Bayer Leverkusen: Young at Heart

Bayer Leverkusen look to add the HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens to an already impressive trophy cabinet as the Bundesliga side with a history of youth development become the first German team to feature in the tournament at Hong Kong Football Club.

At no club is the ethos of hard work more ingrained than at German side Bayer Leverkusen.

Founded by factory workers in 1904, Leverkusen’s progress over the following century has been organic, built on the efforts of their early representatives and shrewd dealings from management.

While championship honours have proved agonisingly out of reach in the Bundesliga – Leverkusen has finished runner-up on five occasions in recent years – the club’s youth sides have enjoyed greater success, winning Germany’s U-19 championship three times and the U-17 title twice.

And that is why Leverkusen are confident their first trip to the HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens this year will help lay another groundwork for future success.

“This tournament in Hong Kong is important for our older youth players so they can compare themselves with players from other top clubs around the world,” says Leverkusen sporting coordinator Kevin Voeller.

“But it’s not only the games that are important for their growth. The trip itself is an experience that they won’t forget too quickly.”

The very first stone for the club was laid in 1903 when Wilhelm Hausschild wrote a letter signed by 170 factory workers to the management of the Bayer pharmaceutical company outlining the need for a sports club.

It found a receptive audience and one of Germany’s first factory sports and athletics clubs was formed the following year, with the football team following in 1907.

Leverkusen enjoyed initial success locally, though war hindered progress, and the side almost claimed promotion to the top flight in 1949, only to be thwarted by local rival Cologne. It wasn’t to be the last of the club’s near misses.

Promotion finally arrived in 1951, but Leverkusen were unable to really establish themselves at the top level before the Bundesliga was formed in 1963. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the club staked out their now familiar place among Germany’s top sides.

Former general manager Reiner Calmund used his wide-ranging contacts to make shrewd acquisitions, first bringing in East German players after the fall of the Berlin Wall, then looking further afield to bring in young but talented prospects whose value grew along with the side.

Unfortunately, Leverkusen fell just short on several occasions when that first Bundesliga title seemed to be within grasp. The side finished runner-up in 1997, 1999, 2000 and 2002, when Leverkusen also lost to Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League final and to Schalke in the German Cup final.

“In the past years, we have had some rough ones and had to take in a lot of big losses and that obviously isn’t such a good thing,” Voeller says.

“But I also think that we have shown more than enough times that we are a very good club and people know us all around the world. If we play internationally each year with the infrastructure we have it will be a big success.”

Leverkusen’s solitary German Cup title came in 1993, while their greatest success to date is the 1988 UEFA Cup title, won thanks to a penalty shootout over Spanish side Espanyol.

Voeller’s father, former West Germany forward and coach Rudi Voeller, played for Leverkusen between 1994-96, and he took over as sporting director in 2005. Under the older Voeller’s watch, Leverkusen has continued with their strategy of bringing in young talented players from wherever they can be found.

Last winter, the club landed a transfer coup by signing highly rated 19-year-old Jamaica forward Leon Bailey from Belgian side Genk, while the summer before Kevin Volland arrived from Hoffenheim, Julian Baumgartlinger from Mainz and Austrian defender Aleksandar Dragovic from Dynamo Kiev.

The most important signings come from within, however, after 17-year-old midfielder Kai Havertz was handed his first professional contract and went on to excel this season.

Havertz became the club’s youngest ever scorer in the Bundesliga when he claimed the equaliser in a 3-3 draw with Wolfsburg on April 2 and he also set up another goal after he had only come on for the final half hour.

It goes without saying that the youth academy is vitally important to Leverkusen.

“For Leverkusen, it’s maybe more important than for the other top clubs in Germany since we cannot compete with them financially,” Kevin Voeller explains.

To ensure a successful youth academy, the club makes sure they appeal to talented players from the local area and beyond.

“So we have to have the best coaches, the best scouting system available, and the best education for our young players to try and keep them in our club until they reach the first team or even improve it,” Voeller says.

Leverkusen counts six players promoted from their youth set-up in their senior squad this year: Havertz, Kevin Kampl, Danny da Costa, Niklas Lomb, Lukas Boeder and Benjamin Henrichs.

Henrichs and Julian Brandt, another 20-year-old with great potential, are both reportedly targets for Bayern Munich, while Kampl is apparently attracting Atletico Madrid’s interest.

The younger players provide reassurance of a bright future despite what was a difficult season for Leverkusen – a “cursed season” according to Rudi Voeller, despite the investment of more than €40 million in the side.

Roger Schmidt was reluctantly fired as coach in March as the side were laboring in their worst Bundesliga season for 14 years.

Schmidt, who joined in 2014, led the side to the Champions League every year, but it seemed his high-intensity approach eventually took its toll on the team this season. Still, the club were sorry to see him go as he had espoused the Leverkusen way.

“We have Roger Schmidt to thank for a great deal. In his time, we qualified three times for the group stages of the Champions League,” managing director Michael Schade said at the time.

“Apart from that, he enforced our philosophy in the youth set-up, developing young players and shaping them into national players, and thus creating lasting value.”

The club turned to former Turkey international Tayfun Korkut to arrest the slide in the short term.

“After this year, which hasn’t been one of our best for the first team, I’m pretty sure that we will be back on our feet and competing for the Champions League places again,” Kevin Voeller says.

For the long term, Leverkusen has 10 youth sides from U-8s to U-19s. Even if things aren’t going well for the senior side, there’s a steady stream of talent coming through and with young players eager to make their mark at the highest levels.

“For our U-19s the goal will always be to compete for the top two positions in the league and to get more players from the U-19s into the first squad,” Voeller explains.

“And of course, the main goals for the next years for our club and especially our academy is to develop more players for the first team and to fight off the competition to keep the best young players in our academy.”

International tournaments like the HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens play a vital role in their development.

“The tournaments offer us important opportunities to compare and are vitally important for the development of our prospects,” the club says.

The list of former Leverkusen youth team players to have made at least one appearance for the senior team is impressive, including the likes of United States forward Landon Donovan, Germany midfielders Christoph Kramer, Gonzalo Castro and Stefan Reinartz, and current Hamburger SV goalkeeper Rene Adler, who was convinced to join Leverkusen’s youth set-up despite hailing from Leipzig, some 500 kilometres away.

“This can only be traced back to good scouting,” Kevin Voeller explains. “The coaches can try everything in their will to develop the players they have, but it’s up to the scouts to find the young players. It’s the job of the scouting team to recruit the players with the best potential to get through our academy with the best possible education they can get.”

His father agrees on the importance of the youth set-up, from scouting to coaching through all the age groups.

“Youth work is a matter of the heart for Bayer Leverkusen,” Rudi Voeller says. “When this work gets acknowledgement and important support outside the club through partners and supporters, it’s more than pleasing. I can only ensure all partners that their support for the youth sides of Bayer 04 makes sense.”