The tragic becoming of Bayer Neverkusen, the club that could’ve had it all

The tragic becoming of Bayer Neverkusen, the club that could’ve had it all

Roberto Carlos outpaced his marker before looping a hopeful cross towards the edge of the area. Anticipating the ball’s descent, poised, was Zinedine Zidane. Adjusting his body shape with all the grace and purpose of a sculptor meticulously animating their masterpiece, and with a level of speed and certainty that only instinct can bestow, Zizou greeted the ball’s return with a sweeping left-footed volley. So utterly perfect in technique was the connection, so sumptuous the strike, its retelling could make a nun blush.

In a breath, ball and net were as one and Hans-Jörg Butt could do nothing but claw despairingly at thin air. All those adorned in Leverkusen colours – on the pitch and off – watched as the formidable Frenchman charged towards the jubilant Madrid fans lining the stands of Hampden Park, the Germans agonisingly aware they had just witnessed one of the great Champions League moments.

Though the entirety of the second half remained, Bayer Leverkusen would be powerless to surmount Los Blancos’ 2-1 half-time lead and the curtain fell on the season’s competition with a third European Cup in five years held aloft in Madrilenian hands. The Germans simply had to settle for second place. Oh, how they tired of hearing that phrase.

There is surely no shame in succumbing to the better team, even with European football’s grandest prize at stake. Many greats have done just that. But for Die Werkself the feeling that ran deepest was not shame, rather regret. They were far more familiar with second place than any team should be.

Over the course of the past four years they had finished as runners-up in the Bundesliga three times, and in 2002, in the days preceding their Champions League defeat, a monumental collapse had made it four years out of five in the league. What’s more, they even let the German Cup slip through their grasp in another forsaken final just a week later.

On that famous night in Glasgow, Zidane’s wonder-goal not only denied Leverkusen the opportunity to be heralded as the kings of Europe, it certified 2002 as the most excruciating year in the club’s history. The latest crop of Leverkusen ‘nearly men’ had accomplished an unprecedented treble of inadequacy; a virtuoso 11-day demonstration of the penitent origins and now seemingly unshakeable reality of the club’s lamentable moniker: Bayer Neverkusen.

On 28 July 2001, Leverkusen kicked off their domestic campaign with a confident 2-1 win at home to Wolfsburg, after which they wasted no time in evidencing their lofty ambitions, embarking upon a 14-game unbeaten run. Empowered by an indefatigable Michael Ballack who knew no other way than to lead by example, the team set fans’ hearts racing with a sublime string of seven consecutive wins, including routine disposals of local rivals Borussia Mönchengladbach and Köln. But their dream start was given a rude awakening by Werder Bremen on matchday 15, as their visit to Weserstadion saw them slump to a momentum-halting 2-1 defeat.

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Klaus Toppmöller’s men hoped this blip would prove to be little more than an anomalous blemish on an otherwise perfect pursuit of glory, but their desperate attempts to stay ahead of the chasing pack only caused them to falter further and they soon found themselves bookending the league’s winter break with five losses in seven games. Leverkusen’s title charge had severely stalled. It was time for Ballack to get out and push.

On the continent Leverkusen’s fortunes played out similarly, as they began the Champions League group stage with three from three, following up their determined 1-0 win away to Lyon with home victories against Barcelona and Fenerbahçe. Leverkusen looked set to waltz into the next round as group winners, but defeats in Barcelona and at home to Lyon overshadowed another impressive away victory in Istanbul, and so Leverkusen progressed from their group in the increasingly familiar position of second place.

They found their reward in the form of a second tricky group in the following round, where Arsenal, Deportivo La Coruña and Juventus stood between them and the quarter-finals. Leverkusen failed to exude the same air of superiority their season began with but three wins, one draw and two losses secured them an adequate ten-point haul and their chequered form saw them into the knockout round. There, Liverpool awaited them and, fortunately, so did many of their season’s more resolute performances.

Back at home, Leverkusen’s Champions League run was inspiring an upsurge in their domestic form. Liberated by the flexibility of their forwards, the goals of astute poacher Oliver Neuville, languid conductor Dimitar Berbatov and ever-present veteran Ulf Kirsten were steadily supplementing the marauding Michael Ballack’s remarkable contribution, and this bountiful goal output was busy breathing new life into Leverkusen’s title aspirations.

The team completed a domestic double over Gladbach with an emphatic 5-0 win, though a 2-2 draw away to basement dwellers St. Pauli directly followed, exposing the team’s defensive frailties and tending to the seeds of doubt planted by the club’s winless winter run. Eight days later, a visit to the BayArena from emerging title favourites Borussia Dortmund provided the ideal opportunity to examine Leverkusen’s uncertain credentials. A loss would end Leverkusen’s hopes once and for all, while a win would turn the Neverkusen naysayers into believers.

A complete team performance, with goals from Ballack, Ramelow, Berbatov and Neuville, helped Leverkusen to a faultless 4-0 victory, the impact of which sparked a run of five wins and two draws in the league, putting Leverkusen firmly back in the driving seat. With just three games remaining Leverkusen boasted a five-point lead over Dortmund. Furthermore, in the Pokal, Leverkusen had seen off Bochum, Hannover, 1860 Munich and Köln with little fuss, in the process of booking themselves a German Cup final showdown with Schalke.

In the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final, Leverkusen left Anfield with nothing more than a goal handicap to take back with them to western Germany, courtesy of a Sami Hyypiä goal on the stroke of half-time.

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In the second leg, Leverkusen staged a stunning comeback in front of their buoyant home crowd. Ballack scored early in the first half to give Leverkusen fans a reason to believe, but Abel Xavier struck just before the half-time whistle once more to regain the initiative for the Reds. Two quick-fire goals from Ballack and Berbatov were cancelled out with little more than 10 minutes to go as Jari Litmanen’s strike looked to be sending Liverpool through on away goals. But a moment of Lúcio magic swung the tie back in Leverkusen’s favour and the Germans held on to progress 4-3 on aggregate.

Leverkusen were tasked with seeing off another English side when they drew Premier League champions Manchester United in the semi-finals. Again away for the first leg, Leverkusen were unable to muster a win in England, but showed sufficient resolve to twice come from behind against Sir Alex Ferguson’s men and earn a 2-2 draw, ensuring they left Manchester in a far stronger position than they had departed Liverpool three weeks before. Thanks to the typically prolific Ballack and Neuville, the club left for home with two distinctly away-goal-shaped reasons to be hopeful of a positive aggregate result.

At the BayArena six days later, Leverkusen’s defence watched on in horror as United captain Roy Keane rounded the onrushing Hans-Jörg Butt before calmly finding the bottom corner to give the English side the lead around the half-hour mark. But their advantage wouldn’t follow the players into the dressing rooms as Neuville, playing with the minor inconvenience of a broken toe, spared Leverkusen’s blushes once more, producing a tremendous two-touch finish to tie the scores. Receiving the ball on the edge of the area from Yıldıray Baştürk, the Germany striker swivelled before guiding the ball sweetly over the head of Fabien Barthez, kissing the underside of the crossbar on its way over the line.

With the score sat at 3-3, and with away goals in Leverkusen’s favour again, the impetus was on United to score a fourth to prevent their elimination. The tide seemed to be turning against the home team, who had already lost their captain Jens Nowotny early in the game, and the introduction of forwards Ole Gunnar Solskjær and Diego Forlán saw Manchester United revert to a 4-4-2 formation, which signalled trouble for the anxious Leverkusen backline.

But Leverkusen weren’t to falter. United’s hopes were dashed by a combination of wasteful attacks and resolute German defending. Forlán’s 81st minute effort came closest, but a clearance off of the line by Diego Placente was the last time the English side truly threatened. The referee’s whistle blew and Leverkusen were into the final. Real Madrid had triumphed against bitter Spanish rivals Barcelona 3-1 on aggregate, and so the two would meet in the competition’s climax in little over two weeks’ time.

Before their great European adventure could be drawn to an end though, Leverkusen had a league title to bring home. On matchday 32, the club welcomed Werder Bremen to the BayArena. Die Werderaner had single-handedly derailed Leverkusen’s early-season momentum with their 2-1 victory over Toppmöller’s team and much to Leverkusen’s dismay lightning struck twice. Leverkusen midfielder Zé Roberto was able to cancel out Krisztián Lisztes’ early effort, but Brazilian Aílton re-established Werder’s advantage in the second half and Leverkusen were unable to recover.

The team hovering around sixth place were having their own say in the season’s incredible title race and Leverkusen were not appreciative of their input in the slightest. In Dortmund, an 89th-minute penalty from Márcio Amoroso gave BVB all three points at home to Köln. Two games remained and Leverkusen’s lead was just two points.

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In the season’s penultimate fixtures Leverkusen travelled to Nürnberg, while Dortmund played away at Hamburg. Though the aims of the two title chasers barely differed, their contrasting fortunes on this day painted a perfect representation of the dichotomy of emotion within the game we love and loathe in equal measure.

Dortmund came out on top of a scintillating seven-goal thriller with Hamburg, which saw three goals in the final ten minutes. Meanwhile, 630km away in Nuremberg, Leverkusen saw their crucial three points – and their title dream – wrestled away from them by a Nürnberg team desperate for points in their own desperate fight against relegation. Leverkusen’s 1-0 loss allowed Dortmund to climb above them to the league’s summit, and it was here they would stay.

In a poignant and cruel twist of fate, Matthias Sammer’s men secured their sixth top-flight triumph by achieving a feat that had alluded Leverkusen all year long: a victory against Werder Bremen. Leverkusen were able to sign off with a win of their own, a Ballack brace helping them overcome fourth place Hertha Berlin, but, short of turning back time, there was nothing he or his teammates could do. Another year, another second-place finish, another missed opportunity.

Though the Bundesliga campaign was over for another season, no time could be wasted by wallowing as Leverkusen’s duties would only conclude after the DFB-Pokal and Champions League finals that awaited them.

On the morning of the domestic final, a city-wide sense of déjà vu swept over Gelsenkirchen. Just 12 months ago their team was preparing for their DFB-Pokal final against third-tier Union Berlin, a game they won 2-0. On this day, Schalke were preparing for an altogether tougher proposition, as they faced a Leverkusen side still reeling from their Bundesliga blunder.

Leverkusen began the game in the ascendency and when the competition’s top scorer Berbatov directed Lúcio’s wayward strike beyond a statuesque Oliver Reck in the Schalke goal, it was the fans in red and black that rocked the foundations of the Olympiastadion. Leverkusen remained in relative control until the stroke of half-time when Schalke midfielder Jörg Böhme, two-goal hero of the previous year’s final, rifled a thunderous free-kick into the top corner. The half-time whistle that shortly followed the Blues’ celebrations sent the teams in as equals.

As the second half drew on and the teams remained level, tensions continued to rise, and so did the number of cautions. Following some rather excessive protestations, referee Franz-Xaver Wack sent Schalke coach Huub Stevens to the stands, closely followed by Klaus Toppmöller, who clearly failed to learn from his opposite number’s mistakes, and it was from there the two managers witnessed another ruefully idiosyncratic Leverkusen collapse.

On 68 minutes Nigerian forward Victor Agali surged inside from the left-wing and forced his way past a helpless Carsten Ramelow before rolling his curled effort into the far corner from some 20 yards to give Schalke the lead. Just three minutes later Schalke’s lead was doubled. Leverkusen surrendered possession far too easily on the halfway line, their patient approach shelved by their desire to respond immediately to falling behind, and a quick four-man counter ended with Andreas Möller extending Schalke’s lead to 3-1.

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If Schalke’s quick-fire double had the Leverkusen coffin measured, Ebbe Sand’s far post header with five minutes to go lifted Leverkusen’s lifeless corpse in and slammed the lid shut. There was sufficient time for Ulf Kirsten to fire in a consolation but the damage had already been dealt; the royal blue confetti already airborne.

Belatedly unshackled by the final whistle, Huub Stevens quickly descended the stadium’s steps to congratulate his players and join their wild celebrations on the pitch. For Klaus Toppmöller, the whistle wasn’t quite so welcome. Leverkusen had come up painstakingly short in their two toughest tests of the season and their manager could focus on little other than ensuring they didn’t let it happen again. That, however, was not completely under their control and between them and European retribution stood a team of Galácticos.

Forty-two years on from the eternally revered 1960 European Cup final, Real Madrid returned to the city of Glasgow in search of a ninth European Cup. Their Ferenc Puskás was now Raúl, their Alfredo Di Stéfano now Zinedine Zidane, their Eintracht Frankfurt now Bayer Leverkusen.

Hampden Park no longer held 127,000 people, but the 50,000 hands grasping golden tickets constituted a near-even split of Spaniards hoping to witness another traditionally dominant display from their frequent continent conquerors, and Germans simply praying for an upset.

The game’s first flashpoint emerged as Roberto Carlos launched a long throw beyond the Leverkusen defence in hope of releasing an eager Raúl, who had scampered clear between centre back and full back. Raúl beat Lúcio to the ball and flicked it under Butt’s outstretched hand. Nine minutes in, Leverkusen caught cold, 1-0 Madrid.

Leverkusen weren’t forced to wait long for their reply, however, as five minutes later Lúcio atoned for his error. His leap took him above the Madrid defence and the deft flick with which he met Schneider’s free-kick sent the ball over the stranded César. Fourteen minutes in, Madrid careless, 1-1.

Then came the decisive momentum swing. The 30 minutes of caution and anxiety that followed Leverkusen’s equaliser was, in an instant, erased from the memory by a moment of Madrid magic. What began as a routine left-flank probe of the Germans’ resolve, in three touches became history.

Order  |  European Cup

Solari, Roberto Carlos, Zinedine Zidane. Not only would Zizou’s exquisite effort remain unmatched for the remainder of the game, it would live on peerless for the entirety of the decade that followed it. Like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony; its technical proficiency, its prodigious impact, and its generation-defining significance, would surely see it outlive its consummate composer.

Though it decided the game, a wealth of drama was still to follow Zidane’s strike. In a second-half dominated by denied chances, a 20-year-old Iker Casillas entered the fray to deputise for the injured César. In those final 25 minutes, the young Spaniard produced a miscellany of superb saves with every available limb, as his efforts confirmed Leverkusen’s worst fears.

As the season crept into April, three trophies awaited Leverkusen. Come the end of May, the end of their Champions League final, they had nothing. They could do nothing but look to the heavens and ask why; their tears diluted by the Scottish rain. The only silver lining was the inevitability of another season, as with each new year comes the opportunity to right the wrongs of the last. But for Leverkusen, no restitution would come.

For Leverkusen’s Player of the Year, the season’s end provided no such philosophical respite. Ballack’s talismanic form at club level saw his rightful inclusion in Germany’s squad for the 2002 World Cup, where his dynamism added a fluid potency to Die Mannschaft’s midfield.

En-route to the final, Ballack provided four assists and notched three goals, including two vital match-winners; spoiling Brad Friedel’s clean sheet in the quarter-final versus the United States and a goal that broke the hearts of joint-hosts South Korea in the semi-final. Such direct influence added fuel to the fire that was speculation on Real Madrid and Bayern Munich’s courting of the playmaker, and certified his place in the tournament’s eventual all-star team.

But just four minutes before summoning the strike that conquered Korea, Ballack’s sacrificial foul on Lee Chun-Soo saw his name added to the referee’s book once too many times and a single game suspension followed. Despite sending his country to the final, Ballack would play no part in the game and the most significant moment of his career so far would have him watching from the stands. Ballack later admitted that, though he was able to keep his nerve on the pitch – enough to score the winner, no less – he was unable to hold back the tears upon returning to the dressing room.

Sadly, Ballack’s source of luck seemed to stem not from any form of karmic retribution for his selfless contribution to his teammates but from his affinity with the squad number 13; unlucky for some. The only scenario worse than being unable to assist your team in winning the World Cup is finding yourself powerless to prevent them losing it.

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Germany were met in the final by a Brazil squad spearheaded by a triumvirate of trickery, perhaps every bit as famous for its attacking prowess as its adherence to alliteration. With the whole world watching, Ronaldinho, Rivaldo and Ronaldo beckoned.

In the end, in spite of Germany’s effort and possession, the game was decided by a brace from the trio’s latter, the tournament’s Golden Boot winner, as O Fenomeno put the Germans to the sword with two fine finishes.

Ballack, along with his Leverkusen and Germany teammates Bernd Schneider, Carsten Ramelow and Oliver Neuville, was left licking his wounds, mourning yet another missed opportunity. Clearly Neverkusen’s curse was not bound by geographical borders. Though the four men weren’t to leave Japan empty-handed, they may have wished they could. They each returned home with their fourth runners-up medal of the year.

A generation on and, though the likes of Ballack have long since moved to pastures new to find that the grass can often be greener, the Leverkusen trophy cabinet endures, still with the glaring exception of a single Bundesliga replica on view. Instead, it is the scars of their fruitless flirtations with supremacy that remain clear for all to see.

It is likely that only witnessing the name Bayer Leverkusen being etched into the lavish sterling silver of the Meisterschale itself may be enough to begin to truly ease the relenting pain felt by the club’s long-suffering faithful, and threaten to shake off the ‘Neverkusen’ tag that haunts their every season.

Still, the best endeavours of their unrelenting rivals Bayern Munich to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of Leverkusen’s previously unparalleled failings, with their very own three-front collapse, at the resolution of the 2011/12 season, brought about a smirk from even the stoniest of Leverkusen supporters.

Over the season’s final months, the German giants performed an uncanny Neverkusen impression as they slipped far behind Dortmund in the league, surrendered to them once more in the DFB-Pokal final, and even conceded the Champions League title on their very own turf to first-time winners Chelsea, in a game that, perhaps even more remarkably, saw an English team defeat their German opponents on penalties. In a matter of weeks, Munich’s talk of a treble became trophyless turmoil.

Though immeasurably less satisfying than winning the trophies themselves, these events helped to insert something of an addendum to any record books containing Leverkusen’s irreversible woes, and warmed those weary Leverkusen hearts just a little. After all, Schadenfreude is a German word.

By Will Sharp @shillwarp

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