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The Roar


The 'Shakespearean' story of how Leverkusen became Neverkusen - and their shot to avenge the treble of tribulation 22 years later

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16th May, 2024

Anyone who has been watching football this season would likely be familiar with the historic season that Bayer Leverkusen is currently undertaking.  

For those unfamiliar, the German side won the Bundesliga for the first time in the club’s history. To add to this, Leverkusen did this whilst currently being undefeated with a game to go.

In fact, at the time of writing, they have not lost a single game in either the Europa League or DFB Pokal going on a 50-undefeated game streak with their last competitive loss being against VfL Bochum on May 27 2023 which was the last matchday in last season’s Bundesliga.

And with three games to go which includes a Europa League final against Atalanta and a DFB Pokal final against FC Kaiserslautern, they are likely to be the heavy favourites to win in all three.   

For Leverkusen, a treble, no less a continental treble, would likely go down as the greatest season in the club’s history.  

But for Bayer Leverkusen, this is even more remarkable considering their misfortunes, particularly in the 2001/02 season.

In the 01/02 season, Leverkusen were in the box seat to dispel the narrative of being ‘the nearly men’ that they had developed through their second-place finishes in the Bundesliga throughout the late 90s.


Under new manager Klaus Toppmoller and star player Michael Ballack, Bayer Leverkusen were on the cusp of achieving a continental treble like they are now and looked likely to get their first trophy since 1993.  

But in the space of 25 days, a Shakespearean-esqe tragedy would unfold in three acts seeing them complete a treble of tribulation instead of adulation.   

Act one of this treble pursuit started in the Bundesliga over two nights in Leverkusen and Nuremberg.

After three second-place finishes in the space of five years, Leverkusen looked set to finally win their first league title in 2002.

With a blistering start, 14 games unbeaten, they set themselves at the top of the league and looked set to take it out. With three games left in the Bundesliga season, they led at the top of the table by five points to second-placed Borussia Dortmund.


In their next game, they would play Weder Bremen who were on the edge of European places. A win for Leverkusen that night would all but confirm their title. However, Weder Bremen would shock them with a 2-1 upset, with a wonder goal from Krisztian Lisztes and a deciding goal from Ailton. To make matters worse for Leverkusen, they received a penalty to take the lead when it was 1-1. But Leverkusen’s goalkeeper Hans-Jorg Butt had his shot saved by his opposite number denying them at least a point.

After which, they sat ahead of the pack by two points with two games left. Leverkusen was still in the box seat to win but now had Dortmund within striking distance.

So long as they won or at the very least secured a point against the newly promoted FC Nurnberg next game, they would’ve been in the lead going into the final matchday, controlling their destiny to win their first Bundesliga.

Nurnberg themselves were in a regulation battle, only being one point above the drop. Any sort of points against Leverkusen would be immense in staying up.

And through Nurnberg’s Marek Nikl heading the ball into the goal off a set piece, Nurnberg would stay in the Bundesliga for the next season while Leverkusen would surrender their control and lead to Borussia Dortmund for the title in a 1-0 loss.

In their last matchday, a win against Hertha BSC had little effect as Dortmund would come back against Weder Bremen to win 2-1 and win the league.

Although they were devastated by their end-of-season collapse in the title race, Leverkusen’s attention had to shift quickly as they still had two more games to play with two more trophies to potentially add to the cabinet.


Act two would take the stage in Berlin, a week after their last match in the Bundesliga competing for the next biggest title in Germany outside of the Bundesliga: the DFB-Pokal final.

Xabi Alonso Bayer Leverkusen

Head coach Xabi Alonso of Bayer 04 Leverkusen celebrates the victory with his players. (Photo by Ralf Ibing – firo sportphoto/Getty Images)

It was a battle of the ‘so-close’ teams. Leverkusen’s opponents, Schalke, had also capitulated at the final hurdle the previous season, losing the title by a point to Bayern Munich.

Schalke were also the defending champions of the DFB-Pokal and looking to be the first team since 1980 to go back-to-back.

For Leverkusen, it took them a little bit to get into the game. But once they did, they would be rewarded with a young Dimitar Berbatov scoring from within the six-yard box by deflecting Lucio’s strike from outside the box which saw them lead 1-0.

They would maintain this lead until just before half-time, when Schalke’s Jorg Bohme scored a free kick from outside the box to knot things up.

The second half would see the game turn for Leverkusen. Schalke would put three past Leverkusen in the space of 17 minutes which put the game out of reach for them. Leverkusen would get a late goal through Ulf Kirsten in additional time to bring the score to 4-2.


Now, in their second competition defeat, Leverkusen were starting to feel the pressure given that it was expected that they would win the league and were the favourites coming into DFB Pokal.

But their biggest game in club history would await, providing the biggest reward and their biggest challenge.

Act three takes place on the continent in the Champions League.

They had to go through the qualifying route which saw them defeat Red Star Belgrade comfortably with a 3-0 win in the second leg of the tie.

From there, they went through both the first and second group stages comfortably, finishing second, helping knock out the likes of Lyon, Arsenal and Juventus in the process.

For their knockouts, they would win against a pair of English giants in Liverpool with a 4-3 aggregate win and Manchester United with a 3-3 aggregate score, with their two away goals securing their spot in the final.

Following their conquering of the big three English sides throughout the tournament, they would head up north on the M25 to attempt to claim their European crown at Hampden Park in Glasgow.


In their way would be Real Madrid.

Their name is synonymous with the Champions League. At the time of the final in 2002, they had won eight titles with two of those happening four years prior.

Leverkusen would come into the game as the underdogs with Real expected to gallop to their ninth title. And after being caught out by a Roberto Carlos throw-in, leading to Raul scoring across the goal face in the eighth minute, it looked to be all over Red Rover for Die Schwarzroten.

But for Leverkusen, it would spur them to flick a switch. Five minutes after Raul’s goal, Leverkusen hit back through a Lucio header coming from a set piece.

The game was alive.

As the drama went on, Leverkusen looked more in control of the game, particularly in the first half, but they were unable to score. And then, in a play against the run of play, Leverkusen would be outdone by the famous Zinedine Zidane’s across-the-body volley as Real Madrid snatched the lead back.  


In the second half, the control of possession would increase for Leverkusen. But it was not until the last ten minutes that the bulk of the scoring opportunities would come. Cross after cross and corner after corner, to no avail as Real Madrid would lift the Champions League trophy in Glasgow.  

25 days. Three finals. Three defeats. Zero trophies.

It’s the sort of result that any sports fan let alone footballer would never want to endure but it would ultimately become a reality for Leverkusen.

As a result, the club became the second team to finish second in the league and lose both European and domestic cup finals, joining Barcelona from 1985/86.

And thus, the nickname of Neverkusen would become synonymous with the club which would last until this season after finally winning a trophy in the Bundesliga.

After that horrendous 01/02 season, things took a turn for the worse for Leverkusen. The following season after losing their star player Michael Ballack to Bayern Munich, they would finish 15th in the Bundesliga only being saved by winning their last two games to escape the relegation zone.


Whilst they were once again finishing back in the top half of the Bundesliga and making knockout appearances in European competitions, they were never able to meet the near success that transpired in 2002 until this year.

While most Leverkusen fans will be happy given they have finally won a title in a generation, the opportunity to see their team win a continental treble (albeit a Europa League instead of Champions League) would send them into a state of utter adulation likely to be unmatched like their undefeated streak.

And if they can do it with an undefeated record, then it would likely go into the debate of the greatest single domestic season that a football club has had.

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Regardless of the results over the next week, they have ended the Neverkusen label. Hopefully, they can expunge the memory of the treble of tribulation too.