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The Superteam That May Be Selling Itself Short


The grounds for VfL Wolfsburg’s inferiority complex are thin, at best. This can be a club that has been crowned champion of Germany in five of the last six seasons. It has reached a minimum of the quarterfinals of the Women’s Champions League in every yr of the competition’s existence. It has made five finals, and won two of them.

Its squad drips with experience and talent: Alexandra Popp, the German talisman, and her international teammates Svenja Huth, Merle Frohms and Marina Hegering; Lena Oberdorf, arguably Europe’s most enjoyable young player; the seasoned Dutch international Jill Roord, restored to Germany after a few years away in England.

By any measure, Wolfsburg is a bona fide superpower, a dominant force domestically and a longstanding contender internationally. And yet even its players appear to have internalized the concept that they’re underdogs. A number of weeks ago, Popp herself suggested that Bayern Munich — Wolfsburg’s only serious rival for the German title — had began the season as “strong favorites, and that has been the case for the last couple of years.”

It will not be quite clear why anyone — let alone Popp, fully aware of the standard of player lining up alongside her on the sphere — should imagine that to be the case. Essentially the most obvious rationale is that the Bayern’s popularity, particularly in Germany, is such that it exerts a sort of reflexive gravity: It has sufficient weight that it’s able to bending light, and logic, around it.

As soon as Bayern began to speculate heavily in its women’s side, because it did around a decade ago, the natural assumption was that it might win. That’s what Bayern does, in spite of everything: It wins. It’s the club’s calling card, an inevitability threaded into its DNA. And to an extent, that’s true. Bayern has picked up three Bundesliga titles since 2015. It has been pretty much as good as its word. It has won. It has just not won as much as Wolfsburg.

And yet, in some way, the success of Popp and her teammates has still been overshadowed by the rise of Bayern. In reality, it is difficult to shake the sense that Wolfsburg’s location — and what might best be described as its nature — has not worked within the team’s favor.

Wolfsburg is a factory town, its identity certain up with Volkswagen, the town’s major employer and biggest claim to fame. Each the boys’s and ladies’s divisions of VfL Wolfsburg are even now regarded, on some subconscious level, as factory teams.

When the ladies’s side lifted its last Bundesliga title, Ralf Brandstätter, the chief executive of the automobile manufacturer, described the players as “personable and successful ambassadors for the club, for Wolfsburg and in fact for Volkswagen.” There will not be, it doesn’t should be said, anything especially glamorous about being seen as ambassadors for Volkswagen.

And European women’s soccer is undeniably drawn — at this stage — to glamour (a charge that may just as easily be laid at the boys’s game). The Champions League has, for a while, been the private fief of Lyon, a team whose recruitment strategy has long copied that of the Harlem Globetrotters: Its approach has been no more sophisticated than identifying one of the best players on the planet and understanding how much it might take to influence them to maneuver to the banks of the Rhone.

That model has bled down, not simply to Lyon’s great domestic rival, Paris St.-Germain, but to the moneyed plains of England’s Women’s Super League, where Manchester City, Chelsea and, more recently, Manchester United have used their uncontested financial benefits to draw enviable collections of one of the best players on this planet. Bayern has followed much the identical blueprint.

Even Barcelona, which prided itself on its homespun approach to success, its idiosyncratic, characteristic style and its inviolable principles, has been unable to withstand the pull of ladies’s soccer’s increasingly frenzied transfer market. Last summer, it made the English midfielder Kiera Walsh the costliest player on the planet.

In that context, a team like Wolfsburg — largely German, devoid of real star names (Popp and potentially Oberdorf apart) and based not in one among Europe’s grand metropoles but in a city ceaselessly caricatured as little greater than a production line surrounded by houses — is at all times more likely to struggle for the highlight.

Increasingly, though, Wolfsburg is becoming difficult to disregard. Tommy Stroot’s side is on track for one more Bundesliga title. If it might probably avoid defeat at Bayern this weekend and it might enter the house straight with a two-point lead at the highest of the table. A second straight European semifinal is on the cards, too, after a 1-0 win at P.S.G. this week.

A quiet confidence is taking root amongst Stroot’s squad that they don’t have anything to fear, even within the Champions League. “The one thing that may stop Wolfsburg winning it’s ourselves,” Popp told FIFA.com earlier this month.

Its victory in Paris, in front of a fervid, boisterous crowd, settled just a few of the ghosts of last season, when Stroot’s team froze in front of greater than 91,000 fans at Camp Nou, losing to Barcelona, 5-1, in the primary leg of their semifinal.

“We experienced the identical noise from the group at Barcelona last season,” said Dominique Janssen, the Dutch midfielder. “You are attempting to take that have away with you, and know that it gets easier the more it happens.”

The club won’t have lifted the Champions League trophy since 2014, but neither Lyon nor Barcelona looks quite as imposing this time around as they’ve in seasons past. Like Bayern, Chelsea and Arsenal, there’s a way at Wolfsburg that the sphere is leveling just just a little. It would consider itself as an underdog, however the superteam that everybody has forgotten, within the place that no person bothers to look, has no reason to feel inferior.

The final rule of thumb, with regards to prospective takeovers of major soccer teams, is that there’s an inverse correlation between heat and lightweight. The more public a suitor, the less likely they’re to succeed. Amongst executives commonly involved in these transactions, the dictum runs that the intense bidders are also the quietest.

All of which, in fact, has been upended by the continued process to search out a recent owner for Manchester United. As must have been expected, any interested party was made to sign a “strict” and “binding” nondisclosure agreement before being offered access to the club’s detailed financial accounts. (There may be a tautology here, obviously: Nondisclosure agreements are rarely described as “loose” or “really more of a tenet.”)

Still, it could be price checking the wording. It will not be just that the identities of the 2 leading contenders tussling for the club — Jim Ratcliffe, a petrochemical billionaire, and Sheikh Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani, the son of a former Qatari prime minister and ABSOLUTELY NOT linked to the Qatari state — have grow to be public. It’s that all the things else has, too.

It has been possible, the truth is, to follow this multibillion dollar transaction in surprisingly forensic detail. There have been statements to accompany the submission of their bids, in addition to ballpark figures of their valuations of the club. There have been details about when and where they’ve held further talks with United’s current hierarchy ahead of a really public — and completely artificial — deadline for offers. Ratcliffe was even photographed at Old Trafford along together with his negotiating team.

News organizations tend to not rail against transparency. The more people need to talk, the higher, particularly when it pertains to a club that commands as much interest as United. On this case, though, it could be price pausing to ask who advantages, exactly, from what would ordinarily be a faintly clandestine process playing out within the open.

For the contenders, it presents a probability to win hearts and minds, and maybe that is not any bad thing. For the Glazer family, the present owners, it’s a solution to smoke out as much interest as possible, and that’s entirely their prerogative. For Raine, the bank that has been tasked with overseeing the deal, it’s a probability to drive up the value, and by coincidence its commission.

Everyone involved, in other words, is using United — a club that regards itself, not without cause, as the most important sporting institution on this planet — for their very own ends. United is reduced to a mere asset, a trinket to be haggled over and horse-traded, a passive participant within the proxy wars of billionaires. And that, when it comes right down to it, is about pretty much as good a definition of recent soccer as you will discover.

Julian Nagelsmann at all times desired to be Bayern Munich manager. It was the job he coveted greater than some other during his meteoric rise, back when he was European soccer’s coming force, its baby-faced managerial prodigy, an outsider who was overturning conventional wisdom of what a coach should seem like, what steps they needed to take, how old they really should be.

When he left his first job, on the equally neophyte Hoffenheim, for RB Leipzig, it was with the express purpose of positioning himself to take charge at Bayern. Leipzig was his designated intermediate step, the place where he would go to get from here to there, to where he at all times desired to be.

And though the move worked, he never felt quite like a natural fit with Bayern Munich. The photographs, early on in his tenure, of him scooting around Bayern’s training facility at Sabenerstrasse on a hoverboard felt in some way jarring, a Silicon Valley tech bro on vacation at Neuschwanstein. There at all times appeared to be just a touch of unease within the air: a hunt for a mole here, an unwarranted, unedifying outburst there.

If the timing of his demise is curious — he was set to be fired on Friday, together with his team in second place within the Bundesliga, some extent behind its next opponent, and with a Champions League quarterfinal on the horizon — then the actual fact of it was not. Bayern places great stock in having a coach whose face matches. It’s a shifting, vague criterion, but one which condemned him in the long run. Nagelsmann never felt right, not quite.

His solace, in fact, will not be simply the Bundesliga title he picked up in his first and only full season in Munich — proof that no person fails at Bayern, not in any meaningful sense of the word — however the indisputable fact that he’ll have the ability to parlay that have into something else soon enough.

Bayern, it seems, is not going to be his final destination. Nagelsmann will now be a contender for any of the handful of elite jobs that becomes available. Once a manager has broken through that ceiling, in spite of everything, it quickly transforms right into a floor. The perfect evidence for that’s the man who’s reportedly replacing him: Thomas Tuchel, fired by Paris St.-Germain and fired by Chelsea, but hired immediately by Bayern. For Nagelsmann, Munich will probably be just one other step along the way in which.

We’re moving away from the numerous and varied failings of penalties and onto socks this week, courtesy of Shawn Donnelly. “What’s the cope with these Premier League players’ socks?” he asked, within the tone (I’m assuming) of Jerry Seinfeld. “Half of them appeared to be ripped up within the back. Is that this a recent style, or can the sportswear brands not produce a sock strong enough for the trials of the Premier League?”

That is an excellent query, and in a rare stroke of fine fortune, it’s one I can actually answer. It’s to do with reducing pressure on the calf muscles. Kyle Walker, the Manchester City defender, seems to have been the pioneer on this particular realm of what we may as well, for want of a greater word, call science, and now it is nearly de rigueur.

Moshe Arenstein, meanwhile, makes a superbly coherent point of logic. “As we enjoy this great a part of the yr with amazing Champions and Europa League games, why on earth would the ultimate game be only one game? Isn’t one of the best a part of this tournament the house and away? Can we not deserve a final that has two games as well?”

That, in fact, was exactly how one European tournament functioned until relatively recently: the UEFA Cup, the forerunner of the Europa League, only switched to a single, showpiece final in 1998. (The Intercontinental Cup, the predecessor of the Club World Cup, ran as a home-and-away affair until 1980.)

This text will not be above a touch of misty-eyed nostalgia, in fact, but on this one I err on the side of modernity: there’s an appeal to a two-legged final, but there is no such thing as a drama greater than a one-and-done, surely?

And Tom Gantz, rightly, takes issue with my description of dead-rubber group stage games within the expanded men’s World Cup as being “pointless soccer.”

“Pointless to whom, exactly?” Tom asks. “The prospect to observe one of the best soccer players once every 4 years is something I won’t pass up even when the end result of each game doesn’t actually affect progression within the tournament.”

I’ll cede that time as graciously as possible: No soccer match is really pointless, is it? And I say that as a person who once attended a bunch stage game in a minor cup competition wherein each teams had already been eliminated, and yet it resulted in a penalty shootout anyway.

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