A Bundesliga title still alludes them, but a star-studded cast of legendary talent certainly does not. With FIFA World Cup and UEFA Champions League winners galore, this all-time cast of talent certainly made their marks in the black and red of Bayer Leverkusen.
Designed to provoke debate, here is a Leverkusen all-time XI chosen by the brains at bundesliga.com towers. There could have been – and in some cases, there were – arguments for several others, but let the discussions now commence.
Just edging out Die Werkself’s one-time penalty-scoring king, Hans-Jörg Butt, Leno's flying saves and smart footballing play wins the day in this selection. Initially signing for Leverkusen on a short-term loan deal from VfB Stuttgart, where his rapid progress through the ranks gained plenty of attention, Leno became only the third goalkeeper in Bundesliga history to keep three consecutive clean sheets in his opening three games. At 19, he would soon briefly hold the accolade of youngest German custodian to appear in the Champions League. A permanent move to North Rhine-Westphalia followed in 2012 and as well as holding the club record for minutes without conceding a goal (588), Leno also lifted the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup before departing for Arsenal.
Watch: The best of Leno in the Bundesliga
A rock at the heart of Leverkusen for so long, the Baden-Württemberg native took his first steps in the Bundesliga with Karlsruhe. Establishing a solid reputation there while still in his early teens, Nowotny made the switch to the BayArena at 22. Part of the team that ran Bayern Munich close in the chase for German football's greatest prize, injury would prevent Nowotny from appearing in the 2002 Champions League final loss against Real Madrid as well as the DFB Cup final reverse against Schalke that same year. He did, however, enjoy game time for Germany at UEFA Euro 2000 and 2004, and made a brief appearance at the 2006 World Cup finals.
A permanent fixture at Leverkusen during five seasons between 2002 and 2007, Rio de Janeiro native Juan formed a solid central defensive partnership at Die Werkself with compatriot Lucio. A winner of 79 caps with Brazil, the centre-back was twice crowned a Copa America winner with his nation and racked up ten goals in 139 games during his Bundesliga stay at the BayArena.
Every bit a giant of the game, Lucio may have won Bundesliga titles at Bayern and the Champions League with Inter Milan, but his first foray into Europe came with Bayer Leverkusen, who signed the defender from Internacional in the winter of 2001. The 2001/02 campaign was to be a season of seconds for fans of Die Werkself, with Brazilian Lucio a runner up in the Bundesliga, DFB Cup and that Champions League final, where his equalising goal against Real briefly gave Bayer hope of success, before Zinedine Zidane worked his magic. After 15 goals in 92 Bundesliga appearances, the 2002 World Cup winner moved to Munich with the record champions.
Once established at Leverkusen, Schneider's contribution to the cause was immense. Starting out at Carl Zeiss Jena, the highly versatile midfielder enjoyed a season at Eintracht Frankfurt before Leverkusen eventually prospered from his many talents, which included long-range goals, superb skills and a voracious appetite for providing assists. A run of seconds in 2002 included a Bundesliga runners-up medal to add to those picked up in the DFB Cup and Champions League. To compound matters, Schneider was also in the Germany team that lost the World Cup final to Brazil that summer. All in all, 35 goals in 263 Bundesliga games made the former midfield master an unforgettable presence at the BayArena.
A World Cup winner, three-time Bundesliga champion and quadruple Champions League medal holder, this all-conquering midfield machine has few equals in the modern game. Yet did you know that a major part of Kroos's development came while on an 18-month loan at Leverkusen from Bayern, the club he debuted for at just 17? The footballing maestro, whose right foot can be as devastating as a sledgehammer or as elegant as an artist's paintbrush, demonstrated what was to come on his return to Bayern and later at Real Madrid when he served up nine goals and 12 assists in 33 Bundesliga games in 2009/10.
Watch: Kroos, made in the Bundesliga
Prior to creating headlines for his strong midfield presence and goalscoring ability with Bayern, Juventus and Barcelona, Chilean sensation Vidal arrived on the European scene with Die Werkself, convinced by director of football Rudi Völler's inviting words. In four seasons at the BayArnea, King Arturo flourished, scoring 15 goals in 117 Bundesliga appearances. Earning a runners-up medal in the 2009 DFB Cup, Vidal really excelled in his last campaign before departing for Italy, the Chile international providing a club best 11 assists as Leverkusen finished behind Bundesliga champions Borussia Dortmund.
Watch: Vidal's roots in Chile
Ballack was named German Footballer of the Year on three occasions, and while his stint at Leverkusen provided the thrust for an astonishing career that encompassed five clubs – which included Bayern and Chelsea – there were plenty of lows to balance the highs with Die Werkself. Already a Bundesliga champion with Kaiserslautern prior to arriving at Leverkusen in 1999, Ballack formed part of an infamous side dubbed 'Neverkusen' in English, after the team blew a Bundesliga lead, succumbed to Real Madrid in a Champions League final and lost out to Schalke in the DFB Cup showpiece in three second-place finishes in 2002. Despite that, Ballack made a huge impression at the club, his powerful midfield presence and eagerness to score leading to 42 goals and 27 assists in 155 games during his two spells at the club.
Watch: Ballack's top 5 Bundesliga goals
This son of Sao Paulo first tested the European atmosphere with Real Madrid before soon heading back to Brazil. His return to the European continent led to a happy union between the highly decorated star and Leverkusen following his move to the German side in 1998. The versatile left-sided player was three times a Bundesliga runner-up at the German outfit, amassing 150 games in all competitions with an impressive goals/assist ratio of 19/42. A Brazil international on 84 occasions, Ze Roberto later won four Bundesliga and DFB Cup doubles during two spells at Bayern and also played for Hamburg between 2009 and 2011.
Not only a Leverkusen legend, but a Bundesliga one. A striker for the ages and right there among the greats such as Gerd Müller and Klaus Fischer on a list of the top goalscorers in Germany. In fact, Kirsten sits seventh in the all-time standings of Bundesliga goal-getters, his 182 strikes in 350 top-flight games marking him out as a phenomenon during his 13 years with Die Werkself. Unsurprisingly, he is also the club's all-time top scorer with 233 goals across all competitions. Whenever Leverkusen came close to winning a title, Ulf Kirsten was there. But he was also there when the team did enjoy success, netting the winning goal in the 1993 DFB Cup final against Hertha Berlin's reserves team. As one of the first players to move to the Bundesliga following German reunification, the former Dynamo Dresden star was the first ever player to amass 100 caps across two different national teams, East Germany (49) and Germany (51), scoring a combined total of 34 international goals.
Schooled in the academy at Nuremberg, Kießling went on to make his professional debut for the Bavarian outfit before earning his move to Leverkusen in 2006. The Lichtenfels boy blossomed into one of the Bundesliga's most fearsome strikers and, having remained at the BayArena ever since, is now Leverkusen's second-highest goalscorer of all time with 162 strikes in 444 appearances. Indeed, one of the career highlights for the striker – who retired in 2018 – was his Bundesliga Torjägerkanone from 2012/13 when he scored 25 goalsto edge out Robert Lewandowski to take the top scorers crown. An international with Germany on six occasions, the current Leverkusen executive assistant won bronze at the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
Relieved of his duties at Turkish giants Besiktas, the former Bundesliga winning coach with Stuttgart took up the Leverkusen reins ahead of the 1996/97 season. Die Werkself finished a lowly 14th in the prior campaign, narrowly avoiding relegation. Famed for lifting Cologne and Stuttgart from unpromising positions to soaring heights, Daum followed suit at Leverkusen, where he oversaw three second-place finishes and even went into the final game of the 1999/2000 season with a three-point lead over Bayern at the top of the standings. A last day loss combined with a win for the record champions would ultimately scupper Bayer’s dreams of title glory, however.