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The team they love to hate

When Saturday's Bundesliga matches ended, many home crowds were disappointed. At Wolfsburg, people were helplessly watching Bayern Munich celebrate yet another title. At Stuttgart, fans were fearing the draw with Rostock could seriously damage their Champions League dreams. At Gelsenkirchen, the Schalke supporters were cursing fate and an 89th-minute wonder goal that had beaten their team.

But as downcast as all these faithful were, they had one last, loud cheer in them. It came when the news made the round that Gladbach had equalised against Bayer 04 Leverkusen in the dying seconds.

Gladbach are still well-loved around the league, which is a remnant from the glory 1970s, when this team from an unfashionable city defied mighty Bayern. But on Saturday, the point was not that Gladbach had scored a crcuial goal but that Leverkusen had conceded one. Because Leverkusen are not loved, not at all.

Maybe I have to qualify that. Because I know quite a few people who actually like, or admire, the club. Some of them are journalists. They are fond of Reiner Calmund, Bayer's business manager, who's always good for a quote or ten and has never seen a microphone he doesn't want to talk into. (His gargantuan girth is misleading. As a young man, he was slim and good-looking and a half-decent player. And in contrast to many of his Bundesliga colleagues he's a real football nut and expert.)

Other people I know who like Leverkusen are coaches. That's because for the past six or seven years, Bayer have been playing the most modern, tactically and technically sophisticated football in the country. First under Christoph Daum, then under Klaus Toppmoeller. (The season with Berti Vogts at the helm should be filed under 'embarrassing aberration'.) They have certainly been more offensive and entertaining to watch than Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund.

The third group of people who sympathise with Leverkusen is actually quite large. It consists of all those only mildly interested observers who follow football from a safe distance. 'Oh, they're always so unlucky, aren't they?' they will say, sadly shaking their heads. That's true. If you finish four of the past six league campaigns in second place, surrender the 2000 title on the last day because you can't draw with Unterhaching, give away the 2002 title because a five-point lead with three games to go isn't enough, and then manage to lose the cup and the Champions League finals within four days ­ then fortune is not your ally.

But football fans, regardless of which club they root for, have no time for any of this. I have yet to stand on a terrace where people are not cheering when a goal against Leverkusen is announced (unless it means bad news for Bayern).

When Leverkusen played their crucial away match at La Coruna in last season's Champions League campaign, there were 156 supporters travelling with the team.

Last season, for instance, Leverkusen gifted the title to a Dortmund side that would have won few popularity contests either by losing to Bremen and Nuremberg down the stretch, but the supporters of these two clubs displayed no pity whatsoever. 'You'll never ever win the league,' they sneeringly sang as the tears flowed freely. And then, to the tune of the Sir Douglas Quintet's 'Mendocino': 'No one cries as nice as Reiner Calmund.'

German fans just don't consider Bayer 04 a proper football club. Partly, that's because Leverkusen were formed as a multi-sports club for workers of the Bayer pharmaceutical and chemical company, which has always made money available. As far back as 1967, when Leverkusen were in the second division and professional football still young in Germany, Bayer 04 could completely overhaul the team, buying seven new players.

Leverkusen were also the first club to sign Brazilians by the truckload (starting with Tita in 1987) and the first club to pry talents loose from the former GDR when the wall fell: Andreas Thom arrived as early as 1989, quickly followed by Ulf Kirsten and Heiko Scholz. Reiner Calmund even had a contract drawn up for Matthias Sammer, but shied away from having too many Easterners in the side.

Yet all those spending sprees couldn't buy Leverkusen success. They had to wait until 1979 to finally make it to the Bundesliga, four years after smaller cousins Bayer Uerdingen had turned the trick. (Uerdingen is a part of Krefeld, where Bayer operates another plant. In 1995, the company cut this club's financial supply and Uerdingen reformed as KFC Uerdingen.)

True, Leverkusen lifted the UEFA Cup in 1988, but it is characteristic that in so doing they became the first club to win a European trophy before a domestic one. The only silverware they have added since is a solitary German Cup, in 1993, and even that triumph was blemished: Leverkusen narrowly beat Hertha Berlin's amateurs (!) in the final and were booed during the victory ceremony.

Reiner Calmund: Misleading girth
Reiner Calmund: Misleading girth

With that history in mind, it should surprise no one to hear that Bayer 04 are often called a club without supporters. In 1973, when they were relegated to the third division, only 400 fans watched the last match of the season. Thirteen years later, Leverkusen finished sixth in the Bundesliga, their best showing until then - but still only drew 9,000 fans on average.

Of course, the recent boom years mean they now usually sell out their posh BayArena (capacity: 22,500), yet passion doesn't seem to be widespread. When Leverkusen played their crucial away match at La Coruna in last season's Champions League campaign, there were 156 supporters travelling with the team.

So, that's why not many people will shed tears should Leverkusen get relegated this season. At Kaiserslautern, they'll even consider it poetic justice. That has to do with the last day of the 1995-96 campaign.

Leverkusen met Kaiserslautern at home and needed a draw to stay up at the expense of the visitors. But with nine minutes to go, Kaiserslautern led 1-0. Then their sweeper Miroslav Kadlec injured himself, and a team-mate played the ball into touch to allow treatment. Naturally, everbody expected Leverkusen to return the ball. But they didn't. Instead they scored the vital equaliser.

  • Uli's history of German football, Tor!, published by WSC Books, is available through Sportsbooksdirect.

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