From the Horrors of Neverkusen to Bundesliga Champions

Ending Bayern Munich’s 11-year reign atop the Bundesliga would’ve been an impressive accomplishment on its own, but for Bayer Leverkusen, their 2024 league title exorcises demons that have lived within the club for over two decades. 

Every season of football brings us unlikely stories that no one could’ve predicted. It’s a big part of why we love the game. This year is no different. From sides like Bologna, Aston Villa, and Stuttgart potentially heading back to UEFA Champions League play for the first time in decades, to Borussia Dortmund’s unexpected run in the tournament after being picked to finish last in their group, it’s been a season rife with wonderful surprises.

However, no story compares to Bayer Leverkusen’s this season. To fully understand the significance of their dominant campaign, we need to go back 22 years.

The Origins of Neverkusen

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Many clubs in the top five leagues have nicknames, but few have one as harsh as Leverkusen’s “Neverkusen.” The club earned the moniker in 2002 after years of pain and utter disappointment.

After seeing some success in the late ’80s and early ’90s with the UEFA Cup in 1988 and the DFB Cup in 1993, Leverkusen would see a 30-year absence of silverware. But it wasn’t for a lack of squad quality. The German side had several strong teams, and finished in second four times in six years between 1996 and 2002. Most clubs would be ecstatic with those results, but two of those seasons — 1999-00 and 2001-02 — were excruciating for Leverkusen and their fans.

1999-00 brought one of the most dramatic title races in Bundesliga history as it came down to the final day for both Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich. Leverkusen walked into the final matchday needing one point to secure the title, and they played a newly-promoted side, Unterhaching. Sounds simple enough right?

Before the match, Unterhaching manager Lorenz-Gunther Kostner said, “There’s a 99.9 percent chance Leverkusen will be champions.”

However, we all know football is never that straightforward.

Leverkusen would suffer the worst-case scenario, as the clubs hope and joy Michael Ballack scored an own goal that would lead to Leverkusen tears and Bayern triumph. This pain was nothing compared to what the club would endure two years later, however.

The Treble That Never Was

bayer leverkusen

A continental treble is a holy grail for any football club. Only the most dominant sides can achieve such heights, such as Manchester United, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and most recently Manchester City.

Some teams have had some close calls before such as PSG in 2019, but the most devastatingly close was the 2001-02 Bayer Leverkusen side. PSG at least had the solace of winning two of the three trophies required for the achievement in 2019. Meanwhile, Leverkusen failed at the final hurdle for all three. Hence the nickname, “Neverkusen.”

In the Bundesliga, Leverkusen would finish second to Borussia Dortmund despite leading the table for most of the season. In just one month, it all collapsed after three consecutive matches with dropped points: a draw to Hamburg and defeats to Werder Bremen and Nuremberg. By the time the final matchday arrived, Leverkusen did not control their own destiny, and Dortmund didn’t let the title slip.

Meanwhile for the DFB Pokal, Leverkusen made the final and their last hurdle was Schalke 04. A 4-2 defeat would leave the club packing empty handed once again. But there was still the Champions League, where they’d face the kings of Europe, Real Madrid.

Four days separated the German Cup and UCL finals, and the pain remained the same as Leverkusen would fall short at the finish line for the third time running. The famous Zinedine Zidane volley separated the two teams and thus concluded the season of nightmares for the Germans. For Ballack, he would face one more final failure as Germany would go on to lose 2-0 to Brazil in the World Cup Final. The “Neverkusen” nickname followed him from club to country.

The Years After

While Leverkusen would not have the same dominance after that 2002 season, the club would go on to have a handful of top four finishes in the Bundesliga. Meanwhile in the Champions League, the best they could do was round of 16 after the ’02 finals loss. But most importantly, in all those years since, a trophy was not won. When in a drought, you need a savior, and in walked a Spanish manager that would change the history of Bayer Leverkusen forever.

The Arrival of Xabi Alonso

xavi alonso

The midfielder-to-coach pipeline is very strong in today’s football. Thiago Motta has likely guided Bologna to their first top-four Serie A finish since 1967. In addition we have Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola who’s fresh off a treble, Mikel Arteta, whose Arsenal side is in the Premier League title race for the second straight year, FC Barcelona’s Xavi, PSG’s Luis Enrique, and of course, Xabi Alonso.

The Spaniard walked into a Leverkusen who was down in the relegation zone and instantly changed their fortunes. Leverkusen found the manager to make them believe again.

Alonso would make the players adapt to his style of football, with the traditional positional play tactics, to go alongside some tweaks of his own. One was playing in a three center back system with flying wingbacks such as Jeremie Frimpong. In just a half-season, Alonso took Leverkusen to a Europa League semifinal, and salvaged the Bundesliga campaign by finishing sixth. The future looked promising heading into the current season. What transpired is beyond anything they imagined.

Breaking the Curse

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Leverkusen went into the season with the aim of getting back into the Champions League spots after a strong summer and a full season of Florian Wirtz, who came back from an ACL injury. The club brought in major reinforcements in the form of Granit Xhaka, Alejandro Grimaldo, and Victor Boniface. All three have played a major role in the success this season.

Finishing top four was the goal, but as the season progressed, the expectations changed. The more Leverkusen were winning, the belief in achieving the improbable increased. The hype was solidified after the 3-0 win against Bayern at the BayArena that showed there’s a new king in the Bundesliga. The title was in their grasp and what better way to clutch it in their hands than a hat trick from the star boy Wirtz as an army of Leverkusen fans rushed on the pitch to celebrate.

While breaking the curse and ending the Bayern monopoly is significant, it’s not what makes this Leverkusen campaign from being on the verge of one of the most incredible seasons in football history.

Leverkusen are eight games away from finishing the season undefeated in all competitions. They have a Pokal final date set against 1.FC Kaiserslautern, as well as a Europa League semifinal against Roma. Leverkusen would be the first team in Europe to go undefeated the whole season in all competitions they played in. The closest was Ajax in 1994-1995 when they went undefeated in the league and Champions League, but fell short in the KNVB Cup quarterfinals to Feyenoord.

On top of that, Leverkusen would be the first German club to go invincible in the modern day Bundesliga. A feat that not even Bayern could accomplish during their 11-year domination of the league. A season of firsts.

Changing the Narrative

The beauty of football is the narratives and how they can change on the flip of a switch. History says Leverkusen are a club that gives it away when it matters most. But history is meant to change, and Leverkusen once again have their fate in their own hands. The failures of ’02 can be long forgotten with the ultimate accomplishment, an undefeated treble.

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