Bayer Leverkusen’s success is a reminder of soccer’s community power

a corner from the left, seven minutes after injury time. Croatian defender Josip Stanišić stands up at the near post. His header is too hard to be described as glancing, but it is well aimed and flashes across goal and in for the equalizer. The black and red corner of Signal Iduna Park erupts. Minutes after the game they were still partying with their players. The Bundesliga title has already been won, but there should be no doubt that Bayer Leverkusen care about their unbeaten record.

Until then, there was a sense of anticlimax about Borussia Dortmund against Leverkusen. What looked like the match that would see Xabi Alonso’s side win the title about a month ago turned out to be the first of their five matches, thanks to Bayern Munich blowing a two-goal lead against Heidenheim two weeks ago. -game victory lap. Dortmund suffered a similar comedown after their Champions League quarter-final victory over Atlético. Fifth place is almost certain and with Germany very likely to have five Champions League places next season, it won’t make much difference if they catch RB Leipzig, who are two points ahead of fourth.

The game had actually been patchy and a bit ill-tempered; there was a clear feeling among the players: if they weren’t going through the motions, then at least they were aware that the competition is no longer the priority. But then Niclas Füllkrug put Dortmund ahead with nine minutes to go and Leverkusen had something to fight for. No team has ever gone an entire Bundesliga season undefeated; they are also undefeated in the DFB Pokal, in the final of which they face Kaiserslautern, and in the Europa League, where Roma await in the semi-finals. Patrik Schick and Victor Boniface came along, the pace changed, some kind of muscle memory kicked in and suddenly there was a glimpse of why Leverkusen had the success they had this season. For the 20th time this season, they scored a goal after the 85th minute of a match and their impeccable run was extended.

This is a dream season for Leverkusen. They have finished second in the Bundesliga five times. In 2001–02 they achieved the silver treble by finishing second in the league and losing in both the Pokal and Champions League finals. But the Neverkusen moniker makes what happens this season all the sweeter. Given their support from pharmaceutical giant Bayer, which clearly helped during the Covid shutdown, this may not be quite the fairy tale some would portray it. But there is still something moving about watching a club win something for the first time in 120 years of history. It is definitely not the routine Bundesliga success that has become the norm for Bayern Munich.

The combination of Bayer’s success and Athletic Club winning the Copa del Rey for the first time in forty years, and the shores of Bilbao one long mass of red and white as they made their traditional victory procession by ship, felt significant. This is what football still has the power to do. It can bring a sense of collective joy to provincial towns and affirm a community’s identity. You don’t have to have any ties to either city to feel moved by the scenes.

Athletic Club celebrate their Copa del Rey title with a traditional trophy parade in the Bilbao Estuary. Photo: Ion Alcoba Beitia/Getty Images

And then you think about the reality of modern football. There are protests against ticket prices at the majority of Premier League clubs. There is a growing perception that clubs care less about traditional fans, the ones who buy their season tickets and show up week in and week out for years, for whom the club is an integral part of their identity, a birthright that has been passed down. through the generations, then for tourist fans for whom a game is a once-in-a-lifetime treat, perhaps once in a lifetime; the kind of fan who is willing to pay an exorbitant price for a ticket and then double that value with a visit to the club shop.

The Premier League is the most popular league in the world, despite recent results in Europe. Part of its success is the interest it attracts from abroad and given the way it is made up of foreign players, owners and coaches, it would be absurd to turn away foreign fans.

But at the same time it feels like football is entering dangerous territory. One of the strengths of European football is that its clubs are organic entities, not empty franchises. They have a value and a meaning that is rooted in the local community; it’s not just companies. It is extremely difficult to balance that with the globalized context; a constant drive for growth and obsession with the end result is probably not the best way to do that.

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Of course, it is naive to think that most modern owners care about anything other than profit. But it is also impossible to look at Leverkusen’s success and the joy it has brought to an unremarkable mid-sized city on the Rhine and not think that this is what football should actually be about.

This is an excerpt from Soccer with Jonathan Wilson, the Guardian US’s weekly look at the game in Europe and beyond. Subscribe for free here. Do you have a question for Jonathan? Email and he will provide the best answer in a future edition