The fleeting brilliance of Grafite, the man who fired Wolfsburg to the title

The fleeting brilliance of Grafite, the man who fired Wolfsburg to the title

Wolfsburg have already put four past Bayern Munich when the ball is passed to Grafite halfway inside their opponent’s half in the 77th minute. The attack looks promising, but the Bavarians are quickly recovering in numbers. Die Wölfe’s striker, however, is not fazed by the red shirts that stand before him. He drives into the penalty area, skips between two defenders, and rounds goalkeeper Michael Rensing.

With two players separating himself and the goal, it appears the chance has been lost. But the final part of this already impressive run is what gives it legendary status. As he appears to be going away from the net, he nonchalantly backheels the ball past Breno and Andreas Ottl and into the bottom corner. The goal has since gone down in Bundesliga folklore.

Grafite’s piece of individual brilliance would end up being emblematic of Wolfsburg’s 2008/09 season, as they marched to the Bundesliga title. The Brazilian forward finished the year as the division’s top goalscorer, with his strike partner Edin Džeko just behind in second. It was, and still is, Wolfsburg’s only league title.

Edinaldo Batista Libânio – Grafite to you and I – was born in São Paulo in 1979, in the municipality of Jundiaí. Like many Brazilians, he grew in up in modest circumstances. In his first job, he made money selling garbage bags door-to-door. Fortunately, he also happened to be a talented footballer, and was signed up by Matonense for his first professional deal in 1999.

He wasn’t with Matão-based club for long. Grafite, which means “pencil lead” in Portuguese – he was dubbed that by a Brazilian coach in reference to his slender but tall frame – was soon transferred to Ferroviária, where he would stay for half a year, before moving on Santa Cruz. Although five goals in 22 games couldn’t prevent them from being relegated to Série B, the second tier of Brazilian football, it was enough for him to attract the attention of the two-time Copa Libertadores winners Grêmio, who paid R$1m for his services.

Sadly, his time in Porto Alegre didn’t go as the way many planned. A serious injury at the start of the 2002 season would see him spend several months on the sidelines and, all told, he would play just nine games for the club. A return to Santa Cruz, as well as a forgettable stint at South Korean outfit Anyang LG Cheetahs, followed before he was given another chance in the Campeonato Brasileiro by Goiàs in 2003.

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In his own words, this would be his “rebirth as a footballer”. As Goiás finished the season in ninth place in Série A, Grafite impressed, scoring 12 goals as he picked up the Bola de Prata, given to the league’s best player in each position. Only four sides would score more than Goiás in Brazil that year, with Grafite forging a formidable partnership with the division’s top scorer, Dimba, and Araújo. 

It wasn’t long before hometown giants São Paulo came calling. He spent two successful years there, with his 26 goals in 80 games contributing to O Clube da Fé winning their third Copa Libertadores, as well as the Club World Cup, in which they beat Liverpool in the final.

Europe soon took notice, and newly promoted Ligue 1 side Le Mans would eventually bring him to the Old Continent in January 2006. In his one full season in France, in 2006/07, he was the club’s top goalscorer with 12 goals. In keeping with his journeyman career, he was soon ready to write his next chapter. A €5.6m transfer to Wolfsburg was completed in August 2007.

VfL Wolfsburg remain a controversial club in Germany. Most professional sides in the country comply with the 50+1 rule, which means that no individual can own a majority share of a club. Each outfit is, theoretically, run by the fans, with every member having a vote on all-important matters. Wolfsburg are one of the exceptions.

The car conglomerate Volkswagen, from which the club was born, have funded Wolfsburg for more than 20 years, meaning they have the right to a controlling stake. With such a huge company and considerable funding behind them, they are perceived as a threat to the traditions of German football.

This, however, hasn’t made them particularly successful. Founded in 1945, they spent most of the 20th century in the Oberliga Nord, the amateur third division in Germany. They weren’t promoted back to the 2. Bundesliga until 1992, a level they hadn’t played at since the early 1970s. They enjoyed some moderate prosperity in the 1990s, reaching the DFB-Pokal final in 1995, before they were promoted to the Bundesliga in 1997.

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Despite the general consensus tipping them for immediate relegation, they developed into a mid-table side. They even reached the UEFA Cup in 1998, with a run to the Intertoto Cup final in 2003 amongst their other notable performances. The 2005/06 and 2006/07 seasons were less promising, however. Two 15th-place finishes saw them narrowly avoid the drop, and it seemed their time in the Bundesliga was coming to an end.

Step forward Felix Magath. The former Bayern Munich manager took the helm in 2007, doubling the role with that of director of football. Considered a coup, he joined the club after winning five trophies with the Bavarian outfit. In 2007/08, Wolfsburg would qualify for the UEFA Cup for the second time in their history.

That year would be Grafite’s first with the club and his 28 games in all competitions produced 12 goals. His arrival would coincide with a number of others as Die Wölfe looked to back their new manager. Josué, Ricardo Costa, Edin Džeko and Diego Benaglio were hardly household names when they joined, however; nor were Zvjezdan Misimović and Christian Gentner, who came in at the start of the following campaign. In fact, only Andrea Barzagli, who had been part of the Italy squad that triumphed in the 2006 World Cup, stood out as anything close to a marquee signing.

The 2008/09 season wouldn’t get off to the most explosive of starts. They would win just four of their first 10 matches and, with half the season gone, they sat in sixth place. 

The same couldn’t be said of Grafite, however. Despite playing in just 13 of the first 21 matches, he still managed 12 goals. He formed a formidable partnership with Misimović and, most importantly, Džeko, who had scored 10 by the same point, although he played in every encounter.

Going into matchday 19, Wolfsburg were down in eighth place, looking like to challenge for the European spots at best. Surprise outfit Hoffenheim, in their first season in the Bundesliga, led the way with 38 points, 11 ahead of Die Wölfe. Bayern, the reigning champions, were in third, three points behind the leaders. Magath and Wolfsburg, outsiders at the start of the season, weren’t expected to challenge.

And then they started to win, embarking on a near-invincible streak of games. They would pick up victories in each of the next 10 games to lead the Bundesliga by three points. Grafite’s goals were essential. After missing the first three games of that remarkable run due to injury, he immediately hit the ground running, first grabbing two against Hamburg, before scoring a hat-trick in a pulsating 4-3 win over Schalke. Another against Bielefeld would soon follow, before that iconic match against Bayern.

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That famous backheel, which would end up being named the Bundesliga’s Goal of the Season, was his second of the game. Džeko, his partner in crime, also grabbed a brace. During that run they would score 22 between them: 10 for the Brazilian and 11 for the Bosnian. The underdogs had become the favourites for the title.

They would lose two of their last six games, but that victory against Bayern proved to be the difference. They ended the season two points clear of Jürgen Klinsmann’s team to clinch the title. They still needed a win on the final day to seal it, but another 5-1 mauling, this time against Werder Bremen, meant they did so in style. Grafite, unsurprisingly, scored two.

The Brazilian would eventually end the season on 28 goals in 25 games. His partnership with Džeko, who scored 26 himself, meant they were the highest-scoring duo in a single season in Bundesliga history, with a total of 54. It is a record that still stands to this day. Throw in the underrated Misimović, who delivered on 20 assists throughout the campaign, and they would become the modern equivalent of VfB Stuttgart’s 1990s Magic Triangle of Giovane Élber, Krassimir Balakov and Fredi Bobic.

To put the icing on top of an already sumptuous cake, Grafite was named Footballer of the Year in Germany. It was an accolade with which no-one could argue.

That would effectively be the end of his fleeting spell at the highest level. Whilst Džeko went on to play in England and Italy, Grafite would leave for the UAE in 2011, ending his time in Germany with 75 goals in 130 games. He did continue to score in the UAE Pro-League, albeit against inferior opposition, before returning to his homeland in 2015. He would retire at former club Santa Cruz two years later.

While his time at the top may have been brief, it was undeniably spectacular. It may not be immensely popular throughout Germany, but that 2008/09 season will always be fondly remembered in Wolfsburg, as well as by fans outside of the nation. Indeed, that goal against Bayern Munich will not just be the defining image of the season, but also of Grafite’s professional career.

By Jon Radcliffe @jon_radcliffe93

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