Ah, the early 2000s. Good times. Playing Pokémon Crystal, Tony Hawk Pro Skater, listening to The White Stripes and Sum 41, falling in love with Sarah Michelle Gellar and Jennifer Love Hewitt, too young for taxes, and PES of course. A lot of PES. Pro Evolution Soccer was the only football video game on a yearly basis that mattered back then. I always had my favorite: AS Roma, of course. Or I created my own team in Master League.
But there was another team for which I had a soft spot. In those days, PES had the worst fake names you can imagine: Manchester Blue, London FC, Lombardia, Merseyside Red, Museumplein (that’s Ajax btw). And hidden amongst those was a club called ‘Rhein’ AKA Bayer 04 Leverkusen. Those black-red stripes immediately caught my eye, so I started researching the club from Eastern Germany.
Bayer 04 Leverkusen is the property of the pharmaceutical and biotech company Bayer. It was founded in 1904 by some workers who wanted to start a sports club with the help of their employer. And thank God the company agreed to do so because we have enjoyed endless cycles of rising and falling from one of Germany's finest and most traditional clubs.
Back in 2002, my teenage self was addicted to PES and Leverkusen’s amazing roster. It began in goal with Hans-Jörg Butt—a mainstay of Leverkusen for six years, rarely missing a game—who actually scored nearly 30 goals in his career from the penalty spot. While he played second fiddle to Oliver Kahn and Jens Lehmann with the national team, he was easily one of Germany’s best keepers.
In central defense, there was this Holy Trinity: Lucio, Juan, and Nowotny. Lucio is regarded as one of the best and toughest CBs ever (Bayern, Inter), while most of us know the qualities of Juan, AKA J Smooth. Such a gracious, stylish defender and a perfect partner for Mexes at Roma between 2007 and 2011. The Crockett & Tubbs videos were real. Too bad he wasn’t made of steel because he missed quite a few games due to injuries.
Jens Nowotny was your typical no-nonsense German defender Leverkusen club legend. Argentinian Diego Placente was another striking figure and a more than capable left-back. Perhaps no Jordi Alba of Theo Hernandez but a tireless worker with a decent cross.
In midfield, you’ll find one of my favorites: Carsten Ramelow. The Daniele De Rossi of Leverkusen quoi. A tough defensive midfielder (one who would be very welcome at Roma right now) who stayed 13 seasons at Bayer and played over 400 official games.
If Ramelow was the steady, strong presence in midfield, then Yildiray Basturk was the creative piece of the puzzle. The brains, the genius in the middle. The one playing the Totti role. Also a member of the impressive Turkey squad that reached the semifinal of the World Cup 2002.
And we’re not done yet with club legends because we have another one coming up: Bernd Schneider. A versatile midfielder who could pass, dribble, shoot, play on either flank, take a corner or free kick—The man did it all with flair and German efficiency.
Every team needs a proven, reliable forward, and of course, Leverkusen had one in its ranks: the good old Oliver Neuville. Not exactly a world-beater or a top finisher like Ronaldo or Benzema, but I remember his stats in PES were pretty good. He was a short but quick striker, and I loved playing him up front.
What did you say? You’re missing a young prodigy somewhere in this lineup? Well, Leverkusen had the perfect striker to complement the short but fast Neuville: Dimitar Berbatov. Still in his early 20s back then, Berbatov rose to fame at Leverkusen and then shined in the Premier League and Europe with Tottenham and especially Manchester United.
Not the quickest forward but one with good ball control, football IQ, a strong header, and a certain calmness in front of goal. Berbatov scored almost 100 goals for Leverkusen before his 26th birthday.
I’m certainly forgetting other notable players from that era, and obviously, there were still good players after 2004 (Roque Junior, Voronin, Barnetta, Kiessling, Castro, Rolfes, Volland..), but thanks to PES, the best, most beautiful Bayer memories were made between 2001-2004.
A time in which they finished second in the Bundesliga, German Cup, AND Champions League, all in the same season. If Roma happened is still a thing in Chiesa, then we can’t imagine how the Leverkusen fans must have felt in 2002. Things got even worse after that season, as Leverkusen narrowly avoided relegation in 2003, ending in 15th place in the Bundesliga. Luckily they bounced back one year later, reaching third place. Supporting Leverkusen sure was a rollercoaster back then.
Actually, they still haven’t won a single Bundesliga title since then, mainly due to the dominance of Bayern and Dortmund. They finished second four times between 1997 and 2002, something Roma fans can relate to (2005-2010, the rivalry with Inter).
Former Roma player Rudi Voller is still the sporting director of Bayer ever since 2005. Currently, former Giallorosso Patrik Schick is at Leverkusen and is doing quite alright, averaging a goal every two games. A lot better than his Roman career, that’s for sure. Roma was also linked with Azmoun, Hincapie, and Hudson-Odoi, each of whom made stops at Bayer Leverkusen.
Now, if you excuse me, it’s time to dust off my PlayStation 2 and find that precious copy of PES 3. I think a match Rhein vs Roma could be fun.