In this edition of his weekly column, ESPN's lead Bundesliga commentator Derek Rae explains why Bayer Leverkusen, consistently one of Germany's most eye-catching sides, are not always widely loved within Germany. Why is this and why are they getting the chemistry right this season?
As someone whose Twitter feed is devoted to Bundesliga news and analysis, I can't help noticing which teams my worldwide followers have an allegiance to. As you would expect, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund make up the majority, but I'm often taken by how many have the #B04 hashtag in their profile. Why the surprise, you might be wondering?
Well, if you tell someone in the west of Germany you're a supporter of Bayer 04 Leverkusen -- to give the club its full name -- you're not walking down an especially well-trodden path. The reply might be "Na, gut" ("OK, then"). Privately, they might be thinking, ''That's different."
Located just a short train journey or drive from Cologne, on the eastern bank of the Rhine, Bayer Leverkusen are not even close to being the primary draw in their home region -- except, perhaps, if you hail from or have connections in the city of 160,000 itself, or a tie to the Bayer pharmaceutical company.
- Leverkusen vs. Cologne: Sunday, 10:30 a.m. ET; stream live on ESPN+
- ESPN+ viewers' guide: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, FA Cup, more
- Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
- Don't have ESPN? Get instant access
Unlike the great and at times wonderfully chaotic western Traditionsvereine (clubs rooted in tradition with large followings) nearby like FC Cologne or Borussia Monchengladbach, Leverkusen convey more of a clean-cut, family-club image, born of their origins in 1904. They were formed by employees of the chemical firm as part of a wider sports club to serve this new burgeoning community.
Unlike RB Leipzig, set up specifically with a view to market a popular brand, with Bayer Leverkusen the raison d'etre was more societal in nature: a big company doing something paternalistic through funding to improve the lives of those who worked for it. Hence the nickname "die Werkself" ("the factory eleven"), which is commonly used as a nod to those early days.
We're getting, of course, to the nub of why fans of other teams have a slight problem with Leverkusen and VfL Wolfsburg, two special-case clubs when it comes to the 50+1 rule. This rule -- sacrosanct to many who love the German brand of football -- guarantees that club members (i.e. the fans) hold a majority of the voting rights. Because Leverkusen's investors (Bayer) have had an interest in the club stretching back decades and been seen as positive influences, they are able to claim an exemption from 50+1.
You can perhaps understand why Cologne fans, for example, are irked by this. Leverkusen's facilities -- despite a much smaller fan base than Effzeh just along the Rhine -- are considerably plusher and their financial means greater. This makes it easier to prize away Cologne talent like the prodigiously gifted Florian Wirtz, as Leverkusen successfully did.
The two clubs meet on Sunday (10:30 a.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+), and while for Leverkusen it certainly is a derby, for Cologne fans the derby is with Gladbach, not Bayer 04. Get the picture?
It perhaps explains why few crocodile tears have been shed when Leverkusen have down the years come close without winning the Bundesliga. They've registered five runners-up finishes, and I must confess, I felt especially sorry for them in 2000 and 2002 when the let they Meisterschale slip from their grasp. Twenty years ago could have been a Treble-winning campaign for them, but instead, the "Neverkusen" tag was chanted gleefully as Schadenfreude took hold. Leverkusen were defeated by Schalke in the DFB-Pokal final and Real Madrid in the Champions League final.
They have of course lifted a European trophy before. I remember listening on the radio to their dramatic penalty shootout win over Espanyol in the UEFA Cup decider in 1988. Plus, they did win the Pokal in 1993, when they beat Hertha Berlin's second team in the final.
But what of modern-day Bayer Leverkusen? What is the attraction internationally?
Well, first a tip of the hat to the club's social-media crew, and in particular Kara Head of the U.S. who does terrific and innovative work pictorially and information wise to relay to the world what's happening daily on the Bismarckstrasse. The team on the pitch, I must confess, is one I always thoroughly enjoy commentating on and will be back with them on the 20th when they travel to Wolfsburg.
Rudi Voller, the club's head of sport and former international striker and national team coach, will be retiring this summer. While he is greatly respected and well liked, he effectively handed the reins over to Simon Rolfes a long time ago. The squad you see now has Rolfes' signature on it: fast, young, dynamic, easy on the eye. "No risk, no fun" could almost be the team's mantra.
It helps when you have a trident of attacking players that would grace most top teams in Europe, and from Wirtz, Patrik Schick and Moussa Diaby, the Werksclub get nothing but productivity. Schick with his 20 goals, second only to Robert Lewandowski in the Bundesliga, remains out with a calf injury, but improves with each passing season. Wirtz with his 10 league assists plays with a maturity that belies his 18 years. No player of that age has scored more Bundesliga goals than the 13 the youngster from Pulheim has netted in his career. Diaby, meanwhile, goes down as one of the great recent signings in German football with his blistering pace, accurate left foot and eye for goal.
Rolfes and his impressive scouting network have also come through for the club with the signings of centre-back Edmond Tapsoba, flying full-backs Jeremie Frimpong and Mitchel Bakker, versatile left-footed defender Piero Hincapie and attacker Amine Adli. There is depth in the squad, too -- at times you feel even more depth than is available to Bayern and Dortmund.
We also have to give credit to their Swiss coach Gerardo Seoane, who in his first season has cut the figure of the perfect fit for this bold team. Seoane is multilingual and has the advantage of being able to address most of the players in their own language. His tactical ideas have been focused mostly on a well-fitting, but exciting 4-2-3-1, but he pulled a rabbit out of the hat on Saturday with a back three for only the second time from the start, and in Schick's absence a revolving-door-style attack -- featuring Diaby, Wirtz and Adli -- in the well-merited 1-1 draw at the Allianz Arena.
It was back to 4-2-3-1 for the trip to Atalanta in the Europa League, and this was never going to be a mere bagatelle. In fact, the first leg lived up to its billing as a meeting of attack-minded ideological soulmates.
The outlook could have been grim. Leverkusen rode their luck at times and made mistakes aplenty in the topsy turvy 3-2 defeat, but Diaby and Charles Aranguiz each scored a memorable goal and the Bayer 04 chemistry was strong enough to leave them in an acceptable Ausgangsposition ahead of the home leg.
Parts of German fandom will always remain lukewarm to the club, but Bayer Leverkusen represent hope in a European competition synonymous with Bundesliga underperformance for too many years. Their football ethos has much going for it.