In May 2000, Bayer Leverkusen were one game from greatness. Having never won a Bundesliga title, the club were three points clear going into the last day of the season. Their final fixture was against Unterhaching, a mid-table minnow with nothing to play for, and their task was simple: don’t self-destruct. So, of course, they did exactly that, a young Michael Ballack rifling emphatically past his keeper midway through the first half on the way to a ruinous 2–0 defeat.

Bayern Munich, German football’s trophy-hoovering juggernaut—the glitzy Rachel McAdams to Leverkusen’s starstruck Lindsay Lohan—leapfrogged Leverkusen to snatch the title, and their general manager was in no mood for magnanimity. “Bayer will never win anything,” goaded Uli Hoeness, his pockets rattling with smaller boys’ lunch money. “When they play decisive games, they put their nappies on.” Whether or not the assessment was fair was a moot point: the tag stuck. Leverkusen were rechristened Never-kusen.

All of which meant that when they arrived at the same point two years later—two points clear with two games to go—the mood around the club was a curious mix of exhilaration and fatalism. This time, however, the stakes had risen threefold: Leverkusen weren’t just on course to win their first ever title, they were in the final of the German Cup and, ludicrously—impossibly—the Champions League, too. A club that had won only two major trophies in its 98-year existence could now outstrip that total in a single fortnight. Yet the closer Leverkusen edged towards glory, the more the memory of Unterhaching loomed large.

Like a kid who’d watched Cool Runnings too many times, the supporters had final hurdle failure embedded deep in their psyche, but Leverkusen’s coach Klaus Toppmöller remained bullish. When, on the eve of this pivotal end of season series, he was reminded of the collapse of two years previously, Toppmöller cleared his throat, leaned forward and spoke with fate-tempting conviction:

“There will be no second Unterhaching,” he said. “Fear does not exist for us.”

Image: Well Offside

To understand Bayer Leverkusen, it’s necessary to understand their origins. The club is an oddity in German football (although slightly less odd in the Red Bull-spattered landscape of today) in that it is directly affiliated with a commercial enterprise. In 1903, workers from the pharmaceutical firm, Friedrich Bayer, petitioned their company to fund the formation of a sports society, and in time the venture evolved into the club that still bears the firm’s name, a team who worked their way up from the German fourth division.

A dead-eyed corporate vessel, then? Well, that depends who you ask. On the one hand the club is owned entirely by a profit-driven company and is one of the few clubs to flout the German league’s much-revered 50+1 ownership rule; on the other it was founded via classically democratic, industrial-era methods—factory workers lobbying their employers for liberties—and its existence predates that of its proud, traditionalist rivals like Dortmund and FC Köln. Stick your card behind the bar and debate away.

The simple upshot, though, in a country where fan culture tends heavily towards the anti-establishment left, is that a club quite literally competing in the name of Big Pharma was never likely to burrow its way into neutrals’ hearts. The German word for a club, verein, has connotations of democracy and collectivism, and opposition shrieks of “Wir wollen keine werksvereine!” (“We don’t want any business teams”) have long since been familiar to Leverkusen supporters.

If acceptance has never been easy to come by, trophies have proven similarly elusive. As if to underline this dual struggle, Leverkusen’s only major domestic trophy, the German cup in 1993, was won at the expense of much loved minnows Hertha BSC Amateure, the first ever third-tier side to reach a final. A first trinket for ‘the pill makers’, as they are sneeringly known, elicited no smiles from the watching public.

So it was, then, that Leverkusen’s astonishing upsurge during the 2001/02 season drew mixed feelings. Certainly, it was not your typical underdog story, not least for those keen to ensure fan culture retained its fuck-the-man essence. Against this, however, was the Bundesliga’s need to wriggle free of the deathly grip of the Bayern-Dortmund duopoly, whose avarice had accounted for seven of the last eight titles.

The outlook of neutrals was further muddled by the resplendent style with which Leverkusen were razing the elite: it’s no exaggeration to say the team were teaching Europe a new way of playing football. In an era when the playground hero strikers were either sinewy Olympians like Thierry Henry and Real Ronaldo, or loping goal hangers a la Raúl and Ruud van Nistelrooy, and tended to play in pairs, Leverkusen’s sole presence up top was Oliver Neuville, a pudgy, pasty, one-paced forward who dealt less in goals and more in hauling defences out of position with wearying off the ball runs.

The chief payees of Neuville’s labours were the rampaging Michael Ballack, an otherworldly hybrid of all-action midfielder and sharp-elbowed target man, and Zé Roberto and Bernd Schneider, who decorated the flanks with no-nonsense wing play and heat-seeking crosses.

The centre circle was marshalled by the gloriously arthouse/grindhouse pairing of Yildiray Baştürk, a midfielder with the vision and touch of a Renaissance painter, and Carsten Ramelow, who had the white/blonde hair of a Die Hard villain and the cold-hearted sadism to match. A converted centre half, Ramelow would drop into defence when required—which, given the tendency of the gangly Lúcio to gallop upfield with Brazilian blithe, was fairly often.

Leverkusen, to put it simply, were a proper team. As Uli Hesse writes in Tor!, his history of German football: “They played an attack-minded, state-of-art game that at times looked like an updated version of the Dutch ‘total football’ of the 70s. While Bayern and Dortmund relied on a Hollywood-esque star system, Leverkusen’s football stood and fell on the performance, and constant movement, of every single player.”

Or to put it another way, Leverkusen didn’t just oppose their two rivals in a sporting sense, but in a philosophical one, too: suddenly, the corporate lackeys were flying the flag for collectivism.

Serious steel was allied to this rampant style. Ballack, built like a Roman gladiator, had a vicious streak that would make Paul Scholes blush—one poll ranked him third in a list of footballers most disliked by their fellow players—and Ramelow, in particular, would ensure every tackle was laced with murderous intent. In total, no fewer than six Leverkusen players finished the 2001/02 season having reached double figures in yellow cards; a spectacular achievement made even more so by the fact that Ramelow, Baştürk, and Ballack totted up a staggering 15 each (the most Roy Keane managed in a two-decade career was 12). It was a side that brought to mind Graeme Souness’ wonderful reminiscence of the Liverpool team he captained: “Do you want to play football with us, or do you want to fight us?” he snarled nostalgically. “Because either way, we’ll match you.”

Pulling the puppet strings from up high was Toppmöller himself, a coach whose commitment to sexy football was matched only by a rampant disregard for his own appearance. Trailed wherever he went by a thick fog of ciggy smoke and forever glistening under a film of sweat, Toppmöller’s touchline look—dishevelled, permed, exuding constant and acute anxiety—was a Frankensteinian patchwork of Philip Seymour Hoffman and brolly-era Steve McClaren.

An unremarkable journeyman coach, Toppmöller’s most notable achievement prior to the summer of 2001 had been to drink himself into oblivion on the night his Vfl Bochum side had landed an unlikely Uefa Cup win. An unconscious Toppmöller was discovered in the gutter by binmen the following morning and chauffeured triumphantly back to the stadium in their rubbish truck.

But small-scale as these achievements were, Toppmöller was a coach with a niche: getting small clubs to punch big. Bochum were a yo-yo club that he took into Europe, and after that he took over FC Saabrücken, who he helped out of the regional leagues into the second tier.

As the 2001/02 season crept towards its midway point, it became clear his Leverkusen side could well be about to dwarf all that: by December, they had qualified from a nasty looking Champions League group and stood proudly atop the Bundesliga having outscored everyone in the division. An undefeated record against the three clubs that finished above them the previous season evidenced their intent, while a 2–1 win over Barcelona hinted at something altogether higher.

It was an implausible few months, but as winter came, reality closed in. After seeing out November by swatting aside Hamburg 4–1 to take themselves four points clear at the top, Leverkusen, like the marathon runner who scampers into an improbable early lead, hit the wall: undefeated thus far, they suddenly contrived to lose five of their next seven. By the time Dortmund made their way to Leverkusen on 24 February, a four point lead had become a two point deficit. Icarus, having had his fun in the sun, was hurtling towards the crashing waves.

Dortmund, on the other hand, were top of the table and unbeaten in four months. With Leverkusen flailing, they arrived at the BayArena expecting to confirm their status as champions elect. They departed having been turned into Swiss cheese by the Bayer Tommy gun, Ballack opening the floodgates in a 4–0 win, as comprehensive a thumping as could be wished for. Toppmöller’s men, back on top of the table, weren’t going anywhere.

With momentum regained in the league, and 1860 Munich dispatched 3–0 in the quarterfinal of the cup (a spritely young scamp, Dimitar Berbatov, nabbed a brace in a rare start), Bayer’s attention turned to Europe. And having clambered out of a second group stage at the expense of Arsenal and Juventus—both of whom would soon be crowned title winners back home—Leverkusen clearly meant business. Next up, Gérard Houllier’s Liverpool, and one of the great, most criminally underrated European ties of modern times.

A knife-edge match at Anfield had been decided by a Sami Hyypiä header, leaving Leverkusen needing a two goal win in Germany to take them cleanly through. If the first leg was an exercise in slow burn Hitchcockian tension, the second was a popcorn peddling blockbuster: it was a true epic and, like the best epics, it hinged on a magnetic star turn.

Of the generation of midfield all-rounders that dominated Europe around the turn of the millennium, Ballack is the one to whom history has been least kind. Yet he was perhaps the most complete of the lot, combining the savagery of Keane, the sauntering self-belief of Lampard, and the bludgeoning strike of Gerrard—and all with an almost offensive degree of effortlessness. He also possessed two things that trio lacked: a towering aerial presence and two good feet.  

Against Liverpool these were both deployed for maximum damage. The drama got underway in the 16th minute when, lining up a 30-yarder, Ballack spotted Steven Gerrard lunging his way and dummied back onto his left to send his opposite number sailing past him with cartoonish helplessness. His sights now clear, he dispatched with his supposedly weaker foot a blistering strike that accelerated violently into the roof of Jerzy Dudek’s net. Vorsprung durch Technik.

Liverpool soon replied through Abel Xavier, and so back Ballack came again, this time, on the hour mark, rising above a crowd of inferiors to brutalise a Schneider cross into the back of the net. Berbatov then stabbed Leverkusen into an aggregate lead before, with ten minutes left, Jari Litmanen weaved his way through a packed box and stroked home a finish with typical cool. By way of celebration, he collapsed in an exhausted heap, bracing himself for the pile on. Liverpool were heading through on away goals.

Yet Leverkusen found it within themselves to muster one last heave, and in doing so produced the season’s purest paean to Cruyff and the gang. With five minutes to go, Baştürk gathered possession the on the edge of the area and, through the massed ranks of defenders, spotted his centre half channelling the spirit of Pippo Inzaghi, with Lúcio loitering on the shoulder of Liverpool’s last man. Baştürk drew a challenge, sidestepped it with contemptuous ease, and slipped in the buccaneering Brazilian, whose Inzaghi impression was not done yet, as he slammed the ball under Dudek and celebrated with all the eyeball-popping intensity the occasion demanded.

It was an electric, seesawing win and a momentous turning point: even the cynical German public could not help but be won over. “It must not be that this great team is left empty-handed at the end,” wrote one journalist in Bild. “That cannot be the will of the football gods.” Another, quoted in The Guardian the following month, said: “That 4–2 win over Liverpool has already become part of German football history. Because they have played entertaining football all season, everybody is behind them in the Champions League.”

At three different points over that tie, Leverkusen were heading out. Remarkably, they repeated the trick in the semifinal, thrice falling behind to Manchester United only to respond each time and advance on away goals. The third of those, a zero backlift curler from Neuville to pick out the postage stamp, was in itself worthy of a place in the final.

“This was the antithesis of compressed and cautious football favoured by modern European managers,” purred Paul Hayward in The Telegraph.

As the final whistle went, Toppmöller and his staff stormed the BayArena pitch in ecstasy. If their jubilation was well-justified, the sheer scale of joy perhaps hinted at a loss of focus. “This is a time for cigarettes and drink,” said Toppmöller. “We have made the dream come true.”

Image: Well Offside

So it came, then, that with four games to play—two league, two cup—Leverkusen were within touching distance of the unthinkable. But their demolition of United hadn’t come without collateral damage: ten minutes into the second leg, Jens Nowotny, Leverkusen’s captain and a model of solidity at centre back, had shredded his knee ligaments. Straight after they suffered a 2–1 defeat at home to Werder Bremen, the goalkeeper Hans-Jörg Butt—normally a masterful penalty taker—tamely missing from the spot on an afternoon when a plainly ludicrous award of another 90th-minute penalty saw Dortmund run out 2–1 winners in Köln. Leverkusen’s five point lead was scythed to a fragile two.

The real gut punch came a week later, away to lowly Nürnberg in the penultimate weekend of the campaign. Leverkusen went behind to an early header and, for once, could summon no answer. After a season of Herculean toil, a paper-thin squad suddenly looked spent. Three hundred miles north, in Hamburg, Dortmund were putting the finishing touches on a 4–3 win that took them top of the table.

Leverkusen’s final day win was, inevitably, in vain. Dortmund faltered at Werder Bremen, falling behind to a goal from the marauding Paul Stalteri, but ultimately did the business, winning 2–1. Ballack’s brace to see off Hertha, the second a close range finish whose needless power betrayed a stewing rage, counted for nothing. Worse still, he fractured his foot. Leverkusen’s number 13 would play the two cup finals with the aid of painkilling injections.

The first of those, against Schalke in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, began well enough, with Lúcio stampeding upfield, firing off a couple of one-twos and teeing up Berbatov for the opener. But a pair wonder goals put Leverkusen on the back foot, and they duly collapsed 4–2 losers. In the space of a week, three cups had become just one—and Real Madrid stood in the way of it.

As the teams emerged from the tunnel in Hampden Park, you could be forgiven for presuming that fate was against the Germans. “Neverkusen” had already chucked away two trophies and Real Madrid, in the culmination of their centenary year, smugly backed  themselves to win this one. Duly enough, the game had barely kicked off before Raúl put them ahead.

And, yet again, Leverkusen rallied, Lúcio nodding home before, on the stroke of half-time, Zinedine Zidane spied a ball dropping from the heavens and administered the most beautifully brutal of knockout blows: from a high, arching Roberto Carlo cross, with the swish of a boot and the dispatching of one of football’s greatest ever goals, Zizou had ensured Leverkusen’s season was over.

Image: Well Offside

If Leverkusen’s fate was sensationally cruel, the summer that followed brought a grimly perfect addendum, when a Germany squad containing Butt, Ballack, Ramelow, Neuville and Schneider stormed to the World Cup final only to be shot down by (the real) Ronaldo and Brazil. Three of that quintuplet started the game, while Ballack—who scored winners in the quarter and semifinals, as well as three goals in the qualifying play-off to get them there—sat it out with a suspension picked up for a selfless tactical foul. And that was that: shortly after Cafu lifted the Jules Rimet, and Ballack and Zé Roberto defected to Bayern. The following season Leverkusen went into free fall. Toppmöller was clearing his desk in February.

In hindsight, that fateful final fortnight took in the full gamut of failures: self-inflicted collapse, meek surrender, and, finally, succumbing to a moment of hold-your-hands-up genius. Factor in the World Cup and you have a tragedy Shakespearean in scale, and a poetic end to a six-year spell in which Leverkusen finished runners-up four times and won precisely nothing.

Heroes for making it to the finish line, or losers for stumbling when they got there? History will tell you the latter, but like all nearly-teams, Leverkusen’s class of 2002 are proof of how brutally narrow the prism of results can truly be. Only four European clubs had ever won the Treble, and none in Germany: Toppmöller’s team came within three games of it.

The headlines tell us they collapsed on three fronts. The small print details that they did so with a punishingly thin squad, a sidelined captain, and a hobbled talisman. That they thrilled Europe, won the hearts of a scornful public, and lost out to two establishment giants. That in the dying moments of the European Cup final, Iker Casillas twice clawed the ball from his goal line. Take in the full picture and failures don’t get much more heroic.

“Nobody expected anything from us that season. All the experts predicted us to finish seventh,” Toppmöller has since said—and there is a bitter irony that coming seventh, rather than second, would never have given rise to a reputation as success-shy chokers.

It’s an irony he will have to live with. “When I look back on that season,” he says, “I have only pride.”

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