There’s a sign at Bad Cannstatt train station that reads: “Don’t talk to strangers, they might become friends.” That phrase at the nearest S-Bahn stop to the Mercedes-Benz Arena is emblematic of not just Stuttgart as a place, but the football club.
VfB Stuttgart finished seventh in their first season back in the Bundesliga, only to be denied a Europa League spot by Eintracht Frankfurt’s shock DFB Cup win over Bayern Munich. That achievement is made even more remarkable when it’s considered that Hannes Wolf, who guided them to promotion as champions of 2. Bundesliga was sacked at the end of January. Tayfun Korkut has been the unlikely hero, taking the side from Baden-Wurttemberg to their best league position since 2012.
The team have always produced quality players, whether from the infamous academy or by nurturing youngsters that have been acquired on-loan. In the 2017/18 campaign, they had seven players who had spent some of their formative years in the youth ranks and another four that had joined from other clubs on a temporary basis.
The German national side has benefitted greatly from this surprising hotbed of talent. Joshua Kimmich, Antonio Rudiger, Sami Khedira, Sebastian Rudy, Mario Gomez and Timo Werner have all been included in the final 23 for the World Cup in Russia, whilst goalkeeper Bernd Leno was one of those who just missed out. The squad that travelled to South Africa eight years ago contained seven players that had spent some of their career at the club.
German coach Joachim Low played for and managed Stuttgart, which perhaps partly explains the reason he has such focus on their former graduates. Gomez and Holger Badstuber both returned there last summer after successful careers at Bayern Munich and at international level. Philipp Lahm had two years at the club in a loan move from Bayern, which helped him refine his ability under less pressure.
“When I left Bayern, I had heard his name and about him,” says former Germany midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger. “He was a good talent. Like many Bayern academy players were at the time. I followed his progress because he went on-loan to Stuttgart and he played in the Champions League.”
“Then, we played in the national team together. It’s not hard to spot that talent when you play with him. You immediately know that he is someone who can do almost everything on the pitch that he wants too. Unbelievable defender and he can play midfield.”
Hitzlsperger was part of the last Stuttgart team to win the Bundesliga title 11 years ago, when he and Khedira scored the goals that gave them the 2-1 victory over Energie Cottbus. He was also in the German squad that finished third in the 2006 World Cup on home turf.
“The final game of the World Cup was in Stuttgart, so that was great,” adds Hitzlsperger. “When we arrived from the airport on the way to the hotel, people were along the street. It was the year before we won the Bundesliga, so I got a taste of what this city can be like.”
Markus Babbel and Cacau were also members of Armin Veh’s championship winning team and featured for Germany. The club’s first stadium now has a fast food outlet in its place called ‘Chef’s Ibiss’ which is just one mile away from their current home. Its owner is a huge Die Roten fan that says “there was a real party” when the club won the league.
“We just tried to grab a bottle of champagne as quickly as possible and not talk much,” continues Hitzlsperger. “It was chaos, it was one of those moments that we weren’t really prepared for. There was a statement: ‘Let’s not talk about celebrations before the game, we have to make sure that we win it.’
“Mercedes organised a tour from the stadium to the city centre, it was just madness, people standing in the streets. At the ground, people wanted to interview all of us and then there was the handing over of the trophy. It seemed to take forever. It was just pure joy.”
“When I first arrived, some of the players said: ‘The fans they moan really quickly, they have high standards and they expect so much of you.’ And that was different, there was so much joy and I didn’t recognise the people anymore. That was so good to see because we had the whole of the city behind us and going absolutely mental.”
The expectation from Stuttgart supporters means that these youngsters can’t hide, whilst they don’t desire the same level of performances that would be expected at Bayern or Borussia Dortmund. Germany will be hoping for similar scenes next month across the country, as they aim to retain the World Cup. If they can achieve that incredible feat, then Stuttgart will have played a huge role in their success once more.