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Leverkusen heal past wounds to lift historic Bundesliga title

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LEVERKUSEN, Germany — The unwanted moniker of “Neverkusen” that has hung over this club can be shelved.

No longer are Bayer Leverkusen cast as perennial runners-up. The Werkself’s class of 2024 exorcised ghosts of painful failure Sunday evening, as they swept to their first Bundesliga title in the club’s history with a dominant 5-0 win over Werder Bremen.

As Florian Wirtz rounded Werder Bremen’s defense and slotted home for his hat-trick and Bayer Leverkusen’s fifth, the pitch was already engulfed in the smoke from red flares blanketing the Nordkurve. The party had already long begun. A small group of supporters’ excitement had already overflowed after their fourth, running on to the pitch in the 83rd minute. Xabi Alonso and the players pleaded for them to return to the stands, the crowd booed their fellow fans, urging them to refrain until the final whistle blew. That’s what happens when you’ve come so close in the past.

Despite their monstrous lead in the Bundesliga, talk of the Werkself becoming champions was still whispered rather than roared in these parts. That’s what painful near-misses do for you. But there was nothing anyone could do after Wirtz’s fifth. The stewards didn’t stand a chance. Supporters were there on the sideline and Wirtz’s goal broke the dam — as supporters rushed around in delightful, confused euphoria, the referee waited for the clock to tick to the 90th and called it.

“I have the feeling this is not just for us, this is for so many people that have been chasing this dream for so many years,” Alonso told ESPN. “Past coaches are part of it as well. It is very special when it is the first time for everything, and this is the most difficult title probably. “

It marked an evening that tilted the balance of power in German football, for a season at least, as for the first time since 2012, a club other than Bayern Munich will lift the Meisterschale at the end of the campaign. And it was done by this brilliant, unbeaten Bayer Leverkusen team.

“This is the best day in the history of the club,” Nathan Tella told ESPN. “Champions has a nice ring to it.”

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Six hours out from kick-off, the Stadioneck bar near the BayArena was packed, firecrackers and red smoke already filling the warm air. The street outside and surrounding bus stops had been renamed “Xabi-Alonso-Allee.” Bottles of beer were being scooped up, old friends reunited, while the Leverkusen ultras NK12’s special jerseys were being sold quicker than they could be handed out. But still the celebrations were a touch reserved.

“We never expected this would happen, we hoped, but never thought it would. Especially after what happened,” said one elderly fan waiting the team’s arrival, wearing a 25-year-old replica shirt from their 1910 season.

For so long this club has had “Neverkusen” hanging over their heads — Visekusen is the equivalent in German. It is an unwanted name dating back to the turn of the millennium when they came within a whisker of winning the league in 2000 and 2002, only to ultimately collapse at the final hurdle.

In 2000, they only had to draw against Unterhaching to win the Meisterscheile, but somehow lost 2-0 away with Michael Ballack scoring an own goal, and a Markus Oberleitner strike compounding their misery. They looked like ghosts at full-time, shocked at their own predicament.

Two years on and the 2001-02 team of Leverkusen greats like Lucio, Ze Roberto, Ballack, Bernd Schneider, Ulf Kirsten and Dimitar Berbatov were on for the treble. But in the space of 11 days, their plans collapsed. They had a five-point lead heading into their final three matches but lost two of them as Borussia Dortmund pipped them at the last; they fell in the DFB Pokal Cup final 4-2 to Schalke 04, and one Zinedine Zidane wondergoal later, they had lost the Champions League final 2-1 to Real Madrid.

Reasons behind these collapses differ depending on who you talk to. Ballack believes it was their “mentality” which saw them fall, calling the 2002 11-day horror spell the “darkest period of my career.” Germany forward Thomas Brdaric was a key of both the 2000 and 2002 teams.

“I tried to draw comparisons from the time in the past and right now and look in that time we played pretty good football, we scored a lot of goals,” Brdaric told ESPN. “We were in three finals, but in the right moment you need the right luck.

“It was a disaster, it’s tough to think about it. It all went in the wrong direction because everybody was settled to celebrate and then everybody knows the result. I mean it was a disaster and there was really a very bad feeling for everybody, for fans, for the but at the end of the day we didn’t make the right decisions in the right moment.”

It’s been a constant reminder to temper expected jubilation. The NK12 wrote an open letter to its fans on Sunday morning, telling them to look out for their fellow supporters, but also reminded them of the near-misses in the past and how close they came to relegation in 1996: “Decades-old wounds will be healed. One cannot underestimate how traumatic the multiple failures from more than 20 years ago was for many who will stand next to us in the [Nordkurve] today. You can’t understand how many of us have gone into a new season year after year with a little bit of hope, only to be disappointed again and again.”

All week on some of the Leverkusen fan WhatsApp groups photos started to appear of shirts having been bought with “Champions 24” on the back. Some supporters warned them of the risks of tempting fate, but with the town decked out in red and black — flags long sold out from the club shop — the carnival was ready.

Gareth Houston, a Bayer Leverkusen fan who lives in Cologne, pinpoints four foundational reasons behind this remarkable run leading up to Sunday. “When we sold Kai Havertz to Chelsea in 2020 for €70m or so, that money was re-invested really well — that’s still playing its part in the club because players like Jonathan Tah and Palacios were all of that.

Secondly, a lot of credit has to go out to Simon Rolfes for his summer transfers where we brought in Alex Grimaldo, Granit Xhaka, Jonas Hofmann, Nathan Tella and Victor Boniface. They’ve all worked out. Then thirdly there’s Florian Wirtz. We have a well-documented history of these kind of players: technical, brilliant players, but Wirtz seems to be the real gem of the pack. And of course, there’s Xabi Alonso. We’re so lucky to have him, but it’s not just him — there’s been a lot of other things that went well to make this happen.”

Goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky has been at the club for six years. “I thought train had gone, but when we got the coach and transfers, I believed again,” Hradecky told ESPN.

When Xabi Alonso took over in October 2022, they were 17th in the league. There were some misgivings among the fan base when he was announced as their new coach — his previous managerial experience was taking charge of Real Sociedad‘s B Team. “We thought we were an experiment,” said one fan, clutching a crate of beer about four hours from kick-off. But then they started winning, and winning.

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Keller: The sky is the limit for Xabi Alonso

Kasey Keller says he doesn’t see where Xabi Alonso’s journey ends after leading Bayer Leverkusen to their first Bundesliga title.

Alonso has a contract through 2026 and in March made a statement committing his future to the club, distancing himself from potential overtures from Bayern Munich and Liverpool. Even before Sunday, he was secured in club legend. There were scarves on sale outside the ground simply reading: “Danke Xabi Alonso.”

“I mean what sets him apart to other coaches maybe in the last years, is his charisma — both as a person and a player,” Bradaric said. “Everybody believes on the way of Xabi Alonso: everybody at the club and it’s starting from the right scouting, it’s continuing with the right practical approach so during 90 plus minutes they all believe in the Bayer way.”

The season was remarkable, but for Alonso, the moment he allowed himself to believe they were going to do the job was after their 3-0 win over Bayern Munich on Feb. 10. “It could have turned out that they would have been ahead of us. We didn’t talk about winning the title in the locker room that day but we all knew. We were all thinking about it,” Alonso said.

“The consistency, the quality of our game over the season, we earned this title. It’s not easy and we were living it every day, which made us believe. It’s an incredible team, all the players worked so hard even the young guys. Everyone was always preparing hard. We night need a little more time to reflect on what we accomplished but right now, we want to enjoy this.”

The wider significance to this triumph is the end of Bayern Munich’s dominance in German football. Their run of 11 straight Bundesliga triumphs is at an end — a new name on the Meisterschale. Before the match a smattering of Werder Bremen fans watched the Bayer bus arrive.

“It feels a little weird being here, like we’re at someone else’s party,” aware of the role they could have had in postponing celebrations. Bayer haven’t been everyone’s favorite team in Germany in the past, given they are exempt from the 50+1 ownership rule, but from talking to fans before the game, they felt a general willing from those at other clubs to end Bayern’s hegemony.

“It’s good for German football if Bayern’s run is finished,” said a Werder Bremen fan with Claudio Pizarro’s name on the back of his shirt.

Cologne could’ve helped them on Saturday secure the “sofa championship” — if they’d beaten Bayern Munich and Stuttgart had fallen, then Leverkusen would have won the league without kicking another ball. But Cologne fell 2-0. They had little time to think of their rivals the other side of the Rhein, as they are in their own relegation battle. “We have our own problems to think about,” said the manager of the Kunstkaschaemm bar on Saturday.

So with matters in their own hands, they had the chance to secure their first ever title in front of their own fans at the BayArena. Alonso used the full breadth of his squad. The team selection was a surprise: he rested Wirtz, Grimaldo, Exequiel Palacios and Jeremie Frimpong for the Werder game. Despite them being within touching distance of history, there was the Europa League quarterfinal against West Ham on Thursday.

The first-half was fairly straightforward — Boniface’s 25th minute penalty gave them a 1-0 lead at the break. But then came the introduction of Wirtz. The German magician, one of the finest players in world football, had the match on a piece of string as he prodded and pulled at Werder Bremen’s defense.

Xhaka scored a brilliant second for Leverkusen in the 60th minute with a first-time effort from distance, and Wirtz followed that up with a thunderbolt of his own in the 68th. He added another after 83 minutes, and then came the final effort as the clock ticked towards 90 minutes. In the end it was procession.

This team will be forever etched in Bayer history as the group that finally got them over the line. But with a DFB Pokal final against Kaiserslautern, and the second leg of their Europa League quarterfinal to come, they are still on for the treble.

“Tomorrow we will realise what we achieved, tonight we celebrate,” Jonathan Tah told ESPN.

You get the feeling this group want records as well as silverware to their name. They have now surpassed Bayern’s 2013-14 record of 28 matches unbeaten in the league with this, their 29th, while their ongoing feat of 43 unbeaten matches (including 38 wins) across all competitions has already out-stripped Bayern’s 2019-20 total of 32. Leverkusen are still on for a record point total of 94 if they win their remaining matches.

“When you kick a ball at a young age, you dream of moments like this,” Xhaka told ESPN. “It was hard work, day by day, with everyone who was included in this club. In my 14 years football career, it’s special for me, but even more special for this club. Now we want more, and to take the other ones as well.”

The club has new footage to replace the old memories of Ballack, head in hands, on the bench in 2000, and the look of sheer bewilderment after that 11-day spell from hell as they lost all three potential chances at silverware in 2002. Instead, they’ll have the beaming smile of Wirtz as he was being mobbed by supporters, the shots of Alonso drinking from a stein in the dressing room, the thousands of faces on the pitch at the end in sheer elation. Then after as Alonso was sitting in the press conference, the team came in and doused him in beer. Amid all that, perhaps it’s time for a new nickname, too.

“I mean the media created the name Neverkusen and at the time, it was the right name,” Brdaric said. “But now they can get rid of that, and create a new name like Megakusen.”



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