Persistent followers of football are usually well acquainted with the phenomenon of completely unexpected failures, and so Simon Rolfes has kept a healthy dose of skepticism amidst the run of fortune he has experienced this summer. Last year his impressions of the team before the start of the season were also good and the optimism was high, says the sporting director of Bayer Leverkusen.
A deep fall followed, including the dismissal of the coach. This experience runs deep, so you have to be careful with forecasts before the Bundesliga opener against RB Leipzig on Saturday (3.30 p.m. in the FAZ live ticker for the Bundesliga and on Sky). The head of sport is actually very satisfied after looking back on an amazing series of successful transfers and having turned Bayer Leverkusen into one of the most interesting top teams in the league.
The Werkself play quite successfully most years, often reaching a European Cup and sometimes even the Champions League. But the Leverkusen team hardly ever triggers a spectator boom, high ratings and nationwide enthusiasm. However, the side is now coached by Xabi Alonso, a former midfield star who won the World Cup and Champions League and has a reputation for being one of the greatest coaching talents of our time. That arouses attention and interest. “Of course, Xabi Alonso also has great appeal outside of Germany. It has power and suits Bayer Leverkusen well,” says Rolfes.
As soon as one of the giants from the Champions League is about to change coaches, Alonso’s name is also mentioned. Reports have been circulating that Real Madrid president Florentino Perez sees the 41-year-old Spaniard as a medium-term dream solution for his club’s coaching position. This shine rubs off on the Werkself, who recently received a lot of recognition for reaching the semi-finals of the Europa League, where the team will also be appearing next season.
With Jonas Hofmann (from Mönchengladbach), Granit Xhaka (Arsenal FC) and Alejandro Grimaldo (Benfica Lisbon), three internationally renowned professionals have been signed who will change the character of the team. “It wasn’t about gaining experience in supplementary positions, but in key positions,” says Rolfes. There are also younger and highly talented newcomers such as Artur (America FC) and Victor Boniface (Saint-Gilloise). And recently, the 23-year-old goalkeeper Matej Kovar from Manchester United, who should challenge Lukas Hradecky, the number one, and at best inherit it, signed a contract. Above all, however, it is the coach who shapes the present of this club.
“The conversation with Xabi Alonso impressed me,” says Jonas Hofmann, “he is an extreme authority figure and personality. I loved the football he played.” For Xhaka, who has already started coaching training, he used to be a role model as a player. Now he wants to absorb how Alonso develops as a coach.
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It’s hard to imagine that both Xhaka, Grimaldo and Hofmann would have come to Leverkusen without the prospect of working with Alonso. It’s no wonder that Rolfes puts the brakes on the personality cult: “Xabi is a role model for many boys, that certainly plays a role,” he explains. “However, in the end, players who sign long-term contracts always choose a club, a certain way of working and the club’s vision and not just people.”
Although the players can hope to play under Alonso for more than just one season. The contract with Alonso has just been extended by two years until the end of June 2026. “I’m very grateful for the trust Bayer 04 have in me,” said Alonso. “The fact that we are convinced of the same idea and the same direction in terms of sporting orientation ensures a great deal of closeness and trust between those responsible for the club and me.” And: “I want more.” It is clear what Alonso means: Title. Apparently this club currently has a lot to offer for its protagonists.
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There is an interesting squad with players like Jeremie Frimpong, Edmond Tapsoba or Florian Wirtz, all of whom will probably eventually end up with one of the biggest clubs in the Champions League. And a stable economic situation and recently also a small audience boom. The fact that 25,000 people came to the stadium for the season-opening game against West Ham United is a clear symptom of a new euphoria, reinforced by the fact that the team played fast-paced football and won 4-0. RB Leipzig is coming to the Rhine on Saturday, and even if more people will be watching FC Bayern and Borussia Dortmund at the start of the season, in purely sporting terms it is probably the highest-class game of this first Bundesliga matchday.