How Bayer Leverkusen got their Neverkusen nickname – and have now banished it


Neverkusen. Vizekusen. The Eternal Bridesmaids. The Nearly Men. All have been used down the years to mock Bayer Leverkusen for being a team seemingly never able to get over the line and claim a trophy. But there’ll be no jibes now after Xabi Alonso guided the Werkself to a sensational maiden Bundesliga title. Neverkusen is never more.

A moniker that will likely fade into history after Leverkusen’s 2023/24 exploits, but what’s the story behind it?

Founded in July 1904 by workers at the Bayer AG pharmaceutical company based in Leverkusen, the team spent its early years in the lower leagues before reaching the second tier shortly before the Bundesliga’s formation in 1963. By 1979, after a couple of ups and downs, the team known as the Werkself – Factory XI – made it to the top flight.

Contrary to what you might expect from the nickname, success actually did follow as the club won its first major honour with the 1987/88 UEFA Cup, coming from 3-0 down in the final first leg against Espanyol to win on penalties. An Alonso did score for the Spaniards in the shootout, but Àngel ‘Pichi’ Alonso is no relation to Xabi.

Bayer Leverkusen’s first major trophy was the 1988 UEFA Cup. - imago sportfotodienst, via www.imago-images.de

Following German reunification, East German goal-getter Ulf Kirsten joined and was followed by the first influx of Brazilians with Jorginho and Paulo Sérgio. And in 1993, the Werkself lifted another trophy by winning the DFB Cup.

The club then enjoyed their best-ever finish to a domestic season by finishing second behind Bayern Munich in 1996/97. Two points was the difference, but it was generally an unexpected result. It also took them into the UEFA Champions League for the first time, reaching the quarter-finals against Real Madrid. Happy days in Leverkusen, really.

They again finished as runners-up behind Bayern in 1998/99. Given the 15-point gap in the end, they won’t have been too frustrated or disheartened.

That feeling very much changed the following year. For the third time in four seasons, they finished second, but this time in the most gut-wrenching fashion.

They went top above Bayern with five games to go and held first place going into the final weekend. Their lead was three points as they visited Unterhaching. Bayern boasted a better goal difference before hosting Werder Bremen. It meant a point was enough against the promoted side from the suburbs of Munich. Haching coach Lorenz-Günther Köstner had even said: “There’s a 99.9 percent chance Leverkusen will be champions.”

Then disaster struck after 20 minutes when Michael Ballack scored an own goal. Bayern across town were 3-1 up at the break. Unterhaching then got a second, prompting FCB captain Stefan Effenberg to raise his arms aloft mid-game on the pitch when he heard the score. It stayed like that, and Bayern were crowned champions on goal difference. They had to lift a replica Meisterschale on the day, since the real version had been taken to Unterhaching and was soon put back in its box.

Michael Ballack’s own goal on the final day of 1999/2000 went on to cost Leverkusen the Bundesliga title. - Bongarts/Getty Images

This was when people started using the mocking term Vizekusen – literally Runners-up-kusen – which became Neverkusen in English.

The following season brought – a relief in some way – no second-place finish, but 2001/02 would come to define the Neverkusen storyline. They say nobody remembers second place, but everybody remembers that year.

A team including Ballack, Kirsten, Hans-Jörg Butt, Oliver Neuville, Carsten Ramelow, Bernd Schneider, Lúcio, Zé Roberto, Dimitar Berbatov, Jens Nowotny, Yildiray Bastürk, Diego Placente (the list of famous names goes on) had a remarkable campaign.

They were top of the Bundesliga for the majority of the second half of the season, through to the final of the DFB Cup and made a name for themselves in Europe as they beat the likes of Barcelona and Juventus, then knocked out Liverpool and Manchester United to become the sixth German club to reach the final of the Champions League/European Cup.

They were on for an (at the time) unprecedented treble.

It all then unfolded in the space of a month. A draw at Hamburg followed by defeats to Bremen and Nuremberg saw them lose first place in the Bundesliga going into the final day. A 2-1 win against Hertha Berlin wasn’t enough to get back ahead of Borussia Dortmund, who came from behind to beat Werder by the same score.

One week later, they were beaten 4-2 by Schalke in Berlin in the DFB Cup final.

Only four days later in Glasgow, a now famous Zinédine Zidane strike saw Klaus Toppmöller’s team lose the Champions League final as well.

Michael Ballack could only watch on as Zinédine Zidane scored the winner for Real Madrid at Hampden Park in 2002. - IMAGO/Liewig Christian/ABACA

A treble had become nothing and the Vizekusen name became common parlance among German football fans.

The media even worried that Vizekusen syndrome would impact the national team, which included five Leverkusen players at the 2002 World Cup. Yes, Germany finished runners-up… But Lúcio was on the winning side for Brazil.

It was the fourth time in six years that Bayer had been Bundesliga runners-up. Opposition fans have since been more than happy to sing “You’ll never be champions”. Leverkusen supporters eventually started to laugh at themselves and would sometimes chant “We’ll never be champions”. Parent company Bayer AG even trademarked the term Vizekusen in 2010 – the year the team made a 24-game unbeaten start to the campaign under Jupp Heynckes but still finished fourth.

The season after came a fifth runners-up finish behind Jürgen Klopp’s Dortmund in 2010/11. Only Bayern, BVB, Bremen and Schalke have come second more often in the Bundesliga. Schalke and Leverkusen also held the unwanted status as the only clubs to have been runners-up more than once but never Bundesliga champions. The Royal Blues would always point to their seven pre-Bundesliga era championships.

“Admittedly, it was annoying at the start,” said honorary club captain Ramelow in April 2024. “But at some point you get over it.”

And now the entire club have gotten over it, after years of false dawns and misplaced hope.

Watch: Xabi Alonso, the King of Leverkusen

The class of 2023/24 have banished the Neverkusen curse in considerable style, winning the Bundesliga with five games to spare after a campaign that also saw them set a German record of 46 competitive fixtures unbeaten to begin the season.

“I’m very, very relieved, but still as nervous as previously,” said Reiner Calmund, the club’s former managing director during both the glory days of the UEFA Cup and DFB Cup success but also the runners-up finishes at the turn of the millennium, in the week leading up to being confirmed Bundesliga champions.

It could still get even better for Leverkusen as they prepare to face second division Kaiserslautern in the DFB Cup final in May. Or will it finally be Treblekusen with the addition of the UEFA Europa League? Just no more Neverkusen.