Football Features

Cult figures and multiple Madridistas have called Bayer Leverkusen home

By Ben Green

Published: 18:30, 30 March 2021

When we think of German powerhouses, Bayer Leverkusen regularly appear in the conversation, but paradoxically, they a club that love to win but seem almost allergic to silverware.

In a sense they are the Premier League’s equivalent to Tottenham, a big boy consistently in the top-six conversation but always falling short at the final hurdle.

This season is no exception. Despite boasting the crown prince of German youth football in Florian Wirtz and a surfeit of elite-level quality, including Jonathan Tah and Leon Bailey, Die Werkself have failed to tussle for Bundesliga supremacy once again.

The ultra-aggressive, possession-heavy ‘Boszball’ was a joy to watch, but so too was the attacking fluidity of Mauricio Pochettino‘s Spurs, and yet, tangible success has eluded both these clubs for years, and ultimately cost both managers their jobs.

Quality has populated the BayArena for years, and they’ve enjoyed their moments, a Champions League final in 2001/02, plenty of runners-up finishes in the German top-flight and a UEFA Cup win in the 1980s — the parallels with Spurs are quite uncanny.

During those periods of near-misses and close calls Bayer have had plenty of exceptional talent on the books, some you may not even have realised put on the famous red and black strip. With that said, here are just some of the former stars that may have slipped your mind.

Dani Carvajal

  • Age: 29
  • Appearances for Bayer Leverkusen: 36
  • Current side: Real Madrid

A Madridista to the core but made in German football. When Carvajal was running rings in the Real Madrid youth academy during his embryonic years, it became apparent that first-team opportunities under Jose Mourinho at the Bernabeu would prove scare, so he took the plunge and left for the Bundesliga.

At this point the Spanish contingent was growing in German football, with Raul’s move to Schalke in 2010 almost opening the floodgates for his compatriots to cut their teeth in the Bundesliga. Under the guidance of Liverpool legend Sami Hyypia and playing in Bayer’s turbo-charged system, Carvajal was always set to thrive.

And that is exactly what transpired in his only season at Bayer, with the buccaneering full-back registering seven Bundesliga assists as the club finished third and being named the league’s third best right-back for 2012/13. Of course, Madrid included a buyback option when they broke bread with Bayer and offloaded their academy product to unknown territory, and they promptly brought the Spaniard back to the capital, where he has been a mainstay in the XI ever since. 

Landon Donovan

  • Age: 39
  • Appearances for Bayer Leverkusen: 9
  • Current side: San Diego Loyal (manager)

The Spanish influx may have boomed in the Bundesliga during the last decade, but the American influence on German soil is even more prominent. And in the early years of this century a fresh-faced Landon Donovan was strutting his stuff at the BayArena, though his time in Europe would ultimately prove fleeting.

Having been spotted by sporting director Michael Reschke in a youth tournament in 1999, Bayer quickly snapped up the fledgling forward with high hopes he would break into the first team. “We seldom offer a young foreign player such a contract [like the one Donovan received],” Reschke recalled. “But in 21 years working with young players, I have rarely seen such strong potential.”

Unfortunately for Die Werkself that potential was never realised in Germany, as Donovan struggled to acclimatise to the European game and returned to the MLS soon after, first with a three-year loan deal to San Jose Earthquakes and then culminating in a permanent switch to LA Galaxy, for whom he established a stateside celebrity status and played out the majority of his career.

Donovan returned briefly to the Bundesliga with a loan move to Bayern Munich in 2009, while Everton fans will remember his brief stint on Merseyside, but he would ultimately hang up his boots across the Atlantic, with many feeling he could and perhaps should have enjoyed a long and fruitful career in Europe.

Toni Kroos

  • Age: 31
  • Appearances for Bayer Leverkusen: 48
  • Current side: Real Madrid

Another Galactico who has donned the Bayer jersey, Kroos first rose to prominence at the BayArena, flourishing during an 18-month loan deal from Bayern in 2009. The metronomic midfielder was just a teenager when he relocated to Bayer, but his maturity far transcended his cherubic features, as the World Cup winner registered nine goals and nine assists in the 2009/10 season.

Bayern simply couldn’t ignore those metrics and Kross returned to Bavaria where he went on to establish himself as one of football’s most dynamic and sophisticated passers. A move to Real Madrid followed where Zinedine Zidane’s all-conquering Los Blancos dominated the continent for years.

Kroos is certainly a generational talent, but Bayer fans will be hoping they’ve unearthed the next pass master in prodigious Argentine talent Exequiel Palacios.

“I always liked watching the Bundesliga in Argentina and really liked Toni Kroos at Bayern. He’s one of my favourite players,” the 22-year-old said upon signing from River Plate last January. Fans will be hoping Palacios’ affection for the German maestro translates to on-pitch parallels, though early signs are not particularly promising.

Arkadiusz Milik

  • Age: 27
  • Appearances for Bayer Leverkusen: 8
  • Current side: Marseille (on loan from Napoli)

Having caught the attention of Europe’s big wigs during his formative years in his native Poland for Gornik Zabrze, Bayer promptly snapped up the teenage tyro, but having failed to make a significant impression, Milik was loaned out to Augsburg and then Ajax, for whom he netted 23 goals in 33 games in 2014/15.

That sort of return should have been enough to warrant a chance at Bayer, but the Amsterdam giants made his temporary stint permanent at the end of the campaign, and he went on to even greater heights the ensuing season, scoring 21 Eredivisie goals and securing a lucrative move to Napoli.

Milik has continued to impress, netting 17 Serie A goals two seasons as Carlo Ancelotti‘s side finished runners-up, but further injury issues have curtailed his progress and he has since switched the Diego Armando Maradona Stadium for Marseille, where he will be hoping to recapture his form ahead of Euro 2020.

Domagoj Vida

  • Age: 31
  • Appearances for Bayer Leverkusen: 9
  • Current side: Besiktas

What Vida lacks in a decent barber, he more than makes up for in defensive qualities. The Croatian defender famously helped marshal the backline as his nation reached the 2018 World Cup final, and he has been consistently linked with a move to one of Europe’s top five leagues since.

The 31-year-old has forged his reputation in Turkish and Ukrainian football, but before travelling east, he was trying to hone his craft at Bayer in 2010/11. Unfortunately for Vida he only mustered the single Bundesliga appearance, coming in a 3-0 win over Wolfsburg after an injury sustained by Manuel Friedrich forced Jupp Heynckes’ hand.

Lucio

  • Age: 42
  • Appearances for Bayer Leverkusen: 122
  • Current side: Retired

The intelligent yet brutish Brazilian centre-back was an inspired signing for Bayer in 2001. It took little time for Lucio to adapt to European football having moved from Internacional, with his first full season at the club culminating in Bayer reaching two finals and chasing the Bundesliga title. But, in typical Bayer fashion, Klaus Toppmoller’s side received the wooden spoon on all three counts — the 2001/02 campaign was Bayer in microcosm.

But that side, inspired by legendary midfielder Michael Ballack was a sight to behold. Lucio and Co pushed Borussia Dortmund all the way for the Bundesliga’s coveted Meisterschale, but fell short by one point, while they would also lose the DFB-Pokal to Schalke and of course, they succumbed to the God-given talents of Zinedine Zidane who scored that famous goal to secure the 2002 Champions League title for Real Madrid.

Lucio did manage to score in the final at Hampden Park to cancel out Raul’s opener, but that would have been little consolation as Zidane took centre stage in the 45th minute. The Brazilian did go on to win the World Cup later that summer with Brazil and was of course an integral part of Inter Milan’s famous treble-winning team, so not a bad career.

Ze Roberto

  • Age: 46
  • Appearances for Bayer Leverkusen: 150
  • Current side: Palmeiras (technical advisor)

Another integral member of Bayer’s sensational run to the Champions League final in 2002, but unfortunately for the brilliant Brazilian he was suspended for the showpiece event and missed out on the chance to impact proceedings in Scotland. Having signed from Flamengo in 1998 Ze Roberto burst onto the Bundesliga scene and quickly became indispensable to Die Werkself‘s front-foot approach.

Alongside Ballack, Ze Roberto transferred to Bayern Munich shortly after the Champions League final where he won trophies aplenty, but a falling out with then manager Felix Magath prompted his departure to Club Nacional de Football in Uruguay. Bizarrely he never played for the Montevideo-based club and instead returned to Bayern on loan a year later before joining Hamburger SV permanently.

The Brazilian legend has since bowed out of the game after an illustrious career, but still looks like he could do a job for the Bayern first team…

Vedran Corluka

  • Age: 35
  • Appearances for Bayer Leverkusen: 8
  • Current side: Lokomotiv Moscow

I know, we can’t believe it either, Vedran Corluka is still only 35. It seems like the versatile Croatian defender has been around for ages, but he is still going strong in the Russian Premier League, and of course he clinched that famous runners-up medal for the Chequered Ones at the 2018 World Cup.

Having earned his stripes in the Premier League with Manchester City — before the endless wealth — and Spurs, for whom he helped reach the League Cup final with in 2009, Corluka joined Bayer in the 2012 January window with the option of a permanent deal at the end of the season.

But, after just eight appearances, Corluka’s sojourn in Germany proved brief and he joined compatriot Slaven Bilic in Moscow for £5.5m that summer.

Gabor Kiraly

  • Age: 44
  • Appearances for Bayer Leverkusen: 0
  • Current side: Retired

A cult hero if ever there was one. Rocking the ‘working from home’ look, Kiraly gained hipster status for refusing to conform to goalkeeping normality and opted to don a pair of tracksuit bottoms rather than the more traditional shorts-and-socks setup across his career. Ever wonder what the key to longevity is? A scruffy pair of grey trackies apparently.

Most of us wince at the sight of a goalkeeper with short sleeves, but trousers over shorts? Almost unimaginable. And yet Kiraly blazed a trail for the clean-knee approach, making it his own and revelling in his cult status. He was not one of the great goalkeepers of our generation, but he was a reliable pair of hands between the sticks, a Hungarian centurion and the oldest player to represent their country at a UEFA European Championship.

Gabor Kiraly, we salute you! Oh, and he was briefly on loan at Bayer in 2009 from Burnley to function as a backup ‘keeper. He didn’t make an appearance but Bayer did reach the DFB-Pokal final that year. Coincidence? Yes, almost definitely, as Bayer done what Bayer do best and lost to a Mesut Ozil-inspired Werder Bremen.

For those left in the dark Kiraly did go on to explain exactly why he chose tracksuits over shorts.

“It started 20 years ago these grey bottoms, it began in Hungary and it brought me luck and then I take to (Hertha) Berlin and it brings luck as well as we were in the Champions League. After that I take it to London, to Crystal Palace.” Kiraly told BBC.

Claudio Reyna

  • Age: 47
  • Appearances for Bayer Leverkusen: 0
  • Current side: Austin FC (sporting director)

No, not Borussia Dortmund’s latest boy wonder, Giovanni, but in actual fact, his father. Reyna Sr. will be remembered on these shores for his spells with Rangers, Sunderland and Man City, but before his tour of Great Britain, he was receiving a competent footballing education at Bayer.

Having moved from Virginia Cavaliers in America to Bayer, who were impressed with his performances at the 1994 World Cup at just 20 and without much senior experience at all. Perhaps Donovan should have used Reyna’s trip to Bayer as a cautionary tale, as the latter struggled to cement a first team berth at the German club and soon left for Rangers, where he won a domestic double under Dick Advocaat in 2000.

Emerson

  • Age: 44
  • Appearances for Bayer Leverkusen: 108
  • Current side: Retired

The footpath from South America to Bayer is well-trodden. Indeed it’s not just Porto and Shakhtar Donetsk who snap up all the best unheralded Brazilian talent. Unless they’re 17 and have a prodigious YouTube highlight reel, then Real Madrid will likely give you £50m for their services.

Like Lucio, Emerson moved from his native Brazil to pastures new with Bayer, and also like Lucio, he flourished the minute the ball touched his feet on German soil. Emerson always carried an aura of importunity about his game in the middle of the park, such was his combative and dynamic nature, but he could also pick a pass and dictate the play, hence why he shone in the upper reaches of European football for as long as he did.

Andriy Voronin

  • Age: 41
  • Appearances for Bayer Leverkusen: 119
  • Current side: Dynamo Moscow (assistant)

Vida moved to Bayer in… no, wait, wrong pony tail. Liverpool’s much-maligned forward was hardly a rip-roaring success at Anfield, but he was in Germany. Ever wondered where Rafael Benitez plucked the Ukrainian from? Well, it was Bayer in 2007.

Voronin’s time on Merseyside was more ill-fated than illustrious though, and he left after just three years and 40 appearances, though not without bemoaning life in England.

Compared with Germany, England is far behind in terms of comfort and culture,” Voronin said at the time. 

“Five out of the seven houses near us are occupied by footballers. Steve Gerrard was burgled recently so a police patrol car comes into our compound fairly often.

“We hear police sirens all the time. Leverkusen, by contrast, was so much quieter.”

Voronin recently took up the unique and quite baffling job description of “observer” for the Ukrainian national side. Liverpool fans will now be wondering whether that was the role given to him during his Anfield days, such was his inactivity in the final third.

Emanuel Pogatetz

  • Age: 38
  • Appearances for Bayer Leverkusen: 1
  • Current side: Juniors OO

Is it even a forgotten players list without at least one West Ham flop? Wait, we’ve already had Kiraly. Okay, we’ll give you two for good measure. The Austrian joined Bayer as a youngster but failed to cut the mustard and relocated to Middlesbrough under Steve McClaren in 2005. He proved a solid pro for Boro, and enjoyed a fruitful spell at Hannover 96 before joining Wolfsburg and the Hammers on loan. Not even Sam Allardyce could coax a convincing defensive performance out of Pogatetz at Upton Park though, and he was soon on the move again.