June 2000 the DFB gave the green light. The first VW boss who is also head of soccer: Martin Winterkorn. Imago Simon/03679610
That VfL Wolfsburg is a VW club is easy to say after 20 Bundesliga years as a formulation. What hardly anyone knows: Volkswagen and soccer, that was a rather difficult relationship for decades. "We came," said Klaus Kocks, VW's head of communications at the time, "to the Bundesliga like the virgin to the child." In other words, the car manufacturers and motor sports fans in the high-rise building on the Mittelland Canal could not do anything with soccer in 1997. Group CEO Ferdinand Piëch had only been to the stadium once, the jersey advertising had been handled by a Hamburg PR agency just a year earlier, and the budget was a paltry 18 million marks a year by league standards. Supporting professional soccer was regarded within the VW Group as a sometimes rather onerous location obligation. An attitude that changed in two stages: 2001 and 2007.
20 years of Bundesliga 1997-2017
In 2001, VfL soccer became a VW subsidiary, not so much because VW had suddenly discovered its heart for the kickers, but rather because professional soccer and VfLRestverein were seeking an amicable divorce: the pros felt inhibited by the complicated decision-making processes of a 28-division club; the other sports were afraid of the financial risk that professional soccer entailed.
When the DFB allowed corporations to participate in Bundesliga play in principle in 1998, it stipulated that companies, sponsors or investors must NOT have a majority stake – it must lie with the club. An exemption was introduced for TSV Bayer 04 Leverkusen so as not to jeopardize its existence as part of Bayer AG. However, it quickly occurred to the VfL soccer management at the time, led by Wolfgang Heitmann, Bernd Sudholt, Wolfgang Hotze and manager Peter Pander, that the "Lex Leverkusen" could also apply to VfL. In February 1999, the corresponding application was made. Then discussed at the DFB for almost a year.
In January 2000, the DFB league committee initially rejected Wolfsburg's idea of a VW majority. "On the grounds that the exemption was only meant for Leverkusen," recalls Sudholt. However, because VfL still considered itself formally in the right, it took up the fight. With honorary president, DFB connoisseur and ex-VW labor director Karl-Heinz Briam as a figurehead, VfL made it clear to the DFB board that the formulations of the "Lex Leverkusen" (including "20 years of permanent support") must also apply to VfL and VW. "Briam," Sudholt said, "was the most important man at the time.". The man who ensured that from 2001 there was a second corporate KIub in Germany alongside Bayer Leverkusen.
VW was not serious
However, the VfL did not take off because of this, the budget and the results remained in the midfield of the league. "If VW ever gets serious," Franz Beckenbauer remarked at the time, "Wolfsburg will become a real competitor. VW made but for the time being not serious, not even with Bernd Pischetsrieder at the head of the group. It wasn't until Martin Winterkorn took over as CEO of the automakers for the first time in 2007 (and brought along another soccer friend in the form of communications chief Stephan Grühsem) that things got serious – with the familiar consequences. Felix Magath, best known to FC Bayern supervisory board member Winterkorn, became coach, Wolfsburg became champions. And with the investment aid from the VW high-rise, transfers were later possible that no one had thought of at the time of promotion. However, VfL not only made big purchases – such as Kevin De Bruyne, André Schürrle and Julian Draxler – but also refinanced itself time and again by selling players worth more than 30 million euros.
Meanwhile, soccer is firmly anchored at VW, even the crisis surrounding the emissions scandal does not call into question the carmaker's commitment in principle to its soccer subsidiary. Winterkorn's successor, Matthias Müller, made his decision a year ago: "We are fundamentally committed to our involvement with VfL. The VfL is an important point of identification for Wolfsburg and our employees."
20 years ago this week
If it were down to letterhead alone, Eintracht Frankfurt would certainly be the favorites for the match at VfL. German champion in 1959, DFB Cup winner in 1974, 1975, 1981 and 1988, plus UEFa Cup winner in 1980 – with these six titles, the traditional club from Hesse has exactly six more than Wolfsburg. However, the table speaks a completely different language, where the VfL, which is eight places and points better off, demotes the Frankfurt team to an outsider. Their coach Horst Ehrmantraut praises the opponent in the highest tones: "Next to Lautern, Wolfsburg has the strongest team at home and the strongest team in the 2nd division. League."
For both the green-whites deliver on the 3. May 1997 in front of 8100 euphoric spectators impressive evidence. After only seven minutes they already have four corners on the account, after eleven minutes thanks to Piotr Tyszkiewicz also a goal. That Frankfurt's Olaf Janßen surprisingly equalized (27.) – no more than a side note. Six minutes later, Holger Ballwanz, who also signs off Eintracht star Maurizio Gaudino, puts the hosts ahead again. Detlev Dammeier converts a controversial penalty kick (68).), Chad Deering completes a dream combination (75.) – ready is the deserved 4:1 victory.
The rest is jubilation.
The atmosphere in the stands is "almost like in England," enthuses dribble artist Roy Präger. And Willi Reimann is also carried away by the waves of la-la that sweep through the VfL stadium. "Great," "wonderful," "super" – the otherwise cool trainer makes verbal leaps in the air. Meanwhile, the fans are chanting "climb up!" And "Never again 2. League!". But it is not quite so far. Six games to go, and Ballwanz is already thinking about the next one: "An away win wouldn't be bad now – why not at SV Meppen??!"
"VW minority would not have been a solution"
Since 1997, he has been the man for the money – first as financial officer on the VfL soccer board, then as managing director of VfL GmbH. What's more, as the former head of VW's tax department, Wolfgang Hotze (64) is and was the most important liaison between VW and its soccer subsidiary.
Was Volkswagen enthusiastic from the start when VfL came up with the idea of turning professional soccer into a VW subsidiary?
There have already been discussions. It was important that Lothar Sander, then head of the VfL supervisory board and VW brand director, had a good connection to the chairman of the board Ferdinand Piëch. This has made a lot of things easier.
What would it have meant for VfL if the club had become majority owner – and VW only minority owner?
This variant was never really up for debate. The point was that the club as a whole did not want to bear the financial risk for professional soccer. A VW minority shareholding would not have been a solution.
Difficult to say, but it would certainly have been harder for VfL to establish itself in the Bundesliga this way. Because getting sufficient financial support without VW is anything but easy in a location like Wolfsburg.
If the 50+1 rule falls, all clubs will be allowed to look for majority owners from the business community. Would the VfL lose an advantage with it?
No. And I don't believe that 18 out of 18 first division clubs would find such a partner without further ado. And even if, the club committees must be also first of all for it.
You are the longest-serving VfL soccer official – how long will you remain with the club??
As long as I enjoy my work and VfL still enjoys me, I can always imagine being involved and working for VfL. Up-to-date the topic does not occupy me however also, now it concerns for us only the class preservation.