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German champions Leverkusen: A team of superlatives

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German champions Leverkusen: A team of superlatives

Coach Xabi Alonso has created a team of superlatives. The team seems unbeatable under him.

One of the best in the world: 20-year-old Florian Wirtz (left) scored a hat trick in the 5-0 win against Bremen.

Federico Gambarini / DPA

They were no longer visible after the final whistle, the players of the new champion. It’s not that they withdrew from the football crowd at the moment of triumph, they didn’t have the opportunity to do that because the supporters came to them. Even before the ninety minutes in Leverkusen against Werder Bremen had officially ended, the stands emptied and fans stormed onto the field. The referee had insight and ended the game.

Wardens took selfies with those they were supposed to be shielding. It was very difficult to identify one or two players in the crowd from the stands – whenever the fans lifted them on their shoulders. And they were happy to celebrate after the 5-0 win against Bremen, which, thanks to three goals from the phenomenal Florian Wirtz, was nothing more than a gala that confirmed why this team dominated the Bundesliga in such a superior manner.

Now it is complete, the first title win for Leverkusen. It is a championship of superlatives; The team is still undefeated. In all competitive competitions – Europa League, Cup and Championship – there are now 43 games without defeat. Once upon a time, only Juventus was that good in Europe. The players are also inspired by the numbers: “We know that we can make history. For the club, for the fans, for ourselves.” This is how Granit Xhaka, the midfield strategist, outlined Leverkusen’s mission. His part in the decisive game: a magistral kick to make it 2-0.

The five goals against Bremen that secured the championship title.

Leverkusen lost the title in 2000 and 2002

Making history: This is a somewhat overused phrase in sport. Sporting events rarely have contemporary historical significance. But given the decades-long lead-up, the many bankruptcies, the constant, spectacular failure, one is inclined to forgive Xhaka for the category mistake.

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You only need to look back to understand what this title actually means for this club, the Bayer Group that supports it and also the city. Because Leverkusen’s image was clearly defined: well-groomed football was played here. Spectacular offensive game, celebrated by excellent technicians. Every coach who hired here seemed to be committed to this maxim, whether his name was Gerardo Seoane, Roger Schmidt or Jupp Heynckes. The Leverkusen style has a long tradition: at the turn of the millennium, two teams failed so spectacularly.

In 2000, under coach Christoph Daum, the team lost on the last match day in Unterhaching. Michael Ballack, one of the best midfielders in Europe at the time, set the stage for failure with an own goal. Two years later, after coach Daum stumbled upon a cocaine affair that cost him the position of national coach, the dilemma was repeated in a more potent form under his successor Klaus Toppmöller.

Leverkusen football, with such experts as Ballack, Bernd Schneider, Zé Roberto and Yildiray Bastürk, was admired throughout Europe. They thought they were ready for the big leap; they were on the verge of winning the championship. They reached the final of the Champions League and the DFB Cup. But at the end of the season they were left empty-handed. The term “Vizekusen” was born, a synonym that requires no explanation in Germany.

And so it seemed as if this club would never live up to its potential, which had already been hinted at in 1988 with their victory in the UEFA Cup final against Espanyol Barcelona. In a certain way, what the FAZ literary critic Karl Heinz Bohrer once said about Borussia Mönchengladbach applied to him, albeit on a deeper level: his text “Wembley. Obituary for the beautiful losers” was the Mönchengladbach master team around their designer Günter Netzer. It was about the myth of the failed.

When Reiner Calmund, the legendary manager, is asked about these troubling years, he resorts to a vivid image: “Man, a visit to the dentist is harmless against such questions!” That is entirely understandable. When Leverkusen lost the title in 2002, Calmund literally collapsed.

The hedonists shaped the image of the club

Looking back, there probably isn’t anyone who wouldn’t have wanted this team to win the title in the early 2000s. After all, it wasn’t just the footballers who were fascinating. The club, which had long seemed a bit clinical, was run by a flamboyant staff who were sometimes uninhibitedly hedonistic.

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They would no longer be imaginable in today’s football. Calmund’s body volume earned him the title of XXL manager; At that time, the hyperactive Christoph Daum convicted himself of cocaine consumption. Daum’s successor, the chain-smoking Klaus Toppmöller, even bummed a cigarette from the equipment manager if necessary while he talked shop with him.

In this respect, the emancipation from the image of the second in the series, from the label “Vizekusen”, which has almost become its own brand, is consistent in several ways. The current staff is so serious that it almost seems sad. Fernando Carro, a native of Spain, is de facto one of the most powerful men in German football as the club’s CEO. Especially when you consider that grandees like Uli Hoeness from Bayern Munich and Hans Joachim Watzke from BVB will soon no longer play a major role. However, he is not a headline guarantee. The calm Simon Rolfes, formerly a defensive midfielder at the club, played a significant role in the success as sports director with his serious squad planning. He would never say that about himself.

Xabi Alonso could also be the CEO of a bank

And coach Xabi Alonso, with whom the mentality in Leverkusen changed so fundamentally? The Basque is a mystery to many observers. Outwardly friendly to everyone, obliging, wiry as when he was still active, well dressed, always tactful in his demeanor. If you had to sketch the ideal successful person, you would probably draw a figure like Xabi Alonso.

But the trick is different: If you were to introduce the trainer to a stranger and say that he was the CEO of a bank, an arms company or a liberal-conservative publishing house, then this would probably seem very credible to the ignorant person. Xabi Alonso’s demeanor would be compatible with almost any industry that wants to give itself the appearance of seriousness.

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This is exactly what sets him apart from other successful coaching colleagues such as Pep Guardiola or Jürgen Klopp, who may well be multi-faceted characters but can only be imagined in football. The coach Alonso makes no mistakes. No matter how impulsive he seems on the sidelines, whipping his team forward, he has never gone over the top, unlike his colleagues Klopp and Guardiola, unlike Thomas Tuchel from FC Bayern. This well-tempered man appears almost sinister due to the sum of his perceived positive qualities.

The coach is not drawn to Munich or Liverpool

And because everything Xabi Alonso does seems as if he had previously made a calculation to arrive at his decision, it is no surprise that he wants to work with this phenomenal team for another year. He doesn’t feel called upon to bring order to the Munich tower of fools or to be measured against Jürgen Klopp’s sensational charisma in Liverpool as Jürgen Klopp’s successor.

This is where someone might get the idea that the Basque, who played a crucial role in Liverpool’s Champions League victory in 2005, is someone who can inspire a team but cannot send an entire city into a frenzy.

But that is exactly what is not required in Leverkusen. Things were too dignified here for decades. Someone who never causes offense might be a better fit than a whipper. And perhaps the championship is just the first step for this coach and his team. On Thursday it’s against West Ham for a place in the semi-finals of the Europa League, while Kaiserslautern awaits in the final of the DFB Cup at the end of May. A complete triumph awaits the team. But nothing is more important than this championship title, which lately reconciles the club with its failures.

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