Based just a few kilometres apart, on opposite sides of the mighty River Rhine, 1. FC Köln and Bayer 04 Leverkusen have unsurprisingly developed an increasingly intense local rivalry over the past few decades. As they prepare to go head-to-head again, we look back at some of the fascinating stories attached to this fixture. Among them is Florian Wirtz – the prodigious prospect Leverkusen nabbed from their near-neighbours. - © IMAGO/Team 2
Based just a few kilometres apart, on opposite sides of the mighty River Rhine, 1. FC Köln and Bayer 04 Leverkusen have unsurprisingly developed an increasingly intense local rivalry over the past few decades. As they prepare to go head-to-head again, we look back at some of the fascinating stories attached to this fixture. Among them is Florian Wirtz – the prodigious prospect Leverkusen nabbed from their near-neighbours. - © IMAGO/Team 2

The Rhine Derbies explained: Borussia Mönchengladbach, Cologne and Bayer Leverkusen


Rhine rivals Bayer Leverkusen, Borussia Mönchengladbach and Cologne duel for regional supremacy in north-west Germany as well as Bundesliga points when derby day comes around four times each season. focuses on the footballing hotbed of North Rhine-Westphalia and the major derby rivalries that mean these fixtures are among the biggest games of any season for the fans — and players — of the three clubs.

Cologne - Bayer Leverkusen
First Bundesliga derby: 15 September 1979, Leverkusen 1-1 Cologne
Most recent derby: 8 October 2023, Leverkusen 3-0 Cologne 
Bundesliga derbies: 71, Leverkusen lead the series with 28 wins, 25 draws, 18 defeats
Distance between clubs: 9.3 miles as the crow flies

This derby does not have the history of the rivalry between Cologne and Mönchengladbach simply because Leverkusen were only first promoted to the Bundesliga in 1979. Suffocating geographical proximity between the two clubs and cities, however, means there are all the ingredients for a fiercely passionate derby atmosphere when the pair meet.

Watch: Jonas Hofmann starred in Leverkusen's 3-0 win over Cologne 

It is just a short train ride from the Domstadt — the Cathedral City — of Cologne to the town that gained its name from the 19th-century industrialist Carl Leverkus - and is home to the Bayer pharmaceutical company. The journey is one that has been made regularly by fans of both clubs since their first Bundesliga meeting in 1979.

While Cologne fans have been known to mock their neighbours' functional and much smaller stadium as a 'car park', Leverkusen — home to some 160,000 people — can certainly boast of having had the better football team over the last four decades than the million-strong city on their doorstep.

Cologne fans will rightly point out they were the very first Bundesliga champions in 1963 and that they also won it in 1977/78 while Leverkusen have never been champions of Germany - something they have a very strong chance of correcting in 2023/24.

Leverkusen's BayArena is one of the Bundesliga's most distinctive stadiums. - Lukas Schulze/Getty Images

But Die Werkself — the Factory Eleven, in reference to Bayer's creation and ownership of the club — have finished league runners-up five times, racked up over 100 UEFA Champions League/European Cup appearances, more than 50 in the UEFA Europa League and claimed continental silverware in the shape of the 1987/88 UEFA Cup. They were also Champions League runners-up in 2001/02.

They have derby bragging rights too. They have the better head-to-head record by some margin, and achieved a near-14-year unbeaten run against the Billy Goats (if you're wondering, 'What's with that nickname?', see below) between November 1997 and April 2011.

This derby also generally provides excitement on the pitch. Indeed, only five times in their 71 Bundesliga meetings to date have the pair served up a goalless draw - and despite Leverkusen's better overall record, Cologne won in Leverkusen in both 2021/22 and 2022/23.

The highest-scoring encounter to date came in May 1985 when future FIFA World Cup winner Pierre Littbarski scored twice to help Cologne into a 3-2 half-time lead. They then went 4-2 up only for Herbert Waas to find the net twice to secure a point for Leverkusen, and ensure both sets of fans went home with smiles.

Despite the division, some players have crossed the divide. Patrick Helmes was born in Cologne and started and ended his professional career with his hometown club, but in between, the 13-time Germany international striker had a three-year spell at Leverkusen (2008-11).

More recently, Florian Wirtz — born in the Cologne suburb of Pulheim — spent 10 years at his hometown's youth academy before making the switch to Leverkusen, where he has developed into a record-breaking bona fide Bundesliga star.

Cologne - Borussia Mönchengladbach
First derby: 20 November 1965, Mönchengladbach 2-3 Cologne
Most recent derby: 22 October 2023, Cologne 3-1 Gladbach
Bundesliga derbies: 97, Gladbach lead the series with 52 wins, 17 draws, 28 defeats
Distance between clubs: 35.4 miles

Although Mönchengladbach is not situated on the Rhine like the other two, this one is considered 'the big one' in terms of local rivalry. Why? History. And the man who wrote much of it for both teams is one of German football's greatest figures, Hennes Weisweiler.

Just after Cologne claimed the inaugural Bundesliga title, one of their former players, Weisweiler, took charge of second-tier Gladbach. And to give you an indication of what he then did simply search for the BORUSSIA-PARK address and you'll find it's located at Hennes Weisweiler Allee 1.

Watch: Meet Cologne's living mascot

That's because he took a team of young local talents such as Günter Netzer and Jupp Heynckes to the summit of German — and very nearly European — football in a ludicrously successful period in the 1970s, a decade in which the club won the Bundesliga title five times.

But he's also a legend in Cologne. Why else do you think the club mascot — yes, the goat — is named Hennes?

After leaving Gladbach in 1975 following a legendary 11-year stint, Weisweiler coached Barcelona briefly before taking over as Cologne boss in 1976. Over the next four years, he worked his magic again, taking an unheralded team to the domestic double in 1977/78 as well as to a European Cup semi-final.

Players have made the switch too. Part of that great Gladbach side and now club vice-president, Rainer Bonhof, captained Cologne later in his career while Hans-Georg Dreßen transferred back and forth no fewer than four times, and — after injury cut short his career at 26 — later became assistant coach with Borussia. "There was never any problem," he said of his treatment by opposing fans. "Neither in Gladbach, nor in Cologne."

That was certainly a good thing for Weisweiler and some of his players who were treated by dentist Franz Wichelhaus. 'Who?!' you cry. Wichelhaus was the very first player to be transferred between the two clubs in 1953 in the pre-Bundesliga days. He couldn't make the breakthrough in Cologne and so moved to Mönchengladbach where he became team captain before switching to the profession he had studied for after his playing career.

Leverkusen - Mönchengladbach
First Bundesliga derby: 15 December 1979, Leverkusen 0-0 Gladbach
Most recent derby: 27 January 2024, Leverkusen 0-0 Gladbach 
Bundesliga derbies: 84, Leverkusen lead the series with 34 wins, 28 draws, 22 defeats
Distance between clubs: 26 miles

Almost certainly one of the reasons both Cologne and Mönchengladbach fans treat Leverkusen as their 'little' Rhine derby neighbours is that the Bayer-built outfit have got the better of both of them throughout their Bundesliga history.

While Leverkusen were left frustrated as Gladbach ground out a goalless draw the last time the teams clashed, that was their ninth  unbeaten meeting in a row against the Foals. 

Watch: Leverkusen frustrated by Gladbach in their latest meeting…

Gladbach fans can console themselves with a weighty haul of silverware that their rivals can only dream of. Five Bundesliga titles, three DFB Cups, two UEFA Cups, and — like Leverkusen in 2001/02 — European Cup runners-up.

That was in the 1976/77 final, however, and the last of Gladbach's Bundesliga titles came in that same year — two years before Leverkusen even played their first German top-flight game.

With only a DFB Cup and Bundesliga 2 title added to the trophy cabinet since the pair first met with league points up for grabs, Gladbach fans have not got much to goad their near-trophyless neighbours about. Not that that will stop them.

While fans would not dream of trading colours, players do.

Christoph Kramer came through at Leverkusen, and made his name at Mönchengladbach. - Lukas Schulze/Bundesliga/Bundesliga Collection via Getty Images

Christoph Kramer joined Leverkusen aged eight and went on to play for the first team before really making the breakthrough at Bundesliga level during a two-year loan spell at Mönchengladbach between 2013 and 2015. He returned to Leverkusen for a season, but the 2014 FIFA World Cup winner made the switch to Gladbach permanent in 2016, and has now made over 200 competitive appearances for them.

The transfer traffic has gone in the opposite direction too. Walter Posner played just two Bundesliga games for Mönchengladbach — that was enough to get him a 1974/75 title winner's medal — but featured in 134 for Leverkusen over a nine-year spell.

Hopefully Heiko Herrlich got a return ticket when he left Leverkusen after winning the 1992/93 DFB Cup to join Mönchengladbach. He won another DFB Cup there before playing for Borussia Dortmund, but he returned to the BayArena as coach between summer 2017 and December 2018.

Ian Holyman