side from the southern region of Baden-Wurrtemberg, TSG Hoffenheim. Hoffenheim were selected by most pundits as a filled relegation spot, as local patron Dietmar Hopp’s unwillingness to shell out money had left them with little improvements. Though there had been some rumour of Bayern’s Lukas Podolski signing for the village club, this did not come to pass, and the Hoffenheim faithful were left to contemplate a coming season of fighting to keep their heads above the water.

Hoffenheim were storming through the league in the first half of the season.

These predictions of woe for Hoffenheim did not, however, come to pass. The club from the tiny village in Baden-Würrtemberg would be up there at the business end of the table from the start whilst playing the youngest squad seen in the Bundesliga for over twenty years, with an average of 22.5 years of age. This miraculous start to the season was mostly down to Hoffenheim’s coach, Baden-Würrtemberg native Ralf Rangnick. Rangnick brought a philosophy of all out attack to the suburb of Sinsheim, encouraging his charges to play up by making use of his own strategy of having training matches on a thin pitch, and banning backwards passing. Rangnick’s swashbuckling brand of football, very much inspired by Arsene Wenger, was perfectly summed up by the man himself, when, after a remarkable 5-4 defeat against Bremen, a game described by the peerless journalist Uli Hesse as “one of the best in the league’s history”, Rangnick was asked to give some thoughts. “We had the psychological advantage after equalising and Bremen were a man down, so I don’t blame my players for looking for the winner and getting hit on the break.” He said, whilst the entire footballing world stood there with its jaw down to its knees.

While unfancied Hoffenheim dazzled the league with their swashbuckling style of play, winning games by downright silly scores, things were not going well for the pre-season favourites. Bayern Munich had a nightmarish start to the season, provoking the ire of the notoriously fickle (usually referred to in this business as “passionate”) Bayern support, with the defining moment of their early season misery being a resounding 5-2 thrashing at the hands of a visiting Werder Bremen side (this sentence is dedicated to you, Mr. Wildhagen. Savour it whilst you can, as it’s the best your team will achieve this season.) followed up by a 1-0 defeat by perennial lower mid-table also rans Hannover, leaving the Bavarian club stranded down in the nether-regions of the table.

Despite this enterprising spirit of defeatism, Bayern would experience a strong upturn in form, even among rumours of Klinsmann having ‘lost the dressing room’. From a 1-0 defeat against Hannover onwards, Bayern would go on an 11 game unbeaten run into 2009, consolidating a place in the top three. They would not be alone, as Hoffenheim would extend their scintillating run of form, mainly courtesy of the goals of Bosnian striker Vedad Ibisevic. At the winter break, the table emerged to be Hoffenheim a neck ahead of Bayern on goal difference, with Hamburg and Lucien Favre’s heavily underrated Hertha off of that mark by two points each. Leverkusen were in fifth, with 32 points.

A season would not be a season if it was only contested by four clubs, however, and so we must look down the table to discover the unremembered stories of this groundbreaking season. Just as in history, it is the smaller, less reported events that have more weight, and this is similarly true in the Bundesliga. At the winter break, Stuttgart (yes, them again) were pushing mid-table, causing the board to terminate the contract of 2007 coach of the year Armin Veh, replacing him with former Liverpool and Bayern defender Markus Babbel, who had stayed on as an assistant coach at Stuttgart after ending his playing career in Swabia. At the bottom of the table, meanwhile, Borussia Mönchengladbach went into full crisis mode and sacked their coach, with no replacement in sight. They kept up this audacious spirit by signing — wait for it– Paul Stalteri, a 31 year old Canadian defender and Spurs reject. And yes, this is the same Borussia Mönchengladbach that Marco Reus plays for and that currently sit in second place. While I would go on about the rich relegation battles of this season, a relegation battle almost as exciting and diverse as that for the Salatschussel, I would have to make reference to Arminia Bielefield, and it is common knowledge that Bielefield’s existence is simply a conspiracy, and I think that the Bundesliga Fanatic’s editorial stance on conspiracies is completely clear: we do not propagate them.

The winter break came and went, with the customary friendlies that are simply excuses to massacre the opposition’s players. It was in this winter that future Bayern player Jerome Boateng (Hamburg at the time) was to deal a hammer blow to the hopes of a nation, slicing down Hoffenheim’s irreplaceable Vedad Ibisevic. All of Germany was shocked, except for Uli Hoeness, who, with customary good grace and timing, took this time to say “Hamburg have more depth to their squad than Hoffenheim. Hamburg will be our only rival for this season”. Hamburg took Hoeness’s words to ear, and a nation cheered as the Rothosen promptly defeated Bayern 1-0.

To everyone's surprise, even Hertha Berlin unde Lucien Favre were making waves.

Hoeness, as usual, was correct, and come the end of february, Hamburg were topping the table. It was a remarkably close run in, with Stuttgart and Wolfsburg embarking on a promising surge of form that would surely result in nothing more than an upper mid-table finish (Despite my dry and possibly even saturnine disposition, I am living every moment of this review), and perennial underachievers Hertha Berlin (Hertha Berlin! HERTHA BERLIN! HERTHA BERLIN!!!) getting a taste, albeit temporary, of life at the pinnacle of the Bundesliga table. Bayern would start to fall away, going four points off of Hamburg at the end of February, and once again, the knives would come out for Jürgen Klinsmann

The season would continue its’ bizarre twists and turns, with Bayern suddenly picking up form and Hamburg falling away. In March, the Bundesliga would bear an uncanny resemblance to a typical chapter of Luo Guanzhong’s 14th century semi-historical masterpiece of Chinese literature, The Romance Of The Three Kingdoms, a military epic involving various warlords scheming and fighting amongst each other against the backdrop of the fall of the Han Dynasty. You should read it. Anyway, Hoffenheim, sans Vedad Ibisevic, were clutching at straws in a bid to remain relevant, while, with no one asserting a strong bid, a revitalized Stuttgart having a look in for top honours. Amongst all this, Felix Magath’s Wolfsburg had won a remarkable seven consecutive games, though Magath sought to pour water on their chance, saying that “The league will be decided between the top two teams”. These teams were Hertha and Bayern respectively, with Wolfsburg a point off Hertha and behind Bayern on a slight goal difference. Though it is impossible to see the face of yours truly behind the screen that you are reading on, I am doing a Stuart-Pearce-scoring-that-penalty face. This is/was amazing.

There is a philosophy that holds that the journey is greater than the destination itself, and this was certainly true of the late beautiful April of 2009. The season was dangling on a knife’s edge, Hertha had fallen away, and, with ten games remaining, Bayern and Wolfsburg were in the immediate lead, with a game to play against each other. The previous match between the two sides had ended in Bayern making a comeback from two goals down, winning 4-2, when Wolfsburg had been in midtable. This match was more than just three points; it was a game that would decide the title, given an extra dash of paprika by the position of Wolfsburg’s manager, Felix Magath, who had been removed from his position at the Bavarian club despite winning them back to back domestic doublse a few years ago. It was a match that would not disappoint.

A few paragraphs back, worthless strings of sentences that feel now like months ago, I quoted the peerless journalist Uli Hesse on the Bremen – Hoffenheim match, where he said it was “one of the best in the league’s history”. This was indeed a spectacular match, one of the best ever, but not the best. This is because Wolfsburg’s game against Bayern was the best match ever to be played. While not as open-ended as Hoffenheim’s loss to Bremen, Wolfsburg – Bayern was excellent in a different way, a breath-stopping demolition of the biggest club in Germany, perhaps even the world, by an odd group of journeymen from an unsightly part of windswept and grey northern Germany.  It was both symbolic and poetic in the way it unfolded and what it represented. As long as I may care to live, and as far off into the darker regions as my memory may go, this is a match that I will never forget.

The goal that defined the 2008/09 season. A moment of Brazilian magic leaves Bayern in its wake.

It finished 5-1. As both teams walked down the tunnel at the half, the score stood as 1-1, with Luca Toni’s goal cancelling out Christian Gentner’s opener within a minute. I would love to know what Felix Magath said to his team in the dressing room that day (Though considering it was probably something like “Score, Dzeko, or I’ll make you eat medicine balls.”, I may have dodged a bullet by not hearing it. Never meet your heroes.), but whatever it was, and I prefer to fantasize imagine him unleashing his inner Hamburg and singing to the squad Tocotronic’s “Ich hab getraumt ich ware Pizza essen mit Mark E. Smith”, it seemed to have done the trick, as Wolfsburg would score four goals, two apiece for their two unprecedentedly magnificent strikers Edin Dzeko and Grafite. Grafite’s second goal was particularly well-worked, coming about as the result of dribbling through the entire Bayern defence before slotting a cheeky backheel past Bayern’s hapless keeper and defense. As the game neared it stoppage time, Magath added insult to injury by bringing on his second choice goalkeeper as a tactical substitution (!!!), quite possibly the biggest and most blatant taunt seen in recent Bundesliga history.  Though I doubt many Bayern supporters would agree, it was a victory that is and will remain forever timeless.

Things would quickly devolve at Bayern. Interviewed after the Wolfsburg game, Jürgen Klinsmann said “I’ve put my head on the block for 10 months, but now the time has come for the players to accept responsibility.” This was the beginning of the end for Klinsmann, who had crossed a line that no Bayern coach should ever cross. He had lost the dressing room, and this would become all the more apparent when, four days later, Bayern were mauled 4-0, though it could have been far more, by Barcelona in the Champions League. This was beyond enough. Interviewed about the match, Franz Beckenbauer said he was “speechless”. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge blasted the match as a “disgrace”. Udo Lattek was moved to tears. A few days later, Bayern lost at the Allianz Arena to rivals Schalke, putting the final nail in the coffin. His contract was terminated two days later, on the 26th of April, and Klinsmann was replaced by caretaker manager Jupp Heynckes (who I would have given the full job to, were I in charge. Though to be fair, it didn’t work out too badly for Bayern)

A lifeline was thrown to the Bavarian club in the form of a shock 2-0 home defeat dealt to Wolfsburg at the hands of relegation strugglers Energie Cottbus. Three days later, it emerged that Felix Magath would be leaving Wolfsburg at the end of the season for the greener (sorry, couldn’t resist) pastures of Schalke. Pundits speculated that Wolfsburg, a team completely dominated by Magath, who had built the squad quite literally from the ground up, would fall away in their remaining four games. This would not be the case, as Wolfsburg ended the season by first trouncing Hoffenheim 4-0, then bettering the feat with a 5-0 against Hannover, and sealing the championship on the final day with a 5-1 mauling of Werder Bremen.

After the celebrations, Felix Magath, drenched in beer yet retaining his typical semi-scowl, was asked by a journalist “At what point did you seriously believe you could win the league”. Magath, deadpan as ever, answered “After the Cottbus game”. It was an answer that summed up the entire season, beautiful, mad, unforgettable, and yet it was, like the rest of the 2008-09 season, condemned to be remembered only as a pagefiller in a trendy contemporary periodical, a minor historical footnote amongst the latest news of the day. This tragic condemnation by Lady Fate not withstanding, I will never forget it.

Jürgen Klinsmann was 2009's biggest casualty.

The final table would see Wolfsburg triumph by a narrow 2 points, having taken 69 in comparison to Bayern’s 67. Markus Babbel’s Stuttgart would claim the final Champions League place, with 64 points. Hertha Berlin would finish in a relatively disappointing fourth. Martin Jol’s Hamburg revolution, once seen as the only viable contender to Bayern, finished only fifth, garnishing 61 points in the process, exactly two points more than sixth place Borussia Dortmund had managed. Hoffenheim would finish in a cold and very broken seventh place, having taken a meagre 20 points after the winter break. Schalke, Leverkusen, Bremen, Hannover, Koln, and Eintracht Frankfurt respectively would make up the numbers. Herbert Gronemeyer’s Bochum and bottom at Christmas Borussia Mönchengladbach would finish just above the relegation spots, which consisted of Cottbus, saved from dead last by the Wolfsburg game, in the playoff spot. The two automatic relegation spots would be held by Karlsruhe and Arminia Bielefield, a team from a city that doesn’t exist.

The strange otherness of this season would continue after all the football had been played out. Three days after the finish, the German transfer record would be shattered twice, with Bremen’s Diego completing a €27 million move to Italian club Juventus, before, a few hours later, Bayern would sign Stuttgart’s Mario Gomez for €30 million. This was thrice what Wolfsburg’s record breaking strike duo of Edin Dzeko and Grafite cost together.

The 2008-09 season was the end of an era for the Bundesliga. The national team’s astonishing performance at the world cup the next year would draw unprecedented amounts of interest in the German football and highlight a bold new generation of players, particularly from my own native land of England. German football in England has now reached an acceptability and a popularity that I could only have dreamt of once upon a time. This season, for example, promises to be one of the most exciting yet, currently evolving into a three way tussle between Bayern, Borussia Moenchengladbach, and Borussia Dortmund. It has served up some attacking football as pleasing on the eye as Bianca Schmidt, played by some of the most exciting young talents on this spinning globe we call earth, while the entire world watches. Yet despite these unprecedented accomplishments in German football, nothing will ever come close to the mercurial heights reached by this peculiar group of Ostniedersachsenisch wanderers and their uncanny journey. Nothing.

3 Comments

  1. wow…… u just bought back soooo many memories, i think that year was when hamburg and bremen could not get enough of each other….i am a bayern fan, and that year was incredible!!! excellent article, grafite and dzeko were awesome and i could never understand why hamburg let such a strong team and coaching staff dissipate.

  2. Very nice article! Its a shame Ibisevic got hurt halfway through the season, makes you wonder if Hoffenheim could have actually won the league, would have been some story if a newly promoted side from the 2nd division emerged the following year as Bundesliga Champions.

  3. 2008/2009 will indeed stand the test of time. After Stuttgart winning a few years earlier, it established that yet another club can truly challenge Bayern’s dominance and as the decade drew to a close, and we look back at the last decade, the Bundesliga had five different champions. With Bremen unable to match their 2004 efforts and Stuttgart seemingly being a one-season wonder there were hints that Bayern would eventually re-establish the pattern of the league, dominating year in, year out.

    This single season did change that, when Bayern’s vulnerability was not only laid out on the field but philosophically. There was a greater sense that Bayern can be exposed by the likes of Hoffenheim who showed the league that a youth-centric attacking philosophy can work, even against the big guns and that any sides organized enough can even win the trophy at the end of the season. What we are seeing now with Gladbach, and Dortmund is a continuation of what started that season.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.