Leverkusen fades in title bid again, but there's still plenty at stake
Leverkusen's late collapse is befitting their "eternal bridesmaid" reputation
Jupp Heynckes' squad wasn't deep enough to absorb injuries to key performers
The team expects to lose several stars in the summer transfer market
The announcement would perhaps have been a whole lot funnier 10 days before, on April 1, but then it's not actually meant as a joke, of course: On Tuesday, Bayer 04 Leverkusen confirmed it had trademarked and patented the word "Vizekusen."
Vize is German for vice (as in vice president) or runner-up, and "Vizekusen" is not exactly a nickname of the endearing or flattering sort: Opposing supporters have taken to belittling Bayer in that way ever since it ended the 2002 season losing both the Champions League and German Cup finals, as well as finishing as runner-up in the Bundesliga. "Vizekusen," in other words, is shorthand for choking. Not the kind of brand you'd want on a T-shirt, coffee mug or kids duvet covers, surely?
"We thought to ourselves, What can we do with that name?" Leverkusen communications director Meinolf Sprink said. "So we decided to stop others from making mischief with it."
Couched in those terms, it looks as if Bayer's move was both defensive and commercially motivated. By controlling the business use of the insulting term, it can at least prevent someone else from cashing in on its misery.
It does, however, take a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor to face up to its detractors in the first place. Bayer has form in this respect. A while ago, it also trademarked "Pillendreher." It's the German word for a dung beetle, and a play on the club owners, pharmaceutical giant Bayer. "Pillendreher" literally means pill mover(s). Before Leverkusen became the eternal bridesmaids at the turn of the century, they were also routinely dismissed as "Retortenverein," a test tube club. Traditionalists turned up their noses at the company-controlled team, who were only promoted to Germany's top-flight in 1979.
Seven near misses (four in the league, two in the Cup and one lost Champions League) in 13 years have changed the club's perception to the point where always coming second seems to have transmuted into a self-fulfilling prophecy. When Jupp Heynckes' young, entertaining side went into the winter break unbeaten and on top of the Bundesliga table, winning the (purely imaginary) title of "autumn champions," Leverkusen were patronized: Süddeutsche Zeitung congratulated them for "breaking their mold."
Four months later and four points behind second-placed Schalke 04, another German team seen as perpetual losers, Leverkusen are in no acute danger of living up the cliché, at least as far as coming in second is concerned. After a poor run of two wins in their last 10 games, they're much more worried about defending their third place and possibility of Champions League qualification against Dortmund and Bremen.
"We might lose everything," defender Manuel Friedrich said after the 3-2 defeat at lowly Nürnberg 10 days ago.
Needless to say, the championship is no longer an issue. Bayer had one last chance to get closer to league leader Bayern on Saturday. Heynckes' men played very well in the BayArena, created plenty of chances but still blew it. The 1-1 draw leaves them six points behind Louis van Gaal's men and put to rest any remaining dreams of a first Bundesliga title. Opposing fans will be able to sing "You'll never be champions!" for at least a year longer.
It would be tempting to blame Leverkusen's slide in the last third of the season on the Vizekusen syndrome. It would also be wrong. No one in this talented squad lived through the triple trauma of 2002, and there was little external pressure from supporters or the media to win the title. If anything, it's worth remembering that Leverkusen finished ninth a year ago, so they've come a long way in a short space. The wily Heynckes, 64, and former Liverpool defender Sami Hyypia, 36, have brought tremendous balance and experience to a side that couldn't quite translate its fluid style into consistent results before.
Leverkusen's main problem after the winter break was not psychological, but much more mundane. Long-term injuries to captain Simon Rolfes and striker Patrick Helmes could no longer be overcome once additional key players like Brazilian midfielder Renato Augusto or Hyypia started missing games, too. Despite its recent setbacks, Bayer is still heading for the club's best finish since 2004, no mean feat considering that its parent company drastically reduced its subsidies for the team in the middle of the decade and instead spent more than $100 million on the extension of the BayArena. Leverkusen used to have the second-most-expensive team after Bayern Munich but are now also-rans in that respect, below Stuttgart, Hamburg and Werder Bremem.
Bayer's only real crime this season, then, has been of being far too successful. Heynckes was right to point out that qualification for the Europa League had been the sole aim before the start of this campaign, and an ambitious one at that. "If you take into account how many regulars were missing today, we played fantastically well," he said after the Bayern draw.
Sporting director Rudi Völler is a little upset, however. "Anything but third spot at the end would be a tremendous disappointment," the former Germany striker said. Without the Champions League millions, it will be much harder to consolidate Leverkusen's return to Germany's elite, especially in light of the forthcoming World Cup, where plenty of Völler's players will be in the spotlight. The Swiss duo of winger Tranquilo Barnetta and striker Eren Derdiyok will be coveted by bigger clubs, and Bayer has already lost excellent playmaker Toni Kroos for next season. The 20-year-old star will go back to Bayern Munich after his two-year loan expires.
Völler might not go as far as his predecessor, Reiner Callmund, who insisted in 2002 that he would happily finish second in all competitions for another five years. But in purely financial terms, Bayer certainly wouldn't mind being Vizekusen in the near future again. Who knows, with a bit of help of the Champions League money, Leverkusen might even one day be able to make use of another term they optimistically trademarked this week: "Meisterkusen." From Meister, meaning champions.
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The injured Jermaine Jones was again missed on Saturday, when Schalke 04 lost its second game in a row, 4-2 at Hannover. "We are lacking a leader in the middle of the park," Royal Blues manager Felix Magath said.
Hannover 96 right back Steve Cherundolo, on the other hand, had ample reason to celebrate, along with the ecstatic crowd at the AWD-Arena. The unexpected win over Schalke lifted his 16th-place team within one point from safety. The 31-year-old carried a supporters' banner with a giant "96" inside a heart into the changing room and said he had just experienced "one of the most emotional moments of my 11 years at the club."
It was also a good week for Gladbach midfielder Michael Bradley. The 22-year-old had a very good game in the 2-0 win over the high-flying Eagles from Frankfurt and was rated his team's second-best player (after defender Dante) by German Kicker magazine.
Jared Jeffrey, 19, is still waiting for his first senior game at Hannover.
Salvatore "Sal" Zizzo of Hannover 96 is still recovering from ACL surgery last October.