Dieselgate, Draxler, De Bruyne and the decline of German giants Wolfsburg

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Last season's Champions League quarter-finalists face a playoff to stay in the Bundesliga, but what has gone wrong for one of Germany's biggest teams?


ANALYSIS

As the ICE10 train pulls into the station at Wolfsburg Hauptbahnhof en route from Berlin to Hannover, the Volkswagen Arena comes into view between the trees overlooking the Mittelland Canal and River Aller. Shortly after, the traveller begins to see the Volkswagenwerk, the biggest car plant in the world, and employer of almost 60,000 of the city's 124,000 inhabitants.

Founded in 1938, the city built up around the Volkswagen factory. The population is intrinsically linked with the automobile industry. Diesel is in their blood.

Every family has someone working in the factory, either directly or indirectly. The city's football team play at a stadium named after their owner, and are an exception to the 50+1 rule that governs most German football clubs due to their long standing history of financial support for VfL Wolfsburg.

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The football team is one of the most important cultural aspects of the city, and when they won the Bundesliga for the first and only time in 2009, a party was held in the city which drew a crowd of 100,000 - almost everyone in the region.

After that initial taste of success six years earlier, it looked like Wolfsburg had arrived in 2015. Under the guidance of managing director Klaus Allofs, they had spent a club record €30 million (£22m) on Chelsea attacker Andre Schurrle, won the DFB Pokal and qualified for the Champions League after finishing second in the Bundesliga.

Just a few months later, that bright future began to evaporate into exhaust fumes. Allofs had sold the team's key player, Kevin De Bruyne for €75 million (£55m) to Manchester City. The Belgian was instrumental in the previous year's exceptional campaign, setting the league record for the most assists in a season (21), scoring a goal in the DFB Pokal final win over Borussia Dortmund and being named Footballer of the Year in Germany.

Nicklas Bendtner Kevin De Bruyne VfL Wolfsburg FC Bayern Munchen DFL Supercup 01082015

On the pitch, Wolfsburg had a huge void to fill. Julian Draxler was signed from Schalke for €36 million, but the club had also sold Ivan Perisic to Inter Milan during the off-season, leaving manager Dieter Hecking with a much weaker squad than in the previous campaign.

Off the field, the city was rocked by the revelations in September dubbed 'Dieselgate' where Volkwagen had deceived emissions tests in order to show their cars as better for the environment. As well as the health and environmental consequences, VW were hit with record fines from all over the world, totalling over €18 billion (£15bn), while court cases still continue well into 2017.

In October, Wolfsburg halted construction of a new 32-hectare academy which was due to cost the club around €40m and would be backed by Volkswagen. The decision came as no surprise to many, who feared that sponsorship from the car manufacturer would also curtail spending in the transfer market.

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Bild reported that €60m from the sales of De Bruyne and Perisic went straight to VW rather than being reinvested in the club, but this was dismissed by the club, while leading German economist Prof. Dr. Rudolf Hickel also refuted the claims.

"I absolutely do not agree with this. I'm pretty sure that it won't be true. It is a nuisance that it is discussed in public" Hickel told Goal .

"In football, VW will remain a sponsor, but will be significantly reduced, and the lighthouse of sponsorship will continue to be VfL Wolfsburg - and it will be full of power. The Volkswagen Arena will continue to shine brightly in the future - even in dreary days."

Kevin De Bruyne Wolfsburg Supercup 01082015

Despite having started the domestic campaign strongly, picking up the DFL-Supercup in the process, Wolfsburg's form stuttered in the second-half of the season. In Europe, two goals from defender Naldo helped record a 3-2 win over Manchester United, sending Hecking's men into the knockout stages at the Red Devils' expense.

January came and went without any signings as the club slipped out of the top four. Allofs confirmed that there would be no big transfer, but refused to blame the emissions scandal for the cut back in spending.

"Volkswagen will still have to invest a great deal of money into the development in order to secure the group's future. This can also be transferred to the VfL. We want to continue to make meaningful decisions and invest in the future," Allofs told Kicker .

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Allofs' decision not to dip into the transfer market looked like a shrewd move as Wolfsburg defeated Real Madrid 2-0 in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final. However, a hat-trick from Cristiano Ronaldo at Santiago Bernabeu saw reality return.

Schurrle's signing proved to be a poor one, and he was shipped off to Borussia Dortmund at the end of the season. The €30m transfer outlay was recouped, but players like Yannick Gerhardt and Jeffrey Bruma were perhaps not the marquee names fans expected or desired.

Julian Draxler Wolfsburg 27022016

Draxler also failed to live up to expectations at the club. He could not replace De Bruyne's influence in attack, and the Germany international's repeated desires to move to a bigger side were met with jeers from fans who wanted to hasten his exit.

"It was always clear in my mind that I wanted to go to a top international club when I had the chance," Draxler told Bild ahead of the 2016-17 season. When the transfer window closed, he was still wearing the green and white of Wolfsburg. Supporters were not happy.

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In November 2016, Volkswagen announced cutting 30,000 jobs worldwide (23,000 in Germany alone) to save €3.7 billion annually. They also pulled out of the World Rally Championship despite winning their fourth straight constructors championship.

Despite the job cuts being in other German cities, the citizens of Wolfsburg were worried for their families and their football club.

"We will have to see where Volkswagen's aims lie," Allofs told German television. "Is it simply about the existence of a football club in Wolfsburg or is it about challenging for the top of the league?"

GFX Klaus Allofs Wolfbsurg Novermber 2016

A month later, Allofs was gone. Whether his comments to the media had any impact, it is not clear. But his role as managing director of the club was not a good one. Schurrle and Draxler had been disappointments, nobody had replaced De Bruyne, Max Kruse had not been the goalscorer they desired and his appointment of Valerien Ismael after Hecking's exit was a terrible decision.

Andries Jonker replaced Ismael as the team continued to flounder, while Draxler was shipped off to PSG at the earliest opportunity. Young players like Riechedly Bazoer and Yunus Malli provide hope after joining in January, but Wolfsburg's future is not certain yet.

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On Thursday, they face nearby Eintracht Braunschweig in the promotion-relegation playoff first leg, needing an aggregate victory to secure their Bundesliga status just 14 months after beating Real Madrid in the Champions League last eight.

The entire city of Wolfsburg will be behind them. The emissions scandal is still ongoing, but the city's inhabitants need the Volkswagen Arena to "continue to shine brightly in the future" for the dreariest day has arrived.

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