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A Perpetual Bridesmaid Gets the Crown, and Germany (Mostly) Likes the Look

WorldEuropeA Perpetual Bridesmaid Gets the Crown, and Germany (Mostly) Likes the Look


Executives at Bayer Leverkusen, the longstanding but habitually middleweight German soccer team, have been fielding the messages since at least February. Some were delivered in person, a quiet blessing after yet another victory. Others came via WhatsApp, unsolicited and unexpected notes from peers and acquaintances and, to their occasional surprise, traditional foes.

Soccer, after all, is fiercely tribal. Rivals do not easily offer one another encouragement or congratulations. But as the German league season gathered pace, plenty wanted to laud Leverkusen’s impending achievement: It was, with each victory, getting closer and closer to being crowned national champion for the first time.

And, that meant — just as importantly — that Bayern Munich was not.

Leverkusen will, this weekend, surge over the line and end a run of Bayern championships that stretches back more than a decade. At least it should: All Leverkusen requires to seal the title is a single victory, which could come as soon as its game against Werder Bremen on Sunday, or for Bayern to lose.

The triumph has been a long time coming, in one sense; the club was founded 120 years ago, in 1904, before the city of Leverkusen technically existed. But in another sense it has arrived more swiftly than anyone anticipated.

Six months ago, the team’s charismatic coach, Xabi Alonso, 42, said he would countenance the idea that his side might win the championship only if it was still in contention in April. As it is, it might claim the title so early that it cannot celebrate it properly: The season is still in full swing, and Leverkusen has at least two more trophies to chase.

Whenever the title comes, the club will hold a low-key postgame party for the players and their families at its stadium, the BayArena. But it will not hold the traditional parade — at which its fans will have the chance to salute the players — until May 26, the day after the country’s other major domestic competition, the German cup, concludes. (Leverkusen is favored to win that one, too.)

Organizing that celebration has been something of a challenge: Leverkusen, a small city sandwiched between Cologne and Düsseldorf, does not possess a civic building with a ceremonial balcony big enough to allow the team to greet its fans. (The club has said it has several options in mind, though nothing has been decided.)

“We will adorn our city in black and red wherever we can,” the city’s mayor, Uwe Richrath, said in a statement.

It is not a problem the club — or the city authorities — has had to face before. Bayer Leverkusen, founded more than a century ago as a sporting outlet for workers at the nearby Bayer chemical plant, has won only two major honors in its long history. The most recent was in 1993.

Instead, Leverkusen has become almost synonymous with agonizing defeat. In 2002, the club picked up the Anglicized nickname “Neverkusen” after missing out on the league title, the German cup and the Champions League, Europe’s marquee soccer competition, at the last hurdle. That reputation is so deeply scoured into the club’s soul that Bayer Leverkusen has patented the German equivalent, Vizekusen.

Alonso’s team will, over the next few weeks, exorcise those ghosts in fairly spectacular fashion. His team has yet to lose a game this season, and it can still end the campaign with more major honors (three) than it has in its entire history.

That achievement carries a significance that will extend some way beyond its hometown.

The ritual dominance in recent years of Bayern Munich, the country’s biggest and by far richest club, had become a source of considerable concern — both to German fans and the league itself — as the annual chase to win the league, the Bundesliga, has begun to seem stale and predictable.

As the many messages that have poured in to Bayer Leverkusen attest, there is no little relief within German soccer at the prospect of a changing of the guard, even if it proves temporary.

“I can say absolutely that it is great for the Bundesliga,” said Peer Naubert, the chief marketing officer for Bundesliga International, the organization that promotes German soccer abroad. “Having the same champion for 11 years in a row did not have a negative impact, but it did not have a positive one, either.”

Bayer Leverkusen’s success has allowed the Bundesliga to tell a different story to its international audience. At least part of that can be attributed to Alonso himself: It is striking, for example, how much of Leverkusen’s social media output features its coach, a beloved former player for Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bayern, three of the world’s most popular clubs.

But the league as a whole has seen concrete benefits, too, Mr. Naubert said. “In terms of awareness, interest and the number of avid fans,” he said, citing a metric the Bundesliga uses to describe viewers who tune in regularly, “we have seen a significant increase.”

Many more people are watching Leverkusen’s games than in the past, he said, but more people are also tuning in for other teams, too. There has been a corresponding rise in the league’s social media imprint. “There is some freshness, I think,” Mr. Naubert said.

The reaction among fans has been nuanced. It would be stretching it to suggest that Germany is rapturous at the prospect of Leverkusen’s winning the championship. Fans are too loyal to their own clubs, and German soccer too regionalized, for that. The club also lacks the wide diaspora that rivals like Bayern or Borussia Dortmund have, and so does not intrude on the national consciousness quite so much as others.

Leverkusen also occupies a somewhat uneasy position within German soccer’s firmament. As an offshoot of the corporate behemoth Bayer, it is one of a handful of exceptions to the cherished German model: the so-called 50+1 rule, in which fans are required to be the majority owners of their clubs. It is a longstanding exception, but it is still an exception.

That status means Leverkusen is “kind of the original sin,” said Dario Minden, a spokesman for Unsere Kurve, a group representing Germany’s organized fans. It is that corporate backing, in his view, that has enabled the club to weather the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic better than other teams.

“The important thing to see is that the only one to break Bayern’s dominance was a construct of a giant pharmaceutical company,” Mr. Minden said.

But Leverkusen’s prominence is not a balm for the financial imbalance that has allowed Bayern to win the championship every year since 2012, he said.

Even the fact that Leverkusen is confident it can build on its success — Alonso has turned down approaches from both Liverpool and Bayern to remain as coach next year, and the team expects to retain its star player, Florian Wirtz — is not evidence of a new, more equitable dawn for rivals around the league.

As an Eintracht Frankfurt fan, Mr. Minden admitted, he takes no joy in any team other than his own winning the championship. “Although maybe that is because I am a bad person,” he said.

Still, one aspect of the championship has provided him some solace. “We have this nice word,” he said. “Schadenfreude.”

Like much of Germany, Mr. Minden may not be actively celebrating Leverkusen’s impending victory. He can, though, take just a little pleasure in the fact that it means Bayern Munich, after 11 long years, will again get to experience what it means to finish second.



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