Michael Ballack was part of the 2000/01 Bayer Leverkusen team that finished runners-up on three fronts. - © Bongarts
Michael Ballack was part of the 2000/01 Bayer Leverkusen team that finished runners-up on three fronts. - © Bongarts
60 years of Bundesliga

Bundesliga club-by-club historical guide: Bayer Leverkusen


The nearly men of German football, Bayer Leverkusen have fallen agonisingly short of top honours since their promotion to the Bundesliga.

bundesliga.com is taking you through all the teams to have graced Germany’s first division over the last 60 years – based on the number of seasons they’ve played up to and including 2023/24.

Bayer 04 Leverkusen
Years in Bundesliga:
45 (1979-present)
Most appearances: Rüdiger Vollborn (401)
Most goals:
Ulf Kirsten (182)
Youngest player:
Zidan Sertdemir (16 years, nine months, three days)

Currently only Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund are enjoying a longer unbroken spell in the Bundesliga than Leverkusen, following their maiden promotion in 1979. They are a somewhat unique club in the world of German football given their connection to the Bayer AG company, who are 100 percent owners – as an exemption to the 50+1 rule – since the pharmaceutical giant, which is based in Leverkusen, had supported the club for several decades. That link earned the team the nickname Die Werkself – literally the works or factory XI, since the club was founded by workers in the Bayer organisation back in 1904.

Although that history and status is an exception to the usual club management rules in the Bundesliga means they are often viewed in a different light in Germany, Leverkusen remain a popular team internationally thanks to appearances in European competitions and their often swashbuckling style of play, combined with young, exciting players. Two of German football’s most prodigious players of recent years hail from the Bayer 04 youth setup, in Kai Havertz and Florian Wirtz. They also boast a special link with South America, often proving the launchpad for players arriving in Europe, such as Arturo Vidal, Renato Augusto, Paulo Sergio, Jorginho and Lucio. Five of the 11 players in the club’s Team of the Century to mark the 100th anniversary in 2004 were Brazilian. USA legends Landon Donovan and Claudio Reyna also got their first tastes of European club football at the BayArena.

Watch: The best of Florian Wirtz

Leverkusen won the UEFA Cup in 1987/88 and the DFB Cup in 1992/93, but only Eintracht Frankfurt and Schalke have spent more years in the Bundesliga without ever winning it. However, Die Werkself have come seriously, and often dramatically, close. They’ve been runners-up five times, with the most (in)famous occasion being in 2001/02 when they blew a five-point lead with three games to go to finish second, which is where they also ended up in the DFB Cup against Schalke and the Champions League against Real Madrid that year. Their runners-up treble earned them another nickname of Vizekusen, or Neverkusen, and the Eternal Bridesmaid. It came two years after a Michael Ballack own goal on the final day saw them miss out on the title on goal difference to Bayern, when a draw at Unterhaching would’ve been enough.

Leverkusen have boasted some notable goalscorers down the years, from club record holder Ulf Kirsten, who scored more Bundesliga goals than any player in the 1990s, to Dimitar Berbatov, Stefan Kießling (Bundesliga top scorer in 2012/13 with 25 goals) and Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez. But they also boast the top-scoring goalkeeper in Bundesliga history in Hans-Jörg Butt with 26 (all penalties, of which 17 were for HSV). He wasn’t always lucky, however. He’s the only Bundesliga player to be a treble runner-up twice, following the 2002 disappointment with the same fate as a Bayern player in 2012, while also being part of Germany’s second-place squad at the 2002 FIFA World Cup. One of his penalties in 2003/04 also counted for nothing in the end as he was too slow getting back into his goal after celebrating scoring from the spot against Schalke, and Mike Hanke lobbed him straight from the kick-off.

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