Bayer Leverkusen arrive in Dublin with a new spring in their step

After winning first Bundesliga title, Bayer face Atalanta in Europa League final at ‘Dublin Stadium’


On Wednesday a new stadium will magically appear on the Dublin skyline, on time and on budget. It will look suspiciously similar to the Aviva Stadium but Uefa’s allergic reaction to sponsorship that does not exclusively enrich them means that, for one night only, the Dublin Arena will come into existence to host the Europa League final. Ironically Bayer 04 Leverkusen are one of the few clubs able to circumvent Uefa prohibitions about sponsors featuring in club names. When the club was founded in 1904 it was named after Friedrich Bayer, the founder of a pharmaceutical company based in Leverkusen for whom it acted as a works team – hence its Die Werkself (Works XI) nickname.

This is not the first time that Leverkusen have visited Dublin to compete in a prestigious European competition. In both 2018 and 2019 Leverkusen sent a youth team to compete in the St Kevin’s Boys FC Academy Cup. Player of the tournament in 2018 was the hosts’ Sam Curtis, who subsequently went on trial at Leverkusen, and later signed for Sheffield United, for whom he made his Premier League debut last weekend.

The only previous Europa League final held in Dublin was in 2011 when Porto beat Braga 1-0 in a dour match. Irish fans paying €150 to attend on Wednesday will be understandably relieved that on both occasions Leverkusen previously qualified for a European final, classic encounters ensued.

In 1988 Leverkusen recovered from 3-0 down to Español after the first leg of the Uefa Cup final to win their only ever European trophy on penalties. In 2002, Leverkusen became the first club to reach a Champions League final without ever having won their domestic championship, but were narrowly beaten 2-1 by Real Madrid at Hampden Park thanks to an incredible volleyed goal by Zinedine Zidane.

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That match generated the “Neverkusen” nickname, mocking the fact that Leverkusen finished the 2002 season runners-up in the Bundesliga, the German Cup and the Champions League. Five of that Leverkusen team, including captain Michael Ballack, represented Germany at that summer’s World Cup where, after a 1-1 group stage draw with Ireland, they inevitably again finished runners-up, losing the final 2-0 to a Brazil team that included their team-mate Lúcio.

The only domestic trophy that Leverkusen have won, before this season, is the German Cup in 1993. So how can a Leverkusen team that had previously won two trophies in their 120-year history find itself on the brink of celebrating an invincible treble season? Much of the credit goes to manager Xabi Alonso, who began his first senior management role in October 2022 with Leverkusen second from bottom of the table.

Twenty months later, Leverkusen have won their first-ever league title having completed the only unbeaten season in Bundesliga history, and qualified for the finals of both the Europa League and the German Cup. Unsurprisingly, Alonso is now the most in-demand coach in world football, recently turning down offers to manage his former clubs as a player Liverpool and Bayern Munich.

At Euro 2012, Alonso helped Spain stroll to a 4-0 victory over an Ireland team that included John O’Shea, whose list of temporary jobs expands further this week to include acting as Uefa Europa League final ambassador. However, Alonso’s connection to Ireland goes back much further to a childhood summer spent in Kells learning English. This sparked an urban myth that Alonso is the only man to have both World Cup and All-Ireland winner’s medals, but sadly, even though he did play GAA in Meath, there is no evidence that he competed in, let alone won, a national championship.

Leverkusen are not quite the plucky underdogs they are often portrayed as being. German football operates a supporter-friendly “50+1″ rule requiring the majority of shares to be held by club members rather than external investors. However, because of their origins as a works team Leverkusen enjoy an exemption. Thanks to drugs such as aspirin, Bayer AG generates annual revenues of approximately €50 billion which helps make any financial headaches of its football club quickly disappear.

Not that Leverkusen could be accused of buying success, with the club displaying a golden touch in the transfer market that would make King Midas jealous. The money spent last summer recruiting Nathan Tella, Victor Boniface and Granit Xhaka was recouped simply by selling Moussa Diaby to Aston Villa for €55 million. Other key arrivals did not cost a single penny, with on-loan defender Josip Stanisic helping to end the run of 11 domestic championships of his parent club Bayern Munich and outstanding left back Alejandro Grimaldo arriving on a free transfer from Benfica.

Those who describe Leverkusen as a team without stars have not been following the recent career trajectory of the extraordinary Florian Wirtz, recruited at 16 from Cologne for just €200,000. In March, Wirtz scored his first goal for Germany against France after seven seconds, the second-fastest ever goal in international football (remarkably the fastest ever was scored earlier that evening by Austria’s Christoph Baumgartner after six seconds).

But the real key to Leverkusen’s record 51-match unbeaten season is not incredibly early goals, but exceptionally late ones, with 17 goals being scored in second-half injury time. This led commentator Ian Darke to pitch a new TV show idea: “You’ve heard of Later ... with Jools Holland. How about Even Later with Bayer Leverkusen?”

Any Irish neutrals keen to literally have skin in the game might be tempted by an unusual club promotion. Leverkusen are offering supporters a special gift of a free Bayer 04 club tattoo, inviting them to “book an appointment to immortalise this unique season on your skin”.

No doubt many fresh tattoos will proudly be on display on Wednesday at the Uefa-designated Leverkusen Fan Meeting Point in Shelbourne Park Greyhound Stadium – celebrating the greatest season in the history of a truly remarkable club that is in no danger of going to the dogs any time soon.