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Leverkusen win DFB-Pokal to end dream domestic season

By primenewsghana
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Bayer Leverkusen have completed the first undefeated double-winning season in the history of German football.

They were expected to beat Kaiserslautern in the final of the DFB-Pokal. What nobody foresaw was a first-half red card for Odilon Kossounou and Leverkusen having to hold on for over an hour with 10 men. Xabi Alonso’s side took the lead early through an artful Granit Xhaka goal which, at the time, looked like it might start a procession.

Not at all. Kaiserslautern, a big club suffering through hard times in the 2.Bundesliga, played well above themselves, demanding every ounce of resilience that Leverkusen had left at the end of a remarkable season. Alonso’s players may have been soundly beaten by Atalanta in the final of the Europa League, but the dimensions of this win, which secured the club’s first DFB-Pokal since 1993, restored some of their lustre and reminded everyone of just how special an accomplishment this is.

The more Leverkusen have won this year, the less time they have had to dwell on their success. Even after winning the Bundesliga in April and ending Bayern Munich’s 11 years of dominance, nobody could afford to do anything but keep their mind in the present. There was always another game to win, or another challenge to their unbeaten record to fend away.

Simon Rolfes, Leverkusen’s board member for sport, spoke to The Athletic a week before the Pokal final and admitted that there have been times when it has been hard not to get lost in the moment.

“There were maybe two, three days after the win against Bremen (when we could celebrate), but then we had to go to London to play West Ham, then we continued in the Bundesliga. So it was more like, ‘OK, we go on, we go on, we go on.’

“But when I drive to the stadium and saw all the gardens and the streets (with flags). In these moments, I got goosebumps.”

Rolfes has become one of the most admired executives in European football during this run. He has built one of the great teams in German football history and provided a platform for Xabi Alonso to become regarded as one of the most talented coaches in Europe.

But beyond the trophies and the praise, and all the flattering articles written in many different languages, what is it that he is most proud of?

“It’s how we played this season,” he says.

“The spirit.”

That describes a lot. The attacking flourishes, the comebacks, the late goals. Even the obvious camaraderie among Leverkusen’s players. Sometimes good teams have an unfeeling quality about them. Nobody could ever say that about this Leverkusen.

“I think that’s why so many fans across Germany – and maybe internationally as well – enjoy watching our matches, because it’s pure joy; there’s ambition and team spirit and the sense of never giving up. There are so many things that people wish to see in a team, and wish to have in society at the moment, and one of those is joy.

“And thanks to our playing attractive football and our behaviour, I think nobody begrudges us winning titles: instead of saying, ‘Oh, why did they win again?’ people say, ‘No, they deserve to win,’ because we have our feet on the ground. That’s what I’m really proud of.”

Rolfes is right: the Leverkusen story never waned. The defeat to Atalanta was crushing, of course, but for 51 games they held the world’s attention. That was partly a virtue of not being Bayern Munich. But it was also because, aside from the flowing football, the growth of Alonso, the flagging careers coming back to life (Xhaka, Hoffman, Grimaldo) and new stars being born (Wirtz, Frimpong, Boniface), it all just looked so much fun.

Success often looks that way. At Leverkusen, a lot of players are close off the pitch. In April, when The Athletic interviewed Jeremie Frimpong and asked him who he was closest to at the club, he named almost a full team of players. That comes across, too; it’s something you can see when you watch them. Artisans would have preferred a five-star performance on Saturday night and a last chance to watch Leverkusen in full flight, or at “full gas” to use Granit Xhaka’s familiar phrase. But that it was a struggle and grind was perhaps more descriptive. Leverkusen’s 10 players were forced to work so hard for each other and that made a more profound point about what has made them successful

Away from the pitch, many of these players seem to have drawn so much from their support networks.

Frimpong is certainly one of them. The night of the final game of the season, after Leverkusen had beaten Augsburg to finish unbeaten, he stood on a chair at home, surrounded by his family. Many of them had been at the stadium that day and had worn his replica shirt back-to-front, with his name across the heart.

“My success is your success,” he told them, as he talked about the journey so far — about Manchester City, Celtic, and now Leverkusen, as his voice cracked ever so slightly.

Not every story is the same, but if there is a commonality it’s in how grounded these players are. Almost all of them are in long-term, committed relationships. When the title was won back in April, the players were surrounded by mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, cousins, friends and tiny children.

It looks balanced and domestic — as it does among those in charge of this group. Amid the celebrations in Berlin, there was a tender embrace between Rolfes, Alonso, and Fernando Carro, the club CEO. That was fittingly symbolic, because the alignment between those three is such a source of strength for Leverkusen. It’s one of the reasons Alonso decided to stay at the club, despite interest from Liverpool and Bayern Munich.

“It’s really important,” Rolfes says. “If people in leadership positions are fighting each other, you won’t have a squad with team spirit, that’s for sure.

“That’s how life is, also with my wife at home, we have discussions too. And I wouldn’t like it if we didn’t. But trust — you have to have trust in each other. And all three of us have our task in developing the club, and we respect that task. Everybody has their responsibility, but we try to help each other and to work together and have communication. If you want to be successful, it’s really important that you start with yourselves.

“If you don’t have that, it’s really difficult to get the team to behave (in the same way).”

Fernando Carro, the CEO, agrees.

“Like any relationship, respect and communication is key,” he says. “We have open lines to each other since the beginning of our time together. There is a big trust factor. We believe we’ve given Xabi a great and fully dedicated organisation and the autonomy to go his way and to be successful. He made the best out of this, no doubt.”

Carro is keen to stress the breadth of Rolfes’ role and to emphasise its dimensions beyond the transfer market. A board director for sport is no simple scout.

“Simon is a great sports business professional in his own style. He combines a broad and successful football career with important economic and interpersonal skills. He is analytical, even-keeled, communicative, humble, an absolute media pro as well. His search for talents and potential Bayer 04 players is based not only on technical, but also on social skills on the players’ side, essential in modern football.”

Looking around European football, particularly at Bayern, where all sorts of coaches have rejected offers, it’s clear that the quality of a working environment is starting to matter almost as much as the prestige of a club. Leverkusen are by no means the first club to profit from a fertile atmosphere, but they are one of the best contemporary examples of how alignment can enhance collective performance and individual reputations.

Name the name; there is nobody at the BayArena who is not now better regarded than they were 12 months ago. That is a statement in itself and a way of describing how balanced this squad is and how many players — people — have contributed to a season that seemed like it might never end.

It belongs to history now and it will do for a very long time. For six weeks, Leverkusen’s impulse to enjoy what they have achieved has had to be tempered. There has been some beer and a bit of champagne, but the wild nights have all had to have a strict curfew.

No longer. Finally, it’s time to celebrate.