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  6. “The Volkswagen Arena is still a real gem”

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“The Volkswagen Arena is still a real gem”

For VfL Wolfsburg, the year of 2017 has been a time of anniversaries. The Wolves started playing professional soccer 25 years ago, have been a member of Germany’s top league for 20 consecutive years now – and have played their home games in the Volkswagen Arena for 15 years.

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A view of the construction site: the unfinished stadium in 2002.

Interview with Klaus Fuchs

Klaus Fuchs, the Managing Director of VfL Wolfsburg from 1999 to 2008, did not just serve as the supervisor of the project to build the new stadium. He is considered to be its spiritual father. In the following interview, Fuchs talks about fans in snowsuits, deluged locker rooms and Champagne from Denmark.

Klaus Fuchs, have you ever built a house?

You bet. Three times, in fact. Once in the 1970s, then again in the 1990s and a third time after we settled down in Wolfsburg.

How does building a house compare with building a soccer stadium?

There is really no comparison between the two. You face all sorts of challenges when you erect a stadium. Building the roof, for instance, is a really complex job. The entire inner-structure is just as difficult. It has to be designed in such a way that fans can circulate easily. If you do it right, you will not have too many stadium stewards on hand for game day. You also have to keep your eye on the future so that you can stay on top of the latest trend. Things are much different for a house.

During this interview, we want to talk about the story behind the construction of the Volkswagen Arena. Where should be begin?

That would be around 1997, when the team was promoted to the first division in German soccer, the Bundesliga. VfL manager Peter Pander and the head of soccer operations at the time, Wolfgang Heitmann, drew up the initial plans and had gotten the ball rolling. They brought me in at this point to turn the idea into a reality.

What were some of the initial ideas?

The VfL management team based their original thinking on two stadiums: Schalke and Amsterdam. This was the direction they wanted to take. That is, they wanted to seat an unrealistic number of 60,000 fans. A retractable roof was planned as well. This would have been way too much for Wolfsburg and would have caused problems regarding refinancing. Nevertheless, it is better to think too big than too small, initially.

It definitely had to be a new facility? Expanding the VfL Stadium was not an option?

No, there was no alternative. At the time, thought was given to the possibility of using the Elsterweg Stadium for different urban-planning purposes. Bundesliga soccer had no future at a venue that lacked parking and required fans to drive through neighborhoods. It was obvious that we needed a new stadium. The Allerpark quickly became the place we wanted.

From the moment that the initial decision is made to the groundbreaking ceremony: What does it take to build a stadium?

You need majorities and we had them – fortunately. Broad political support for the project was not to be taken for granted. But all parties approved the plan. Professor Rolf Schnellecke, who was Lord Mayor at the time, was the driving force behind the work. The city itself actually played a huge role in the construction project. Originally, a three-party form of financing provided by the city, the Group and the team was considered. But Volkswagen pulled out. The city then offered to provide 50 percent of the construction costs as a one-time subsidy. In return, the operator had to agree to release the city from paying any operating costs. In this difficult situation, this was one of the two keys to success.

The widely held assumption that the Group gave the VfL a fancy stadium is wrong, isn't it?

You can certainly say that the Group contributed nothing to the construction costs. The remaining 50 percent was financed with a loan. Nonetheless, Volkswagen played a major role because it vouched for the creditworthiness of its subsidiary. In Germany, the VfL is something called a registered association. As such, it never would have been granted the loan. We could do this only by integrating the limited liability soccer company into the Group. Another key factor was a naming-rights agreement that made a major contribution to the financing of the loan. Even if the team was relegated to the second division, a real possibility at one point, the agreement would have provided support to the VfL. Volkswagen’s decision to become the majority owner was a form of life insurance policy for the VfL.

What was the second key to success?

Even before the construction decision was made, I issued a call for bids to market the stadium – just for the heck of it. The offers that came in were so high that the money could cover a major portion of the financing. This eased the way for a number of important decisions during this sensitive phase. The economic risk that the stadium owner Wolfsburg AG took as a joint subsidiary of the city and state of Lower Saxony was minimized as a result.

Nonetheless: Some teams have gotten in way over their heads when they built new stadiums or expanded older ones. Were any irrational decisions made when the stadium was being planned?

I think we took a very responsible approach to the project. From the time we planned the stadium until the time we moved into it, we worked in a very cost-conscious manner. Wolfsburg AG even requested a specifications document from me in order to see whether we were planning to order golden faucets or had kept our feet on the ground. In addition to the planning rounds, we repeatedly thought about ways to save money and constantly looked for lower priced alternatives. As a result, we pulled off the feat of building the Volkswagen Arena more or less within budget.

It all sounds pretty stressful. And soccer still had to be played, too. Did you wife see you at all back then?

She maintains that she raised our children by herself (laughs). Unfortunately, there is a kernel of truth to it. My colleagues on the management team, Wolfgang Hotze and Peter Pander, completely covered my back. As a result, I could focus on the construction phase in spite of the intense daily work schedule. But I also have to say that the stadium construction project was close to my heart. Work-related stress can take on very different forms. This was an exceptionally euphoric form of stress. I really enjoyed taking on this challenge.

As we look back on the project today, the tempo seems to have been breath-taking: The stadium was ready for use in just 18 months. Was anything delayed at all?

Yes, of course. Weather really messed things up. You should never underestimate the wind in Wolfsburg. We had to stop work because of storms that occasionally knocked in entire walls. A crane even collapsed one time. Fortunately, no one was hurt. We were biting our nails. The opening date of December 13 was really ambitious. But we had to meet the deadline because we had already sold half-season tickets. When the day finally arrived, the cleaning crews slipped out of the stadium on one side while the guests entered on the other side. But, when you add everything up, it all turned out well because the commitment and team spirit of everyone involved in the project were high. Because we met the deadline, I ended up winning a bottle of Champagne. Our team captain at the time, Claus Thomsen, said we would never make it. He traveled all the way from Denmark, even though he had ended his career, to pay off the bet.

Speaking of December: Couldn’t you have arranged for the stadium to be completed in a better month? It was pretty chilly at the opening ceremony.

(laughs) That's the way the winter is, unfortunately. There was certainly a chill in the air. For the “a-ha” concert, we had to set up extra heaters so that the band could play at all. But the atmosphere was great anyway. People showed up in snowsuits and other original cold-weather gear. It was a great sight to see. The fact that the temperature was minus 17 degree Celsius turned the day into a truly memorable event. Anybody who was there will never forget it.

You said that everything was finished right on time. Did everything work smoothly after the opening ceremony?

You can't say that it did, no. We had to deal with about 25 burst pipes in the first weeks after the opening because the pipe-heating system was not hooked up. The contractor forgot to do it. I remember it all very well. I had to go to the stadium on Christmas because the entry area to the locker rooms was filled with water. We also pushed our organizational limits, in places like ticketing. Colleagues really had their hands full as they dealt with the dual burden created by a new computer system and the small staff. Two employees quit after the opening game because everything was so chaotic.

Back in the days of the Elsterweg Stadium, the office had 12 employees. Today, the VfL has about 180 employees. How could you have known at the time that the club could grow so much?

We had a 12-member staff. That’s true. We also hired five people who joined us when we moved into the stadium. Of course, you can't compare this by today's business standards. This is just what I meant when I was talking about future developments: We designed the structural shells that were initially not used in such a way that further expansion was possible. This was the case for the entire mezzanine level, that is, the area where additional offices, Club45 and Halle09 are now located. Other additions have been made over the years as well, including the Fan House and the AOK Stadium. Originally, the academy for youth players, which is now based in the Porsche Stadium, was to move to the arena, too. This plan was dropped, as it should have been.

Gem:
“The stadium has never stood still. It is really a living and breathing organism,” Klaus Fuchs says.

When you move from one apartment to another one, you call on your good friends and rent a hauling truck. How do you pull off the relocation from one soccer stadium to another one?

Given the small staff, it was a fairly small problem in logistical terms. What really had us on edge was the new telephone system: Would it work? But the much more important question was: How would the fans react? You needed to be very diplomatic here. You had to consider wishes expressed in working groups while also discussing what was actually possible. The season ticket holders from the Elsterweg Stadium were to have a priority for tickets in the new stadium. We invested a lot of time and effort here. Over a period of many weeks, we led groups of 200 to 300 people through the stadium to the accompaniment of classical music and explained the concept. I led every tour and answered questions. These were memorable evenings.

How does it feel when you move out of your home after 55 years?

For me personally, I was really looking forward to the move. But people who had spent many years there were certainly a little down in the dumps. We organized the legendary march of the fans who symbolically transported the spirit of the old stadium to the new one. The fact that the hard-core fans settled into the North Curve – in contrast to Elsterweg – was not something that was taken for granted. But a general acceptance quickly formed, something that we systematically worked to develop. By doing such things as showing funny videos on the big screen the VfL Stadium.

You are talking about Granato Rambocco, aren't you?

That's right! The guy was an ingenious invention. We wanted to have a likable figure with a twinkle in its eye to explain difficult situations and to simultaneously document the progress of the construction work. These small clips were great. They always got a big hand when we showed them at half-time. In my favorite scene, Rambocco was decked out in his white suit and standing in a puddle of water. He then explained that no work was being done because of the rain. “Stefan Effenberg will be setting up his hot tub here before long.” Classic.

When the facility opened, VfL Wolfsburg had one of Germany's most modern stadiums. Where would you rank the stadium, 15 years later, against other stadiums across Germany?

I would draw a distinction between two classes of stadiums: Those that were built to meet World Cup standards and can hold 50,000 and more fans. And then the smaller stadiums like ours, the one in Leverkusen and the stadium of TSG Hoffenheim. I think that we still have a real gem in this segment. The reason is quite simple: We have been able to adapt the Volkswagen Stadium to meet the latest requirements. And if you would ask me now, …


… what are you personally most proud of, …

… then I would have to say: the flexibility. The stadium has never stood still. It is really a living and breathing organism. We have met all requirements and still have a very appealing look that fits right into skyline of the city along with the Autostadt. And we have unique features, too, like the family section with a playground. If I were put into the situation once again, I would hardly change anything about the planning. The one thing we underestimated somewhat back then was the growing media landscape. But VfL has been able to correct this somewhat in construction terms.


Earlier, you said that, in terms of capacity, the initial plans were different. You probably think that you made the right decision regarding the size.

Definitely. The seating capacity set off heated debates in both directions. A much larger stadium was discussed. But I also received many letters from fans who said we were crazy. A seating capacity of 20,000 fans would be more than enough when you consider that the team drew around 13,000 on average at Elsterweg. But we calculated that there would have to be at least 50 percent growth right out of the gate and that about 1,000 fans would be added each year. We ended up drawing between 26,000 and 27,000 fans on average. Our calculations have turned out to be right. The city of Wolfsburg is just too small for any more.

Is it actually possible in construction terms to increase the seating capacity?

It would require a significant effort. You would have to remove the roof like a cake box because it is held up by its own supports and is not part of the stadium itself. You could then add a third level of steep stands, install longer supports and put the roof back on. But I think that this would result in unreasonably high costs. I also hardly think that this question will come up for years to come. However: It could be done.