Bayer Leverkusen’s modern no-risk, no-fun ethos contrasts with historical antipathy of rivals
In this edition of his weekly column, ESPN’s senior Bundesliga commentator Derek Rae explains why Bayer Leverkusen, always one of Germany’s most eye-catching teams, aren’t always highly regarded in Germany. Why is that and why are they getting the right chemistry this season?
As someone whose Twitter feed is devoted to Bundesliga news and analysis, I can’t help but notice which teams my followers all over the world pledge allegiance to. As you’d expect, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund make up the majority, but I’m often surprised by how many people have the hashtag #B04 in their profile. Why the surprise, you may be wondering?
Well, if you tell someone in western Germany that you’re a Bayer 04 Leverkusen fan – to give the club its full name – you’re not walking a particularly well-trodden path. The answer could be “Na, intestine” (“OK, then”). Privately, they might think, ‘That’s different.’
Located a short train or car journey from Cologne on the east bank of the Rhine, Bayer Leverkusen doesn’t even come close to being the main draw in its home region – except, perhaps, if you come from or have connections in the city of 160,000 itself, or a connection to the pharmaceutical company Bayer.
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Unlike the grand and sometimes wonderfully chaotic western Traditionsvereine (clubs rooted in tradition with a large following) nearby such as FC Cologne or Borussia Mönchengladbach, Leverkusen conveys a more refined and family club image, born from their origins in 1904. They were formed by employees of the chemical company as part of a larger sports club to serve this burgeoning new community.
Unlike RB Leipzig, created specifically to market a popular brand, with Bayer Leverkusen the raison d’etre was more societal: a large corporation doing something paternalistic by funding to improve the lives of those who worked for it. Hence the nickname “die Werkself(“the factory eleven”), which is commonly used as a nod to those early days.
We get, of course, to the heart of why fans of other teams have a slight problem with Leverkusen and VfL Wolfsburg, two special-case clubs when it comes to the 50+1 rule. holy to many who love German football – ensures that club members (i.e. supporters) hold the majority of voting rights. Because Leverkusen (Bayer) investors have been interested in the club for decades and are seen as positive influences, they can claim a 50+1 exemption.
You can perhaps understand why Cologne fans, for example, are irritated by this. Leverkusen’s facilities – despite having a much smaller fanbase than Effze just along the Rhine – are considerably richer and have greater financial means. This makes it easier to recruit Cologne talents like the prodigiously gifted Florian Wirtz, as Leverkusen have successfully done.
The two clubs meet on Sunday (10:30 a.m. ET, live stream on ESPN+)and while for Leverkusen it is certainly a derby, for Cologne fans the the derby is with Gladbach, not Bayer 04. Do you understand?
This perhaps explains why few crocodile tears were shed when Leverkusen went years without winning the Bundesliga. They had five second-place finishes, and I have to say I felt especially sorry for them in 2000 and 2002 when they left Meisterschale escape their grasp. Twenty years ago, it might have been a three-fold campaign for them, but instead the ‘Neverkusen’ tag was chanted gleefully as Schadenfreude took hold. Leverkusen were beaten by Schalke in the DFB-Pokal final and Real Madrid in the Champions League final.
They have of course already won a European trophy. I remember listening on the radio to their spectacular penalty shoot-out victory over Espanyol in the UEFA Cup final in 1988. Also, they won the Pokal in 1993, when they beat the second team of the Hertha Berlin in the final.
But what about modern-day Bayer Leverkusen? What is the international attractiveness?
Well first a shout out to the social media team at the club and in particular to Kara Head of the US who are doing a wonderful and innovative job pictorially and informatively relaying to the world what is going on daily on the Bismarckstrasse. The team on the pitch, I have to admit, is a team I always love to comment on and I’ll be back with them on the 20th when they go to Wolfsburg.
Rudi Voller, the club’s sports manager and former international striker and national team coach, will retire this summer. Although he is highly respected and appreciated, he did indeed hand over the reins to Simon Rolfes a long time ago. The team you see now bears Rolfes’ signature: fast, young, dynamic, fun to watch. “No risk, no fun” could almost be the team’s mantra.
It helps when you have a trident of attacking players that would grace most of the best teams in Europe, and from Wirtz, Patrik Schick and Moussa Diaby, the Werksclub get nothing but productivity. Schick with his 20 goals, just behind Robert Lewandowski in the Bundesliga, remains out with a calf injury but improves with each passing season. Wirtz with his 10 assists in the league plays with a maturity that belies his 18 years. No player of this age has scored more Bundesliga goals than the 13 the Pulheim youngster has scored in his career. Diaby, meanwhile, is one of the great recent signings in German football with his blistering pace, precise left foot and eye for goal.
Rolfes and his impressive network of scouts have also shined for the club with the signings of centre-back Edmond Tapsoba, flying full-backs Jeremie Frimpong and Mitchel Bakker, versatile left-handed defender Piero Hincapie and striker Amine Adli. There’s also depth in the team – sometimes you feel even more depth than what’s available for Bayern and Dortmund.
We must also pay tribute to their Swiss coach Gerardo Seoane, who in his first season proved to be an ideal candidate for this bold team. Seoane is multilingual and has the advantage of being able to address most players in their own language. His tactical ideas focused mostly on a tight-fitting, yet thrilling 4-2-3-1, but he pulled a bunny out of the hat on Saturday with a back three for only the second time from the start, and in Schick’s lack of a revolving door style attack – featuring Diaby, Wirtz and Adli – in the well-deserved 1-1 draw at the Allianz Arena.
It was the return to 4-2-3-1 for the trip to Atalanta in the Europa League, and it was never going to be a trifle. In fact, the first leg lived up to its reputation as a meeting of attack-minded ideological kindred spirits.
The outlook could have been bleak. Leverkusen took advantage of their luck at times and made plenty of mistakes in the 3-2 upside down loss, but Diaby and Charles Aranguiz each scored a memorable goal and the Bayer 04 chemistry was strong enough to leave them in a fair condition. Ausgangsposition before the first leg.
Parts of the German fandom will always remain lukewarm for the club, but Bayer Leverkusen represent hope in a European competition that has been synonymous with underachievement in the Bundesliga for too many years. Their football philosophy has a lot to offer.