Rival fans and football snobs call them a plastic club and pill pushers, but Bayer 04 Leverkusen is an institution of football that has stood for more than 100 years. As the more eagle-eyed of you might have spotted, the club has a 04 in their name and their badge, marking the year 1904. One year earlier 170 employees of the Friedrich Bayer and Co pharmaceutical company wrote a letter to their employers asking for support in establishing a multisport club.
During the 1979–80 season, the club played Bundesliga football for the first time and by the mid-80s, they were a top-half team. The glory days seemed to be just around the corner, as the club was making intelligent long-term signings and had picked up the 1988 UEFA Cup and the 1993 DFB Pokal. Die Werkself would enter the second half of the 1990s with a relegation scare, but under the tutelage of Christoph Daum and with players like Ulf Kirsten, Ze Roberto and Michael Ballack, the club managed three consecutive second-place finishes from 1997 to 1999.
Daum would be sacked on the 21st of October 2000, after rumors appeared in the press that he had attended parties where he had consumed cocaine and entertained sex workers. Daum furiously denied the allegations and even supplied his own hair for testing. In a very comical turn of events, the hair contained traces of cocaine, at which point Daum stated that the hair had not even been his.
That same year, Leverkusen entered the final day of the season in first place. A draw against lowly SpVgg Unterhaching would have been enough, but in a foreshadowing of his later lack of luck, Michael Ballack scored an own goal, which saw his team lose 2-0. Bayern did the job in their game, winning against Werder Bremen, and were crowned champions. A further fourth-place finish would come at the end of the 2000-01 season, but despite the disappointment, Lucio and Dimitar Berbatov would join the club, bolstering their chances for the next season.
The 2001-02 season started out with a win against Wolfsburg, followed by an unbeaten 14-match streak. Their Champions League group campaign would also start off well, with three consecutive wins, but patchy form in both competitions followed towards the end of the year. Their form picked up after new-year and a second UCL group was navigated, lining up a knockout stage clash against Liverpool.
In the Bundesliga, the red and blacks Kirsten, Neuville and Berbatov’s goals, combined with Ballack’s workrate propelled them up the table. The first leg of Leverkusen’s clash against Liverpool would end in defeat, but the Merseysiders could only put one goal past them. In a brilliant comeback at the BayArena, a Ballack double and further goals by Berbatov and Lucio saw Bayer win 4-3 on aggregate.
Their semifinal opponent would be Liverpool’s archrivals Manchester United, which they saw off by drawing both legs, but going through on goal difference. And there Bayer stood; with a treble on the horizon; 5 points clear of Dortmund in the Bundesliga and qualified for the Champions League and DFB Pokal finals.
The game against Werder Bremen on match day 32 would, however, signal Bayer’s downfall. Die Werderaner had already beaten Leverkusen in their other fixture, earlier in the season and would win again. BVB would win their fixture on MD 32 courtesy of an 89th-minute penalty goal. The next match day would be just as cruel to the Werkself, losing against relegation-threatened Nurnberg, whilst BVB would win against Hamburg, in a game where seven goals would be scored.
Werder Bremen would once again play a role in proceedings, losing to Dortmund on the final day of the season, meaning Leverkusen had, once again, finished second. The season could be still salvaged with a cup win, which could be attained by defeating the holders Schalke. A veritable thriller was played out in the final at the Olympiastation, with Leverkusen opening the scoring and Schalke negating their advantage just before halftime.
The second half would see both managers sent to the stands and Schalke score three more goals, with Bayer getting a late consolation goal. This second disappointment marked their preparations for the Champions League final, which would be held in Glasgow. In the same stadium where Real Madrid had won the 1960 European Cup against Eintracht Frankfurt, Los Blancos searched for another win against a German side.
The Spaniards drew first blood through future Schalke legend Raul after just eight minutes. Five minutes later, Lucio, who was at fault for the opening goal, redeemed himself, scoring on the end of a Bernd Schneider free kick. Just before halftime, Zinedine Zidane produced a goal that I can only explain by involving the word magic, since I still cannot comprehend how it happened.
Whatever I would write here cannot do justice to that amazing execution, so please find yourself a video of the goal. The German side threw everything they had at Real, but once again, fate seemed to laugh in their face. A young Iker Casillas was substituted in, to cover for Cesar’s injury and made a flurry of saves, seeing his team through to the final whistle.
For one of the most important players of that Leverkusen squad the bad luck would continue even after the final. Michael Ballack was instrumental in the Germany side that reached the 2002 World Cup final, but one too many bookings would see him miss the final and his team would lose to Brazil. The years following their treble horror would cement their status as one of the best sides in Germany, but title charges seemed more and more unlikely, especially with Bayern’s dominance.
Like most sides in Germany, their emphasis on youth development has seen them produce the likes of Toni Kroos over the recent years and one could argue that with the backing of their pharmaceutical overlords, they could in the future keep hold of the talent they produce. At the moment another climb up the ladder of the Bundesliga is in order, headed by the brilliant Xabi Alonso and I think I speak for a lot of football fans when I say the image of the midfield maestro turned coach lifting the Bundesliga title would be a very pleasing one.
By: Eduard Holdis / @He_FTBL
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / ullstein bild