Fallen Giants: Michael Ballack and Leverkusen’s nearly men remembered

Nostalgia

Bayer Leverkusen are not the most popular club in Germany, but it is still hard not to feel sorry for those involved in their famous run of near misses.

We’ve looked recently at some of the best players not to win a major trophy – but how about generations of teams?

You’d struggle to beat the Leverkusen side of 1997-2002: they finished as runners-up in four Bundesliga campaigns, a German Cup, and the Champions League, managing all three in the space of just 11 days in 2002.

Their reputation as the nearly-men of German football has even earned them the nickname ‘Neverkusen’.

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It is worth emphasising that Bayer Leverkusen are not a popular club in Germany.

Since the very beginning the club has been supported by the pharmaceutical giants Bayer, and as we’ve seen with Red Bull’s RB Leipzig, German fans will not warm to a side backed by corporate might.

In the mid-90s, Leverkusen had the infrastructure, the money, and one of Europe’s most energetic and ambitious general managers, Reiner Calmund. But they didn’t have the hearts of the people – and, more crucially, they didn’t have trophies.

Calmund set out to change that. The side recovered from a disastrous season in 1996 which almost saw them relegated – they survived only by coming from behind to draw with Kaiserslautern, thereby relegating their opponents and becoming even more unpopular, as Kaiserslautern had been in the top flight since the league’s inception – and set about becoming title challengers under new manager Christophe Daum.

The 1996-97 season almost saw Daum lift the title at the first time of asking. With new Brazilian signing Zé Elias in midfield, the young centre back trio of 24-year-old Christian Worns and 22-year-olds Jens Nowotny and Robert Kovac, and a front two of Paulo Sergio and Ulf Kirsten in blistering form, Leverkusen finished just two points behind champions Bayern Munich.

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Kirsten was something of a phenomenon for a club of Leverkusen’s stature. With a short but wide build akin to Xherdan Shaqiri, the former East Germany international entered the Bundesliga almost immediately after the reunification of Germany and played 350 matches over 14 seasons for Bayer, scoring 182 goals.

That record puts him sixth on the all-time Bundesliga goalscorers list, and second only to Gerd Muller of all players to have played for just one side in the competition.

After enjoying the best season of his career in 1996-97 at the age of 32, Kirsten was even better the following year, scoring the same number of league goals (22) in two fewer games (27, compared with 29).

But still it wasn’t enough to fire Leverkusen to the title: despite a healthy goal difference of +27, Daum’s men drew far too many games (14 in all) to mount a serious title challenge.

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READ: Rising Stars: Kai Havertz, Bayer 04 Leverkusen’s 17-year-old wonderkid

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Leverkusen dropped points to all three relegated sides, wiping out those gained in a dominant 4-2 victory at home to second-placed Bayern Munich and a 3-0 win at the home of the eventual shock champions, the newly-promoted and returning Kaiserslautern.

It was the same story the following year. Bayern Munich were dominant in all competitions, losing the DFB-Pokal final to Werder Bremen only on penalties and leading the Champions League final for 85 minutes before Manchester United’s famous injury time comeback.

As dominant as Bayern were, however, Bayer Leverkusen’s problem remained: when they won they won by big scorelines, hammering Borussia Monchengladbach 8-2 and VfL Bochum 5-1, both away from home, but they drew 12 of their 34 matches and finished 15 points behind Bayern.

Over this period Leverkusen had great success bringing in Brazilian players: Zé Elias first, then Émerson (the one who later played for Roma, Juventus and Real Madrid, not the Middlesbrough cult hero), then Zé Roberto.

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Their best signing ahead of the 1999-2000 season was much less exotic but no less brilliant: the up-and-coming 22-year-old Michael Ballack, captured from Kaiserslautern.

With the hard-working midfielder in the ranks and their other talented youngsters coming of age, surely Daum and his side could finally end years of frustration.

Remarkably, despite finishing second, third and then second again, Leverkusen had only topped the table for one measly week back in November-December 1996.

But a 2-1 victory over 1860 Munich on April 1, 2000 put them top of the pile with just seven games to play.

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Leverkusen briefly ceded that advantage two games later as their troublesome habit of drawing against far inferior opposition returned once again at Hansa Rostock, but three days later 1860 did them a favour by holding on to win the Munich derby 2-1.

Leverkusen’s subsequent 4-1 win over Bielefeld the same weekend put them three points clear at the top with four games to play. The title was finally within their grasp.

It didn’t look at though they could possibly falter. Although the first half of their season had seen them stay true to form in drawing seven of their 17 games, they were seemingly able to shake the habit off over the winter break.

A disappointing 4-1 defeat away to Bayern Munich was followed by a run of nine wins and no defeats in 12 games, including a stonking 9-1 away win at Ulm.

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READ: Fallen Giants: Lamenting the loss of Milan as European heavyweights

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Victories over Werder Bremen, Hamburg and Eintracht Frankfurt made that 12 wins in 15 games, and though Bayern Munich had kept the pace, they went into the final day knowing a single point at mid-table Unterhaching would give them their first German title.

It didn’t work out that way. While Bayern played out a comfortable 3-1 victory over Werder Bremen just 7.5 miles away, Leverkusen slipped behind to Ballack’s own goal in the 21st minute.

As Daum threw caution to the wind by throwing on two extra strikers, Markus Oberleitner doubled Unterhaching’s lead on 72 minutes. Leverkusen’s chance was gone; Bayern Munich were champions.

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Germany’s ignominious exit alongside England at the group stage of Euro 2000 that summer left the national team looking for a manager, and Daum was the man they selected.

However, Leverkusen insisted that the DFB would have to wait a year for their man so they could get their ducks in a row with a successor.

As it turned out, they had less time than they thought. Mild and unsubstantiated tabloid accusations of cocaine use were levelled at Daum, and rather than shrug it off, he inexplicably volunteered to provide a hair sample to be drug tested in October 2000.

The positive result not only cost him Germany job but also ended his four-year position at Bayer Leverkusen. You can insert your own joke here about the irony of a Bayer manager losing his job for drug use.

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Rudi Voller briefly took charge at Leverkusen and won five of his seven games in charge, but his permanent appointment as Germany manager – a position he had concurrently held on a caretaker basis – forced another change, with Germany’s Euro 96-winning manager Berti Vogts taking the helm.

Leverkusen went top of the Bundesliga in Vogts’ first game in charge and entered December firmly in the title hunt, but a terrible run of nine defeats in 18 games put paid to that as they scraped into fourth place just a single point ahead of Hertha Berlin to claim a Champions League slot.

There were positives to this disappointing campaign: Ballack had developed into one of the finest midfielders in Europe, while young centre back Lucio had become the latest Brazilian to join the club in January and showed signs that he could become a wonderful player.

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Hopes were high for 2001-02. It would go on to be both the best season in the club’s history – and the most heartbreaking.

Domestically, Leverkusen led the title chase from November onwards, with Ballack adding goals to his grit in a player-of-the-season campaign, scoring an incredible 17 times in 29 league games from midfield.

But just like two years earlier, they blew it late on.

A five-point lead and superior goal difference over Dortmund meant Bayer needed just four points from their last three games to claim the title; they promptly lost to Werder Bremen and Nuremberg, allowing the unfaltering BVB to pip them to the title.

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READ: Fallen Giants: Remembering Louis van Gaal’s amazing Ajax team of the mid-90s

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The following week the shell-shocked side headed to Berlin to take on Schalke in the DFB-Pokal final.

Dimitar Berbatov opened the scoring for Leverkusen, but Jorg Bohme’s equaliser on the stroke of half time rattled them and they slipped 4-1 behind, with Kirsten adding an 89th-minute consolation.

But there was no time for Vogts’ side to feel sorry for themselves: they had a Champions League final to contest just four days later.

The final against Real Madrid left people wondering which Bayer Leverkusen would turn up. Would it be the one that had blown the league title, blown the DFB-Pokal, and shipped four goals to each of Juventus, Arsenal and Lyon en route to the final?

Or would it be the side that had hammered Dortmund 4-0, caned Deportivo 3-0 and 3-1, thrashed Liverpool 4-2, and beaten Juventus 3-1 in a game that even saw goalkeeper Hans-Jorg Butt get on the score sheet?

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A little of both, in the end. Lucio’s header quickly cancelled out Raul’s eighth-minute strike, but despite Madrid’s superior possession, Leverkusen more than held their own in a tight game.

It was clearly going to take a moment of individual genius to settle the tie.

Sadly for Bayer, Zinedine Zidane was on the other side, and he scored the finest goal of his wonderful career just before the interval to give Madrid their ninth European title – and leave the Leverkusen players with a third set of runners-up medals for the season.

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That proved to be the pinnacle for Leverkusen. Aside from a tilt at the title in 2010-11 – which saw them finish second, of course – they have largely had to settle for mid-table since that almost-season of 2002.

They may not be the most popular side, they may not have a bulging trophy cabinet, they may always be remembered as the nearly-men – and yet only one point and two sets of 90 minutes kept from from being most unlikely treble winners of all time.

That is still a legacy Leverkusen can be proud of.

By Steven Chicken

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