After a century-long transformation from village factory team to international contenders, Bayer 04 Leverkusen are now seasoned competitors in Europe’s premier competition.
The football section of the Bayer works’ sports club, formed in 1904, played lower-league football until reaching the Oberliga West in 1951, the highest regional level before the Bundesliga was formed 12 years later. The club soon built the Ulrich-Haberland-Stadion, over the water from the sports park where the part-timers had been playing for 25 years.
While Schalke and Dortmund joined the new league in 1963, Leverkusen went to the Regionalliga. There followed a few fallow seasons before promotion, under wily old Willibert Kremer, in 1979. Under Erich Ribbeck, the club gained a foothold in the top flight, and surprised everyone by beating Espanyol on penalties in the UEFA Cup final of 1988, clawing back a 3-0 deficit from the away leg. Star of the show was Cha Bum-Kun, whose late equaliser tied the fixture, the highlight of his near 200 games for the club.
But it was under ambitious general manager Reiner Clemunt that Bayer Leverkusen really took off. Over ten years, he had the Ulrich-Haberland converted to the BayArena, completed in 1997. Picking up quality East Germans Ulf Kirsten and Andreas Thom, the rotund ‘Calli’ Clemunt persuaded Rüdi Völler and Bernd Schuster to join Leverkusen, who rarely failed to finish top six. The prolific Kirsten scored the only goal of the 1993 Cup Final, Leverkusen’s only domestic silverware in 25 years of near misses.
The cruellest came in 2002. With another top East German, Michael Ballack, plus Bernd Schneider, Oliver Neuville and key Brazlians Zé Roberto and Lúcio, Leverkusen were sailing to the title before Dortmund pipped them. Ballack and company had also beaten Liverpool and Manchester United en route to the Champions League Final, decided by a wonder strike by Zinedine Zidane. Bayer even lost in the final of the German Cup, to Schalke, despite opening the scoring with rising star Dimitar Berbatov.
Ballack and Zé Roberto left for Bayern, Caimund bowed out, and Bayer trod water until Jupp Heynckes arrived as coach in 2009. Overseeing talented young striker Stefan Kießling, Heynckes steered Bayer back to a Champions League spot.
Kießling was top Bundesliga scorer as Leverkusen claimed third place in 2013, with former Bayer centre-back Sami Hyypiä taking over as coach. Sadly the Finn didn’t survive shaky run-in to the 2013-14 campaign – though fourth place was assured thanks to a 2-1 turnaround in the last game.
Bayer achieved the same under Roger Schmidt in 2014-15.
Equally accommodating to business clients as to ever-increasing standing fans, the 30,000-capacity BayArena is the perfect example of how to serve a community of 160,000 people while confidently hosting the likes of Real Madrid and Manchester United on European nights.
After basic park pitches near the Bayer factory, the team ran out at Platz an der Dhünnaue, today close to Neuland-Park by the river. In 1932, Leverkusen moved to Am Stadtpark, across the stream from today’s Bayarena.
With the Stadtpark packed to the rafters when Köln or Schalke came to town, the club invested in a new stadium: the Ulrich-Haberland, named after the industrial manager, then still alive, behind a Bayer share issue.
Opened in 1958 and holding 20,000, the Ulrich-Haberland served its modest purpose – until promotion in 1979. Revamping it began with the main West Stand in 1986 and continued for ten years. After the opening of a four-star hotel, the stadium was renamed the BayArena in 1998.
Capacity, though, was only 22,500. More major redevelopment was undertaken from 2008. Convertible standing terraces were installed, allowing for a 30,000 capacity for domestic fixtures but creating an all-seated arena for international games, such as the 2011 Women’s World Cup. A new roof was added, and hospitality areas increased.
Unveiled in 2009, when it hosted Germany-South Africa, the revamped BayArena was again ahead of the game. Slight modifications, such as increasing standing places for home fans to 3,000, have continued into the summer of 2013.
The main standing C sector remains at the corner of the home Nordbereich and the Ostbereich along the sidelines but is now complemented by areas across sector D and E along the whole North End.
The visitors’ sector, also with a lower standing area, remains sector G in the opposite corner, between the Südbereich behind the goal and the main Westbereich which houses the club shop and press area. The Lindner Hotel is found behind the Nordbereich.
The BayArena is poorly signposted from Leverkusen Mitte station, 15-20mins from Cologne station by train or S-Bahn line 6. At Mitte, head to platform 5 and exit the station walking back parallel to the rails from the way you came. At a stream, turn right – the stadium is ahead, altogether 10mins from Mitte.
City buses serve communities around Leverkusen, match tickets valid for the journey 4hrs before kick-off. The hourly No.203 runs from Leverkusen Mitte to the Sportpark Manfort stop by the stadium 7mins and five stops away.
Tickets are distributed from the Bayer 04-Shop (Tue-Fri 11am-6pm, Sat 10am-2pm, 2hrs before kick-off) near the Lindner Hotel. Ticket windows are behind the Ostbereich, by main Bismarckstraße behind the stadium.
There is also an online service. Prices vary according to the opposition. Against lesser teams, you can find tickets for €16 in the corners and behind the goals, €23-26 everywhere else, €32-37 for a better class of visiting team, when it’s €20-26 in the corners and behind the goal.
The Bayer 04-Shop (Tue-Fri 11am-6pm, Sat 10am-2pm, 2hrs before kick-off, 45mins after game) behind the Nordbereich carries curiosities such as Stefan Kießling’s recipe book, sets of Kölsch beer glasses and candles.
The Classic-Tour (€9/€5 3-14s) is bookable for Wed & Fri 3pm & 6pm, Sat 1pm and Sun 11am except on match days. Visitors should meet at the Bayer-04 Shop behind the Nordbereich 15mins beforehand. Book through firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are a few outlets along Bismarckstraße. First is Haus am Park, a decent if pricy terrace restaurant. On the corner of Am Stadtpark, the Havana cocktail bar is where Ballack and co celebrated in the late 1990s. Note 1pm opening on match-day Saturdays.
Signposted on Bismarckstraße right across from the stadium, Pille is a must. Behind an indoor football pitch are a sports bar and large beer garden, perfect for a Kölsch while watching the sun set over the BayArena. There’s a children’s playground too.
At the stadium, snazzy lounge match-day bar/restaurant Calcio on the first floor of the Südbereich attracts an upscale clientele. The Winner’s Bar at the Lindner Hotel is guests-only on match days.
Around the ground, payment is by BayArena-Card, available from the ticket windows on Bismarckstraße, with 70 top-up points around the ground, including the Bayer 04-Shop.