Florian Wirtz has become a fully-fledged star at Bayer Leverkusen but it's with Rhine rivals Cologne that this gem was first unearthed. - © Bundesliga Collection via Getty Images
Florian Wirtz has become a fully-fledged star at Bayer Leverkusen but it's with Rhine rivals Cologne that this gem was first unearthed. - © Bundesliga Collection via Getty Images

Why Florian Wirtz left Cologne for Bayer Leverkusen


The image of Florian Wirtz soaring in the colours of high-flying Bayer Leverkusen continues to delight the BayArena faithful but Cologne, their Rhineland rivals up the road, look at the German gem in an entirely different light. After all, it was the Billy Goats who unearthed him.

Born in the Cologne suburb of Pulheim, Wirtz joined his hometown club's academy at the age of seven and spent a decade developing into one of Europe's hottest young prospects.

In January 2020, though, Wirtz jumped ship and, with the continent's biggest clubs circling, Leverkusen quickly moved to the front of a queue that reportedly included Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Juventus due to the desire of his parents for their then 17-year-old son to finish his studies close to home.

So far, so straightforward; a young player's contract was coming to an end and an ambitious rival made a play for his signature.

However, a 19-year "gentlemen's agreement" between Rhineland rivals Cologne, Leverkusen and Borussia Mönchengladbach complicated things.

Following Cologne's 2001 signing of 12-year-old Marco Quotschalla on an unprecedented eight-year contract from Leverkusen, the trio of neighbours had forged an understanding that they would not target each others' academy products in a bid to ensure the region's football maintained a consistent conveyor belt of talent stemming from each bank of the river that ran through their region. Deals for the senior squads, though, were not included.

Cologne were clearly upset, with later coach Steffen Baumgart saying the deal “[broke an] agreement between Cologne, Leverkusen and Mönchengladbach. That this was ignored shows us what kind of business we are in.”

Their frustrations were heightened by the fact Cologne had seen Wirtz make so much progress at the club; he had helped the club win the U17 Bundesliga title just months before moving half an hour up the road.

In Leverkusen, meanwhile, they argued that they weren't signing a youth product but a player for their first team, with then managing director Rudi Völler telling Kicker: "It would have been grossly negligent not to enter negotiations."

Watch: Wirtz reveals his boyhood Bundesliga idols

Sporting director Simon Rolfes shared similar sentiments after Die Werkself finally landed a player they had coveted way back when Wirtz opted for Cologne over Leverkusen as a seven-year-old child playing at local outfit Grün-Weiß Brauweiler.

"I have known the player since he was 14," Rolfes said to Goal and SPOX. "The possibility suddenly arose because his contract was expiring, and so we tried to get him. I knew that many clubs were interested, and so we thought that before he went anywhere else, let's try to get him to come here and stay close to home."

That is just what Wirtz did, citing Leverkusen's world-renowned reputation for giving young talent an opportunity to shine as the decisive factor behind his move.

He later told bundesliga.com: "My switch to Leverkusen at U17 level was solely my decision, as I saw better prospects for myself in Leverkusen - and it worked out that way too."

It certainly did, with Wirtz quickly catapulting himself into the Leverkusen first-team picture, where he has since remained, front-and-centre, while also going on to become both a Bundesliga record-breaker and full Germany international.

Watch: Wirtz became the Bundesliga's youngest-ever goalscorer against Bayern

Leverkusen have now set the early pace in 2023/24 and there is serious ambition to end the campaign with silverware that has long-eluded the club.

Everything appears rosy for Leverkusen and their star, but trips back to Cologne or any fixture against Wirtz's old club - such as the upcoming Matchday 7 meeting - always bring up his crossing of the divide and make for some fairly uncomfortable moments at times. That included his cruciate ligament injury suffered in the derby loss in March 2022 that ruled him out until 2023. 

Not that Wirtz is complaining, having previously told Bild: "I can understand that FC [Cologne] were disappointed and that their fans are still angry about it. But I feel very comfortable in Leverkusen."

He added in another interview, this time with 11Freunde: “A lot happened to me, it didn't make me terribly sad, but of course it affects you when you played for Cologne for many years, became a youth champion there - and then get booed at the stadium."

Watch: Wirtz dazzled in Leverkusen's 2023/24 opening day win over RB Leipzig

In that interview, he shared the room with his elder sister, Juliane, who also made the switch from Cologne to Leverkusen shortly before Florian followed in her footsteps.

“We live very close to Cologne, and many of my friends are Effzeh fans," said the now Werder Bremen player about her brother's switch of allegiance. “I had to listen to a few chants, but that was okay.”

Things have certainly worked out okay for the younger Wirtz - well, the younger professional, since there are in fact 10 Wirtz siblings - who is already fulfilling the immense promise that he showed in Cologne.

The fact he does so just down the road from the RheinEnergieSTADION will always sting the club's supporters. Yes, there is a general belief among fans that they were never going to hold onto such a generational talent for long. The club also knew they would not win in any contract negotiations.

Can they be proud of their academy's role in developing a truly special youngster? There will be some of that, given many were already starting to earmark Wirtz as the next Lukas Podolski, as one of their own set to light up the world of football. But for such a proud set of supporters, that bridge across the Rhine has been well and truly burned now.

As for Leverkusen, they won't be concerned about where Wirtz came from but where he is headed with their club. At this rate, it continues to be a journey bound for the very top.