Top 5 surprise Bundesliga title winners
With Union Berlin top of the Bundesliga, Freiburg and Hoffenheim joining Borussia Dortmund in the top four and 10-in-a-row defending champions Bayern Munich in fifth after seven rounds of fixtures, is a shock title win in the offing? Stranger things have happened...
bundesliga.com recounts the top five surprise champions of the Bundesliga era...
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Wolfsburg had enjoyed a solid first year under Felix Magath, finishing fifth in 20007/08. They ended it 22 points behind his former team Bayern, but the following season they were to stun the champions.
A 4-2 loss at Bayern on Matchday 9 - the first of three defeats in five games - left the Wolves ninth. They were still in that position on Matchday 13, but with only five wins from 13 matches - and trailing leaders Bayer Leverkusen and Hoffenheim by nine points - becoming German champions seemed an unrealistic prospect. All the more so at that halfway stage, when their position in the table and gap to joint-leaders Hoffenheim and Bayern remained the same.
The Wolves were a different animal after the winter break, however. They won 10 games in a row from Matchday 19 on - including a decisive 5-1 home hammering of Jürgen Klinsmann’s Bayern on Matchday 26. That rout - featuring a famous backheeled goal from Brazilian attacker Grafite - put Wolfsburg top of the standings on goal difference.
In the two games after that Sascha Riether and Grafite both got a winner with five minutes to go - at Borussia Mönchengladbach and at home to Leverkusen respectively - to make sure Wolfsburg built on that victory over their title rivals.
With three games to go, Magath’s men had Bayern - now coched by Jupp Heynckes - behind them on goal difference. They finished in emphatic style, though, scoring 13 goals in wins over Dortmund (3-0), Hannover (0-5) and Werder Bremen (5-1).
Grafite (28 goals in only 25 games) and Edin Dzeko (26 in 32) scored 54 goals between them to end the campaign as the two leading goalscorers in the Bundesliga. Both players were also in double figures for assists.
New No. 10 Zvjezdan Misimovic had arrived from Nuremberg in the close season, and the influential Bosnia-Herzegovina playmaker got seven goals and 20 assists. Wolfsburg got 80 goals - nine more than anyone else.
Further back the Wolves could count on Swiss goalkeeper Diego Benaglio, while Italian World Cup winner Andrea Barzagli started every game at centre-back. Fellow summer signing Christian Gentner featured in every game - starting 32 - and captain Josue missed only one, making for a settled midfield. Japan’s Makoto Hasebe - still playing in 2022/23 at Eintracht Frankfurt - played in 25 matches.
The Wolves’ first ever title came courtesy of 21 wins and six draws from 34 matches, with Magath’s team edging out Bayern by two points.
Watch: The top 5 unexpected Bundesliga champions
Borussia Dortmund, 2010/11
Dortmund finished fifth in 2009/10 and lost on the opening day of the new campaign, but Jürgen Klopp's youthful squad quickly recovered to chalk up consecutive victories over VfB Stuttgart, Wolfsburg and Schalke.
BVB were put to the test on Matchday 10, when two young coaches - nowadays seen as among the best in the world - met in Mainz. Thomas Tuchel had succeeded Klopp at his old club, but the master got the better of the apprentice as Dortmund went clear on points for the first time thanks to a 2-0 victory.
Dortmund's win over Mainz - where Klopp had spent the best part of two decades as a player and then head coach - was one of 14 in 15 league matches after the Matchday 1 loss to Leverkusen. They were 10 points clear at Christmas and 12 ahead the chasing pack with 10 games to go.
If ever there was a sign that this season was different, it came on Matchday 24. Dortmund won in Munich for the first time in 19 years, leaving Bayern in fourth following a 3-1 victory.
Although Leverkusen cut the gap to five, Dortmund recovered from a run of five points from a possible 12 to seal the title with two games to spare following a 2-0 home win against Nuremberg. Robert Lewandowski - who ended his first season in Germany with eight league goals - cleverly lifted in the second shortly before half-time.
Midway through the second half, the noise levels increased in the stands when news from Cologne started to filter through. The party really began - for the fans at least - when Dortmund's stadium announcer confirmed the rumour: title rivals Leverkusen were losing.
"My heart was beating like crazy," Klopp recalled many years later of the moment he heard that scoreline. Hummels, meanwhile, described being "covered in goosebumps from top to bottom" in the final quarter of the game.
"It's one of the most beautiful days," then BVB sporting director Michael Zorc, who won the league with Dortmund as a player twice in the 1990s, said afterwards. "We've waited a very, very long time for this."
Watch: Jürgen Klopp & Co. reminisce
Werder Bremen, 2003/04
Bremen had built on their third league title in 1993 with a pair of DFB Cups in 1993/94 and 1998/99. The Green-Whites had narrowly avoided relegation in the latter campaign, with Thomas Schaaf - a one-club man who had been coaching there since retiring in 1995 - stepping up late in the season to steer the northerners to safety.
Brazilian striker Ailton had moved from Mexico to Germany in October 1998, and he was another man who would have a key role to play. He scored 12 goals or more in each of the next four seasons as Bremen stabilised in the top half of the table.
An unexpected and unprecedented success followed in 2003/04. Ailton started with two goals and an assist in a 3-0 win at Hertha Berlin, and when he notched another double on Matchday 8 - in a 5-3 triumph over Wolfsburg - Bremen led the table for the first time. They suffered their second defeat a week later, but - winning over neutrals with an attacking approach - they proceeded to score 15 goals while reeling off four consecutive wins.
That run ballooned into a 23-game unbeaten streak. Paul Stalteri blazed a trail for Canada at full-back, French centre-back Valerien Ismael excelled in his first year in German football and his compatriot Johan Micoud thrived during his second. A crafty and elegant attacking midfielder, Micoud got 10 goals himself and supplied eight assists while playing in behind Ailton (28 goals and nine assists) and Ivan Klasnic (13 goals and 11 assists).
Bremen were four points clear of Bayern at the halfway stage, and there were six points between the two teams when they visited Munich on Matchday 32. By half-time it was 3-0 to the visitors, with Klasnic pouncing on a mistake, Micoud casually lifting the ball over Oliver Kahn, and Ailton bending one into the top corner from outside the box. A 3-1 success made Bremen champions.
The Green-Whites lost their final two of matches for a record of 22 wins, eight draws and four defeats. Not since 1980/81 - when Karl-Heniz Rummenigge hit 29 for Bayern - had a Bundesliga player scored at least 28 goals, and with Ailton leading the way Bremen were by some distance the league’s topscorers with 79.
Ailton became the first foreign player to be named Germany’s Footballer of the Year as a result, having registered six goals in the DFB Cup for good measure. He didn’t score in the final but Schaaf’s stylish side - captained by Frank Baumann - beat Alemannia Aachen 3-2 with Tim Borowski (two goals) and Klasnic on the scoresheet. It was the first league and cup double in Bremen’s history.
VfB Stuttgart, 2006/07
Stuttgart had finished ninth in the table - 32 points behind champions Bayern - in 2005/06. Armin Veh replaced Giovanni Trapattoni as head coach in February 2006, and for his first full season in charge he was joined at the club by Mexican pair Ricardo Osorio and Pavel Pardo.
Right-back Osario and holding midfielder Pardo - who started all but one game - would prove vital to an unlikely title bid. So, too, would youngsters Sami Khedira and Mario Gomez.
Things didn’t go too well initially. The Swabians lost 3-0 at home to Nuremberg on the opening day, and by Matchday 6 a young team had conceded 13 goals and collected only eight points. Crucially, though, they were within touching distance of the top five - who were all only two points better off. Stuttgart won five and drew one of their next six games to go first, but by the midway point they were in fourth - four points behind pacesetters Bremen and Schalke.
A 1-0 defeat at Schalke on Matchday 26 had Veh’s team seven points behind the home side with eight games to go. But the Royal Blues - who had never won the Bundesliga - began to feel the pressure.
Stuttgart, meanwhile, started racking up points. Brazilian striker Cacau struck twice in the 2-0 victory over Bayern on Matchday 30, and their winning streak would extend to seven on the penultimate day. They trailed 2-1 on the hour in Bochum but 21-year-old forward Gomez returned from a seven-game absence to score his team-high 14th goal of the season and Cacau then got his 13th to win it. Schalke had won four and lost three during the same spell, meaning Stuttgart went top of the table by two points going into the final day.
The club’s two previous titles had come in dramatic fashion, and this would be no different. Schalke led 2-0 early against Arminia Bielefeld while Stuttgart went behind against Energie Cottbus - and at that stage the title was within Schalke’s grasp.
A brilliant Thomas Hitzlsperger volley had Stuttgart level before half-time, however, and on 63 minutes 20-year-old midfielder Khedira adjusted to head home the winner from Antonio da Silva’s cross.
Stuttgart missed out on a double - losing against Nuremberg after extra-time in the DFB Cup decider - but their eight-game winning run to seal the title will be hard to beat.
When Kaiserslauteren were one of three teams relegated at the end of the 1995/96 campaign, few would have expected them to create history just two years later. While they did recover a week after their league fate was sealed to win the 1996 DFB Cup final against Karlsruher, a swift return to the top flight was the best that fans of the Red Devils could have been hoping for afterwards.
Otto Rehhagel would achieve that and much more. The former Kaiserslautern player had led Bremen to Bundesliga titles in 1987/88 and 1992/93, but he too was looking to bounce back after a disappointing spell in charge of Bayern Munich. He returned to Kaiserslautern as head coach in July 1996, and they coasted to the Bundesliga 2 title by 10 points - finishing the campaign with a remarkable 7-6 win over Meppen.
The 1990/91 German champions announced their return to the top flight in style when Michael Schjönberg got the only goal with 10 minutes remaining at Bayern on the opening day. They followed it with a 1-0 home win over Hertha Berlin, when Olaf Marschall scored the first of his 21 league goals that season. He grabbed two more in the 3-0 win over Schalke on Matchday 4, with Swiss midfielder Ciriaco Sforza also on the mark as his side went top for the first time. It was a position they never relinquished.
At the halfway stage, Kaiserslautern had a four-point lead over defending champions Bayern. That lead stretched to seven when they secured a 2-0 home win over their title rivals thanks to a Dietmar Hamann own goal just before half-time and a late strike from Marian Hristov.
Having remained on board after relegation, club captain and 1990 FIFA World Cup winner Andreas Brehme would feature only five times in his final season. It mattered little, though, since Czech stopper Miroslav Kadlec commanded the back three and his team developed a healthy habit of scoring late goals to swing games in their favour.
Future Bayern, Leverkusen and Germany star Michael Ballack had joined the club from Chemnitzer in the close season, and the young midfielder played his part with 16 appearances. Marschall’s goals, 11 more from Jürgen Rische and nine assists from No. 10 Sforza helped Kaiserslautern wrap up the title with a penultimate-day 4-0 hammering of Wolfsburg.
Rehhagel’s side lost only four games from 34, and they remain the only promoted side ever to be crowned Bundesliga champions.
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