VfB Stuttgart suffered an opening-day derby defeat on their return to the Bundesliga. They face the same challenges as other traditional German giants this season, a tightrope between tradition and modernity.
Stuttgart 2-3 Freiburg
(Kalajdzic 71', Wamangituka 81' – Petersen 8', Sallai 26', Grifo 48')
There are not many similarities between VfB Stuttgart and SC Freiburg, the two southwestern rivals who met on the opening day of the 2020-21 Bundesliga season.
On the one hand: Stuttgart, the five-time German champions from the industrial capital of the former kingdom of Württemberg. On the other, humble Freiburg from the sleepy, Black Forest town in the neighboring region of Baden. Together, they contest the Baden-Württemberg derby, the result of which on Saturday exposed the current sporting differences between the two clubs, as Freiburg ran out 3-2 winners.
The 8,000 home fans permitted inside Stuttgart's 60,000-capacity Mercedes-Benz-Arena didn't witness a complete capitulation from their team. On the contrary, the Swabians mounted a spirited second-half comeback and perhaps should have been awarded an injury-time penalty.
But Freiburg's 3-0 lead inside 50 minutes proved too much, and demonstrated the difference between a settled club which has established itself in the top-flight over the course of the last decade, punching above its weight thanks to outstanding management – and Stuttgart.
In the 13 years since winning the Bundesliga in 2007, Stuttgart have gone from European regulars to relegation strugglers, endured two relegations, celebrated two promotions, and gone through an emotional club restructuring.
All the while, products of the club's envied youth academy have flown the nest. Mario Gomez, Sami Khedira, Serge Gnabry, Joshua Kimmich, Timo Werner … it's been painful viewing for Stuttgart fans, and an opening-day derby defeat will not have helped.
"In recent years, it's definitely become a lot more difficult for traditional clubs to compete in an unbalanced financial competition," club president Claus Vogt tells DW.
Hamburg, for example, are facing a third season in the second division, along with Nuremberg. Kaiserslautern are in the third tier with 1860 Munich, who even endured a year in the Bavarian regional league. Cologne are constantly up and down, while Schalke endured a season from hell in 2019-20.
"These clubs and their supporters are still the foundation of football," says Vogt. "They have shaped our football culture down the years and it's through them and their auras that football has taken on an ever-greater social importance. We have to dedicate ourselves to the task of strengthening these traditional clubs in future."
Following their first relegation in 2016 and immediate re-promotion in 2017, Stuttgart aimed to do just that by separating their professional football operation into a limited company. The process, known as Ausgliederung, is common in German football and enables sponsors and investors to invest and acquire shares, although the clubs themselves must retain overall control in accordance with the 50+1 rule – of which Vogt is a strong advocate.
In Stuttgart, local automobile giants Daimler purchased 11.75% of VfB for €41.5 million ($48.9m) and further investors are expected to follow as the club look to capitalize on their location in one of Germany's richest regions.
"Ask someone who is not from Baden-Württemberg what they associate with it and they'll often say Daimler, Porsche and VfB Stuttgart. That goes to show the resonance and importance of VfB Stuttgart to our region," says Vogt, who is keen to see further local businesses come on board while ensuring that the fans retain 75% control.
"I hope we can bring together even more regional companies under the umbrella of VfB Stuttgart, companies which share our entrepreneurial Swabian spirit and our strong regional identity."
The plan sounds good, so good that 84% of Stuttgart's 71,500 members voted for the Ausgliederung despite staunch opposition from the club's active fan scene. But a second relegation in 2019 was certainly not part of the plan. Stuttgart were learning the hard way that money alone isn't enough; it had to be invested in the right structures and the right people.
The man tasked with overseeing that overhaul is club legend Thomas Hitzlsperger, a Bundesliga winner in 2007 and now club chairman and director in charge of sport, strategy and communications at the age of just 38.
"As a former footballer himself, Thomas Hitzlsperger brings with him all the important qualities that a club like VfB Stuttgart needs," says Vogt. "Over the course of their careers, elite athletes all have to prove their endurance, performance, mentality and hunger, and they have to be able to deal with pressure. Last season, Thomas proved he can do all of that."
Hitzlsperger landed a significant coup when former Borussia Dortmund head scout and Arsenal sporting director Sven Mislintat joined Stuttgart. His second coaching appointment, the American-born Italian Pellegrino Matarazzo, eventually led the team to promotion – although it was far from straightforward.
"Of course, we were favorites from the very start and we had the clear aim to go back up, and that inevitably created pressure," recalls Vogt. "But the most important thing was that everybody at the club remained calm, even in difficult moments. An important aim this season has to be to secure our survival as early as possible."
Hitzlsperger is on the same page, telling Die Welt: "We just want to stay up, nothing else matters." For some Stuttgart fans, such aims may appear overly modest for Germany's eighth largest football club in terms of membership, especially given the grand promises made ahead of the Ausgliederung. But they also reflect a short-term realism that is all too often missing elsewhere.
Stuttgart, despite their history, tradition, fan-base and economic potential, go into this season with the youngest squad in the Bundesliga. After veteran striker Mario Gomez (seven goals last season) hung up his boots and former German international Holger Badstuber was demoted to the reserves, the squad now has an average age of just 24.
With last season's top scorer Nicolas Gonzalez (14 goals) injured, goal-scoring responsibilities will fall to 20-year-old Congolese forward Silas Wamangituka, who scored the second on Saturday, and Daniel Didavi, the erstwhile Stuttgart academy product turned 30-year-old veteran who one suspects has never quite fulfilled his potential.
The coronavirus crisis has already seen the first team budget cut by €20 million ($24 million), while defenders Waldemar Anton (24, from Hannover) and Pascal Stenzel (24, from Freiburg) represent the only notable outfield additions.
But Hitzlsperger and Vogt are convinced that Stuttgart can go their own way, tapping into the economic strength of Baden-Württemberg and restoring VfB to where they feel they belong.
As Saturday's defeat showed, keeping such a young side in the division will be a substantial challenge for head coach Matarazzo, but, while Stuttgart fans might not like to admit it, Freiburg are proof that it is possible to survive in the Bundesliga and avoid the fates suffered by other traditional German giants.
That now has to be the aim for Stuttgart, too.