Wolfsburg fans still wax lyrical about the 2008/09 campaign, when the men from Lower Saxony seemingly came from nowhere to seal a maiden Bundesliga title. But just a year-and-a-half later, the warm memories are starting to fade and harsh reality has set in at the club. Star duo Edin Dzeko and Zvjezdan Misimovic have left for Manchester City and Galatasaray respectively, and coach Felix Magath is plotting a new course to glory with top flight rivals Schalke.
On the plus side, one of the Bundesliga’s best goalkeepers has kept faith with the Wolves. First-choice Switzerland custodian Diego Benaglio had spells with Grashoppers Zurich, VfB Stuttgart and Nacional in the sunny surroundings of Madeira, before arriving at the ‘VW works club’ in 2008, making an instant and sizeable contribution as the men in green and white marched to the title.
Playing and coaching upheaval
Benaglio has performed at a consistently high level again this term. "People who know me well appreciate that I don’t like discussing my own performance,” he told FIFA.com. "Obviously, I’m delighted when people say I’ve done well, but the most important thing for me at the moment is how we’re doing as a team. I just try and help the side by performing in every game."
At the time of writing, Wolfsburg boast the sixth-best defence in the league, but 11th place in the standings is not where the club expected to be at this stage. "There’s no question about it: it’s been an unsatisfactory season so far. We have a new coaching team, new players, and new ideas, and it all still has to come together. On top of that, a lot of our players were at the World Cup last summer, so the squad didn’t gather until just before the campaign. We’re still feeling the effects of all that."
The 27-year-old had little to celebrate at club level over the past 12 months, but his private life and his international career have compensated to a certain extent. As it happens, appearing at the FIFA World Cup™ in South Africa was not the highlight of 2010. "The best moment was definitely the birth of our daughter Melija Naya in October", he explained. "There’s nothing better than cradling her in my arms. Obviously, the World Cup was very special for me as a pro, although we were extremely disappointed about going home so early.”
It's a difficult phase at the club, but if we stick together, I’m convinced we’ll come through it.
“Overall, the World Cup was a terrific experience and our opening match against Spain was definitely the highlight [Switzerland won 1-0]. Everything worked out perfectly for us on the day. But ultimately, we were hugely disappointed about going out. It was a feeling similar to 2008, when we were knocked out in the group stage of the EURO in our own country. All of a sudden, the tournament’s over for you, and that’s hard to accept."
Benaglio, who was discovered by former Dinamo Zagreb goalkeeping coach Milan Sarovic, has by no means abandoned the dream of making it through to the knockout stages of a FIFA World Cup, although Brazil 2014 is too far off for now, he says. "To be perfectly honest, I’m not thinking about it at the moment, because I’m totally focused on Wolfsburg. It was very special to play a major tournament on home soil in 2008, but every World Cup and EURO is a highlight, regardless of where it's held."
If the showdown in Brazil is still on the distant horizon, the next big event is UEFA EURO 2012 in Poland and Ukraine. The shot-stopper, first-choice for the Swiss since 2008, already has three major tournaments under his belt after featuring at the 2006 FIFA World Cup, EURO 2008 and last summer’s get-together in South Africa. However, a fourth major tournament appearance may not materialise, as the Swiss have opened their 2012 qualifying campaign with defeats to England and Montenegro, and just a single victory over Wales. Is the keeper fearful of missing out? "No. It's not been the start we wanted, but anything can happen yet."
United against adversity
Benaglio is a great believer in the skills and tactical nous of Swiss supremo Ottmar Hitzfeld, one of the world’s most successful head coaches, although he is loathe to weigh up and rank the coaches he has played under. "Fundamentally, I’ll never compare my coaches with one another. All I’ll say is that I’ve always learned things from different coaches with different philosophies, and that I’m coming on as a player right now under Steve McClaren."
The Bundesliga’s first English boss and his men are determined to improve their position in the table over the next few weeks and months, as Benaglio confirmed at the conclusion of the interview. "My goal is for Wolfsburg to return to winning ways as quickly as possible. It's a difficult phase at the club, but if we stick together, I’m convinced we’ll come through it."