The announcement that Felix Magath would be leaving Wolfsburg at the end of the season may have fatally undermined the club’s title chances.
By Nick Bidwell in Munich
Few connected with title-chasing Wolfsburg will have much time at the moment for the concept of success promoting stability. Just when the Volkswagen-sponsored club needed to be fully-focused on the final few rounds of the Bundesliga, along comes the mother of all distractions – the seismic revelation that coach Felix Magath will be leaving in the summer to take charge of Schalke.
A winning state of mind can be a delicate mechanism. One moment Wolfsburg are the Bundesliga form team of 2009, hurtling towards glory with the velocity of a San Francisco car chase. The next, Magath begins his long goodbye and his team promptly crumble to a 4-1 thrashing at fellow championship hopefuls, Stuttgart, for whom striker Mario Gomez scored all four.
Wolfsburg dreams of their first-ever “Meisterschaft” are not dead and buried yet; they have the talent, work ethic and resourcefulness to bounce back. But the odds are against them now. Magath’s blithe assertion that there would be no fall-out from his decision to go could only be wishful thinking. In every corner lurks the possibility for disruption. Players who see a power vacum in the dugout and are tempted to take their foot off the gas; the stars keen to follow Magath to Schalke; the fans furious with the coach for plotting an escape route with the team poised for a great leap forward.
One thing is for sure. Every other side in the championship race (Bayern Munich, Hertha Berlin and Stuttgart) must be toasting Schalke chairman Clemens Tonnies. A successful wholesale butcher, his seduction of Magath certainly has thrown a meat cleaver into the Wolfsburg works.
Magath, responsible for transforming Wolfsburg from relegation dead-beats into high-flyers in less than two years, had hoped to keep word of his move under wraps until the close season and how hard he tried to keep journalists off the scent, initially refusing to confirm or deny, then suggesting such reports were the work of mischief-makers out to undermine his team’s morale. Magath can stonewall with the very best, but with the media fire storm increasing in intensity with each passing day, he could not hold out. While the timing of the announcement could not have been worse, coming clean was, in fact, his only option.
So what prompted Magath to trigger the release clause in his Wolfsburg contract ? On the surface he had the dream job: more clout than any other boss in Germany (he is coach, technical director and chief executive), he has a young, thrusting squad with its sights on domestic silverware and the Champions League and had received fulsome financial backing from his VW paymasters (£54 million on new players over the last two seasons).
The answer, for the most part, lies with the global economic crisis. VW, like every other car maker in the world, is on the skid pan at the moment and with an operating loss of £250 million in the first quarter of this year, they just do not have the funds to satisfy Magath’s onwards-and-upwards ambitions. Rather than exist on meagre subsidies, he chose to take his expertise elsewhere.
Not that Magath is in for an easy ride at Schalke, where he will have a four-year deal and hold the dual-function of coach and general manager. The Gelsenkirchen club, who have not won the German title since 1958, is a theatre of the tempestuous, the place to go for short-lived coaching appointments, boardroom intrigue and the signing of big-money flops. Anyone taking over here knows full well they have been installed on a powder keg of a hot-seat.
This season Schalke have been up to their old tricks again. A campaign of sporting under-achievement – they never looled like denting the Bundesliga top-six – high-profile bloodletting (both coach Fred Rutten and general manager Andreas Muller were axed in March) – and player bad behaviour.
Very much Scandal City we’ve had Brazilian right-back Rafinha infuriating his neighbours with his all-night parties, attacker Gerald Asamoah’s speeding ticket and the “ you could not make it up” antics of forward Jefferson Farfan, who was granted compassionate leave to return home to Peru to visit his sick grandmother, only for reports to subsequently emerge that granny was in blooming health and that Farfan was on a date with his girlfriend.
Magath, one of the game’s true disciplinarians, will have fun clearing this mess up.