Grafite and Edin Džeko: the unlikely duo that became one of the Bundesliga’s greatest strike-forces

Grafite and Edin Džeko: the unlikely duo that became one of the Bundesliga’s greatest strike-forces

Bayern Munich clinched the 2018/19 Bundesliga title by a mere two-point margin, resisting the threat of Lucien Favre’s exuberant Borussia Dortmund side to retain their crown as the kings of German football. 

The Bavarian club’s monopoly over the top flight has strengthened in the past decade – having won their eighth league title in 11 seasons, their dominance has been generally unrivalled. Jürgen Klopp led Borussia Dortmund to back-to-back Bundesliga wins during the 2010/11 and 2011/12 campaigns, but the plucky underdogs and people’s favourites were soon sent back to reality by Die Roten. 

Before Bayern took it upon themselves to cement their stronghold of puissance over the German game, and prior even to Dortmund’s unlikely double triumph, was a VfL Wolfsburg side that, against all the odds, rose from obscurity to secure an unheralded Bundesliga title in the 2008/09 season. 

Felix Magath’s side would go down as rather an anomaly than uniformal title contenders; their stint at the top was little more than a transient spell, but one that would capture the hearts and minds of neutrals. Their unique strike partnership of Grafite and Edin Džeko took the Bundesliga by storm to fire Wolfsburg to their solitary title in the top division. 

The success in Lower Saxony was unprecedented and beautiful. Having finished fifth in the 2007/08 campaign and secured qualification for the UEFA Cup in what would be a historic season, an essence of contentment co-existed with the Wolfsburg supporters’ desire to prosper and challenge the behemoth of the division.

After a respectable season, in which the team amassed 54 points, their meteoric rise above and beyond their rivals was unanticipated. Magath orchestrated his side’s conquest of the Bundesliga title, accumulating 15 more points than the preceding campaign to pip Bayern to the title by two points, as they concluded with a total of 69.

Built upon the foundations and principles which the manager would maintain throughout his peculiar career trajectory, which would see him venture away from Germany for spells in England and China with Fulham and Shandong Luneng respectively, Magath’s team embodied his disciplinarian approach. They were intense, physical and fast, and above all else, they boasted fitness levels which could only have been fawned over by their counterparts. 

Wolfsburg’s defensive structure was resolute in a 5-2-1-2 shape and their midfield was effervescent, but the plaudits were primarily apportioned to the team’s deadly attacking duo of Grafite and Džeko. They operated marginally ahead of the underrated Bosnian playmaker Zvjezdan Misimović, who would be the third angle of a trio renowned even now as the ‘Magic Triangle’ for their almost telepathic relationship and exploits in the final third during the 2008/09 season. 

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A late bloomer, enigmatic Brazilian forward Grafite would top the Bundesliga’s goalscoring charts in this record-breaking campaign with a phenomenal 28 strikes to his name. His partner-in-crime was similarly productive and found the back of the net on 26 occasions. Of Wolfsburg’s 80 goals in the league that season, their robust, physically-imposing attacking pairing would directly account for 67.5 percent of the team’s successful attempts in the final third.

Such was the quality and productivity of the forwards, a top-flight record that had previously stood for 37 years was shattered. Grafite and Džeko’s remarkable haul of 54 goals combined was the most netted by an out-and-out strike pairing in the Bundesliga since Gerd Müller and Uli Hoeneß plundered 53 for Bayern during the 1971/72 season. The tally assembled by Wolfsburg’s cult heroes is still, to this day, going strong as the highest ever in German top-flight history. 

Boasting success to this degree was scarcely heard of at Wolfsburg hitherto. The closest they had previously come to clutching silverware was when they fell comprehensively short in the DFB-Pokal final in 1994/95, as Borussia Mönchengladbach romped to a 3-0 win at the Olympiastadion. 

Die Wölfe only made their first appearance in the Bundesliga in 1997, and it remains astonishing to consider that it took only 11 years of top-flight experience to enter into their triumphant campaign, even if it would prove to be their only one to date. 

Founded as a Volkswagen workforce football team in 1945, their ingrained cultures and philosophies would be embodied by a ruthless strike force that thrived on perseverance, determination and a full-blooded approach, approximately 64 years on. They didn’t take the easy route to glory, and having risen from the depths of humble beginnings, the duo’s success was made all the sweeter.

Grafite emerged from a lowly background, and his rags-to-riches story is nothing short of remarkable. From the streets of São Paulo with little to cling to, to the Volkswagen Arena with a Bundesliga winners’ medal draped around his neck, his growth owed to unrelenting faith and remembering just where he came from. 

He grew up in Campo Limpo, one of 96 districts in São Paulo, and sold bin bags from door to door on a daily basis when he was 21 as he attempted to provide for himself and his loved ones. When his future strike partner Džeko was of the same age, he was snapped up by Wolfsburg. “We were up against cheaper supermarket bin bags that were of inferior quality,” Grafite recalled. “In the end, we managed to convince the customers.” The competitive edge that would unequivocally attach itself to Grafite would prevail in the peak of his footballing career, but this was not without its fair share of hardships along the way. 

On 23 February 2005, his mother Ilma de Castro Libânio was kidnapped near their hometown. With the perpetrators charged and Ilma released having been held hostage, relief was understandably felt by the Brazilian. Life threw plenty of challenges in the way of Grafite, but he never let his head drop, and channelled his struggles as motivation to succeed at the highest level and give those around him enjoyment. 

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Having played for five clubs in his homeland and failed in a somewhat bizarre stint in South Korea with FC Seoul in 2003, he was headhunted by clubs in Europe. It was a big decision for Grafite following his success at São Paulo, but he took the plunge and arrived in France as Le Mans recruited him in 2006. He led the line well during his debut season in an unfamiliar continent, scoring 12 goals in Ligue 1 and contributing with a further five assists. 

After starting the 2007/08 season reasonably well, netting two goals in six games, the interests of Wolfsburg were piqued. It was a golden opportunity for the striker to finally catch his big break. He grabbed the chance with both hands and completed a switch to Germany. 

Grafite’s arrival did little more than raise a few eyebrows; he was plucked from obscurity after performing with confidence for Le Mans, and it was a hefty sum to spend on what was, in truth, an unknown quantity, joining for €7.5m. He was by no means a household name, and a similar intrigue was retained by Wolfsburg boss Magath, who conceded that he had not heard of his incoming forward prior to his arrival. 

Roger Wittmann, a gambling consultant, had recommended the attacker to the Bundesliga club, hailing his talents as a capable goalscorer. Magath was unconvinced and opted to send assistant manager Bernd Hollerbach to take a closer look at the emerging Brazilian front-man. Though the coach was not wholly convinced of his credentials, Wolfsburg were in need of a striker to bolster their choices in the final third, and the club made the risky signing of Grafite. Little did they know that the reward would outweigh the risk to seismic extents during the well-travelled striker’s stint in Lower Saxony.

Incidentally, Magath had not yet heard of Edin Džeko by the summer of 2007, either. The manager wrote in a column for Bild in 2009 that scouts recommended the player to him: “I had never heard the name.” the German stated. Having been informed of the powerful forward’s potential, he sent Hollerbach to observe him in action, too, and the assistant was rather more convinced by this scouting mission. 

After watching brief videos of what this young, bustling Bosnian could produce in the Czech Republic, Magath ordered his dependable right-hand man to fly out to the striker’s homeland to observe him in action for the national team as they took on Malta. What Hollerbach would report to his manager would be among his most concise analyses. “Buy now” were the two words uttered in the conversation about Džeko’s qualities – and Wolfsburg’s manager was sold. 

Magath took the advice and ran. Having heard from his reliable second-in-command and watched videos of Džeko for himself, he flew out to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo to meet the player and his father, Midhat, to discuss a transfer. Born to protective parents, the 21-year-old took time to ponder the possible move to Germany, but it soon became clear to all parties involved that the switch made sense. 

Much the same as his attacking partner Grafite, Džeko’s route to the top was by no means straightforward. Having grown up during the Bosnian War of Independence, his mother, Belma, prevented him at times from partaking in his favoured hobby of playing football given the ensuing conflict. A field which the energetic youngster would once enter to fulfil his early passion was bombed, and a mixture of his mother’s instinct married with the nature of fate would set the tone for his path; a journey that was comprised of hard work, modesty and appreciation for those who helped propel him to unthinkable heights. 

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Before his arrival at the Volkswagen Arena, Džeko was making a name for himself in the top tier of Czech football. He ended the 2006/07 campaign as the joint-second top goalscorer with FK Teplice. His tally of 13 was matched by David Strihavka of Banik Ostrava and bettered only by Mladá Boleslav man Lubos Pecka, who netted 16. At 21, the promising front-man was catching the eye, and Wolfsburg wrapped up a deal for a meagre €4m in 2007. 

His first season in Germany was solid, if unspectacular. He scored a respectable eight goals and chipped in with seven assists as Wolfsburg finished in the UEFA Cup qualification berths. Grafite was marginally more successful, firing home 11 and setting up six during his maiden campaign in the Bundesliga, an impressive return from only 24 top-flight outings. After steady but productive introductions to football in a new division, the pair’s respective efforts were satisfactory. To come, though, were even headier heights, and lengths of success which would have seemed simply beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. 

The summer of 2008 was pivotal for Wolfsburg, a turning point, as Magath meticulously put the finishing strokes on a title-winning masterpiece. He oversaw the strengthening of the first team, and the most notable arrival would prove to be Misimović, who flourished for Nürnberg in the 2007/08 campaign. 

His influence would prove to be integral. He found space between the lines, could pick passes to slide in the ruthlessly efficient attacking pairing, and worked hard to retrieve the ball high up the pitch. While Grafite and Džeko’s goalscoring exploits rightfully took the vast share of the plaudits, Misimović’s creative impact must not be discounted nor disregarded. 

He assisted 20 goals in the club’s glorious Bundesliga victory, 13 of these were laid on a plate for the league’s two most dangerous forwards. Misimović’s haul of assists would break the Bundesliga record for the most in a season, and his tally has since been bettered only once, ironically by a Wolfsburg player; Kevin De Bruyne’s 21 in the 2014/15 season marginally surpassed the selfless work of the Bosnian. 

Misimović struck up an understanding with Grafite and his compatriot Džeko that appeared to have been innate. There was an explicit knowledge of their movements between defenders, how space would be created in attacking transitions and just what kind of service was required for the highest quality of chances to be created. The playmaker’s mastery was instrumental in the forwards’ success, but it was not chiefly responsible. 

Magath, arguably above anyone else, deserves credit for extracting such productivity and consistency from Grafite and Džeko as the season progressed. His harsh methods and the importance which he places upon peak physical conditioning can make or break players, and for his two unproven but talented front-men, his ruthless training bore fruit.

The perennially-obdurate manager’s demanding sessions came as a culture shock for many players, and in Grafite’s first full pre-season at Wolfsburg, he got not just a taste but a mouthful of what Magath’s gruelling fitness regime would entail. Having been praised by the manager for his ability to withstand pain and work to a high level despite niggling injuries, the Brazilian had little choice but to sharpen up his physical condition after experiencing a watershed moment in July 2008. 

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Magath took his Wolfsburg squad to Switzerland for a pre-season training camp. One day, the players were allowed to kid themselves into thinking that they would enjoy a relaxing day, where they could take in the beautiful scenery and landscape that the country had to offer. Instead, their boss – ever the authoritarian – without even the slightest glimmer of demur, informed that they would be spending their time running up Mount Niesen, which stood at 2,362 metres. 

Like a captain leading his troops into battle, Magath accompanied his men as they marched up the mountain, progressively struggling as breathing became heavier and their legs wore wearier. He urged intensity, resistance and endeavour during this painstaking task, and these three principles would cease to waver thereafter as they powered through the Bundesliga season and conclusively claimed their just rewards. 

The squad spent approximately two-and-a-half hours making their way with vigorous effort up the mountain as the light at the end of the tunnel was the incentive of coffee and cake, a recompense for their agonising efforts. It would have been scarcely believable to suggest that come the end of the Bundesliga season, confectionary would not be the incentive for this sedulous group of players, but a treasured title that would be cherished by the club’s supporters for a lifetime to come. 

It was a testament to them that they were able to manage and immerse themselves in this task. One player, however, was not quite capable of completing his ascent by foot, and his descent was carried out via stretcher. Grafite could not hack the tremendous physical demand that Magath had set for his men, as while his teammates pushed beyond the pain threshold, he collapsed of exhaustion, unable to continue. 

The anguish that the Brazilian would feel during pre-season would ultimately prove to be of benefit, as he reaped the rewards of his rigour and determination to succeed, two traits which had prevailed from an early age as he moved from door to door with bin bags in his hands back home. Seventeen of Grafite’s 28 goals in the Bundesliga season came after the halfway stage. He was capable of lasting for full matches and drove his way through the campaign with consistency and energy, owing chiefly to the gruelling methods implemented by his manager, who extracted a fearsome cutting edge from his game that no other would be able to. 

The hard yards were worth it for the forward, who described Magath as his most influential coach. “For me, he is the most important coach of my career,” Grafite said. “He brought me to Wolfsburg, and under him, I could celebrate my greatest successes. I owe him a lot.” 

His younger, more impressionable strike partner Džeko, would also enjoy the benefits of the boss’s focus upon physical conditioning. Akin to the trajectory of his older attacking companion, the Bosnian scored an enormous portion of his goals in the second half of the Bundesliga season. He found the net on 21 occasions, a remarkable return from just 17 outings, having scored only five in the first half of fixtures.

Džeko’s superb form, complemented by the selfless running and clinical nature of Grafite along with Misimović’s outstanding vision and decision-making, saw him fail to score in only three Bundesliga matches from 7 February until the end of the season. The only games he drew blanks in were the 3-0 win away at Arminia Bielefield, the 2-1 victory against Bayer Leverkusen at home, and lastly, a surprise 2-0 defeat at the hands of Energie Cottbus on the road. Having netted a goal on average every 101 minutes, the attacker was phenomenal as Wolfsburg lifted the title, and it came as a surprise to very few as he scooped the 2009 Bundesliga Players’ Player of the Year award. 

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However, it wasn’t just Džeko who earned honours for his exploits in a memorable season for Die Wölfe. Grafite’s contributions were hailed, and he too secured individual recognition, as he was crowned the 2009 Footballer of the Year in Germany. He was only the third foreign player to have achieved this feat at the time, with Aílton securing the first in 2004 for his efforts at Werder Bremen and Bayern legend Franck Ribéry winning the award in 2008. 

Grafite was a phenom throughout the campaign, and his ruthless edge and unforgiving nature in front of goal was most prominent. However, upon reflection and the neutral recollection, what is perspicuously remembered is his magnificent goal against Bayern Munich. In a rampant 5-1 win for Wolfsburg at the Volkswagen Arena as they stole a march on their title rivals for the first time that season, the Brazilian netted a scandalous goal to not only add to his tally, but unequivocally embarrass the team that had cut ties with his current boss Magath just two and a half years before. 

With the scoreline heavily in Wolfsburg’s favour at 4-1 – Grafite had scored once and Džeko twice – the Brazilian picked the ball up on the left-hand side and began to drive at the Bayern defence. Already exhausted from their failed attempts to keep the hosts away from Michael Rensing’s goal, the imperious forward taunted them, turning inside and out, flicking the ball from the outside of his right boot to its instep, slaloming past challenges and mesmerising the reigning champions with his footwork. He pulled Andreas Ottl and Christian Lell from side to side, leaving them confused and disoriented before briskly sweeping the ball beyond the reach of the onrushing Rensing. 

The chance appeared to have gone begging as he continued to drag the ball across the face of goal, and Bayern’s defensive duo Breno and Philipp Lahm had narrowed their positioning to attempt to put Grafite under pressure. In a season such as this, however, it was as though the forward was unaware of what psychological impacts big games could inflict. He retained his composure and remained the calmest man in the Volkswagen Arena to audaciously backheel the ball beyond Jürgen Klinsmann’s side’s defensive structure, past the desperate challenge of Ottl – still spinning from the Brazilian’s vivacious close control – and into the bottom corner.

It was a goal worthy of winning any game, and it was rightfully recognised as one of the best to have been scored in 2009. For the inaugural Puskás award, Grafite ranked third, with his stunning individual effort bettered only by Cristiano Ronaldo’s goal for Manchester United against Porto and Andrés Iniesta’s strike for Barcelona against Chelsea, both of which came in the Champions League. 

The backheel was a microcosm of Wolfsburg’s attitude throughout the season. They were unconditionally fearless, approached every game as though they were the favourites and oozed confidence whenever they surged forward. Grafite’s goal derided the most illustrious, historic club in German football and made a mockery of their dominance, at least for one, awe-inspiring season. 

Wolfsburg’s victory over Bayern came in the midst of their ten-game streak of consecutive wins. Their consistent form towards the end of the campaign saw them defend their lead at the top of the Bundesliga, with Grafite scoring ten goals and Džeko helping himself to 11 during this period. Magath’s entire coaching philosophy is built upon the basis of discipline, structure and intensity, but having provided Wolfsburg with the game plan to succeed and the licence to play with greater freedom in the final third, the Magic Triangle cast its spell on the Bundesliga. 

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His tactical nous and man-management proved essential in the team’s title win before he sought pastures new and joined Schalke ahead of the 2009/10 campaign. Magath played to the strengths of the options at his disposal: he placed an impetus on aggressive runs and intense pressing to achieve numerical superiority in dangerous zones of the pitch, where the ball could be retrieved to benefit the creation of clear-cut opportunities. 

His sterling work in Lower Saxony was hailed by a footballing great of the country. Franz Beckenbauer stated that Magath transformed “an average team into champions” during the 2008/09 season, as his beloved Bayern were pipped to the title in extraordinary circumstances.

Grafite, the more athletic and faster of the attacking pairing, would often occupy a centre-back when his teammates were on the ball or drift into wide spaces in an attempt to disorganise the opposition’s defensive structure by pulling his marker out of position. This would vacate space for Misimović or Džeko to exploit and enable positional rotation when the trio moved upfield. 

While the boss demanded no less than 100 percent from his players, he did instruct Džeko particularly to act as a target man and poacher first and foremost. “In the beginning, I often came back to the middle line and wanted to have the ball here and there,” the forward recalled. “Magath said to me, ‘Edin, what are you doing? You have to score goals. I want to see you in the penalty area. I’m not interested in anything else.’”

He did, however, insist that the young attacker was not exempt from the constraints of the pressing mechanisms that the manager had set for his team. The Bosnian alluded to how his former boss utilised video analysis to paint a picture of what he expected of the precocious forward. “You cannot lose a ball. And if the ball is 15 yards away, you have to run and get that ball”, Džeko said. “Magath showed us videos and said, ‘Oh, Edin, look, you’re standing there, the ball is 15 yards away, and you have the chance to get the ball. And what are you doing? You stop.’” 

Magath, in spite of his rapid decline as a manager, knew exactly how to get the very best from his players, and his tactical work at Wolfsburg was masterful. The Magic Triangle lit the league up with their chemistry and productivity, and the foundations of a resilient defensive core behind them allowed the team to outscore their opponents with exceptional regularity. 

Wolfsburg’s 2008/09 triumph in the Bundesliga will long be remembered and reminisced upon by Die Wölfe supporters and aficionados of the division. Their success was, in hindsight, made all the more pertinent by their failure to ever truly return to the dizzy heights of the summit. 

The club subsequently entered into an exciting period as they geared up for their first-ever involvement in the Champions League. They would do so without Magath, however, following his move to Schalke, and Armin Veh was appointed after impressing at Stuttgart. Things did not go to plan, however, as he was relieved of his duties in January 2010 and replaced by Lorenz-Günther Köstner on an interim basis until the end of the campaign, before Englishman Steve McClaren took the reins.

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Wolfsburg were struck back down to earth as they finished eighth on the Bundesliga table, consequentially failing to qualify for any European competition for the following seaso. They also exited the Champions League at the group stages despite memorable wins against CSKA Moscow and Beşiktaş. 

The influence of Wolfsburg’s previously lethal strike pairing would wane somewhat, but they remained threatening. Grafite found the back of the net 11 times in the Bundesliga after his staggering 28 goal return in the previous season, and he still made headlines. The Brazilian, on Wolfsburg’s Champions League debut and his own, scored a hat-trick as the German club defeated CSKA 3-1. 

Grafite did end up drifting into obscurity once more, however. After scoring nine times in Lower Saxony in league fixtures during the 2010/11 season, he departed for Al-Ahli in the United Arab Emirates before joining Qatari outfit Al Sadd. He then returned to his homeland of Brazil for two spells at Santa Cruz, with a brief stint at Atlético Paranaense sandwiched in between, as he proceeded to call time on his playing career. 

The striker’s rise from the streets of São Paulo to glory was made more remarkable perhaps because of how unexpected his success was. As the saying goes, the best things in life come when they are least expected, and Wolfsburg struck gold when they recruited Grafite, who Magath and his assistant Hollerbach were initially unsure of.

While the attacker began to fade in the latter stages of his footballing career, Džeko had no such trouble and went on to maximise his ability. He scored 22 goals in the 2009/10 season, and Wolfsburg were still a force to be reckoned with despite their shortcomings, with Misimović also setting up another 15 goals for his teammates throughout. 

Džeko continued to flourish at the Volkswagen Arena and saw his tremendous consistency and form rewarded in the January transfer window of 2011 when Manchester City landed him for €32m as they sought to monopolise football in England, much the same as Bayern thought they had in Germany. He helped the Premier League giants win two top-flight titles; an argument can certainly be made to suggest that the Bosnian is one of the most underrated strikers to have played in the division. He was sold to Serie A outfit Roma in 2015.

The career trajectories of both forwards certainly took differing paths, but they played instrumental roles in one of European football’s greatest improbable triumphs. Wolfsburg broke free from the shackles of their underdog status to not just give the country’s powerhouses a run for their money but outsprint them all the way to the final hurdle and across the finish line. 

Having overcome their respective personal hardships, Grafite and Edin Džeko emerged as one of Germany’s meanest, most exceptional partnerships to date. The two unlikely heroes stole hearts, minds and the Bundesliga crown away from Bayern Munich. As evidenced by the past decade, that in itself has proven to be an almost insurmountable task, but Wolfsburg made the footballing world believe again in 2009.

By Luke Osman @LukeOsmanRS

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