A perpetual bridesmaid gets the crown, and Germany (mostly) likes the look

Officials at Bayer Leverkusen, the long-established but usually middleweight German soccer team, have been issuing the messages since at least February. Some were delivered in person, a silent blessing after yet another victory. Others came via WhatsApp, unsolicited and unexpected messages from colleagues and acquaintances and, to their occasional surprise, from traditional enemies.

Football, after all, is fiercely tribal. Rivals do not easily exchange encouragement or congratulations. But as the German league season picked up pace, many wanted to praise Leverkusen's impending achievement: with each victory, they moved ever closer to being crowned national champions for the first time.

And that meant – just as importantly – that Bayern Munich were not.

Leverkusen will cross the finish line this weekend and end Bayern's championship run that has lasted more than a decade. At least it should: all Leverkusen need to seal the title is a single win, which could come as early as Sunday's match against Werder Bremen, or for Bayern to lose.

In a sense, the triumph has been a long time coming; the club was founded 120 years ago, in 1904, before the city of Leverkusen technically existed. But in another sense it arrived quicker than anyone expected.

Six months ago, the team's charismatic coach, Xabi Alonso, 42, said he would support the idea that his team could only win the championship if they were still in the running in April. As it stands, he may claim the title so soon that he cannot celebrate it properly: the season is still in full swing and Leverkusen have at least two more trophies to chase.

Each time the title is awarded, the club will host a post-match party for the players and their families at its stadium, the BayArena. But it will not hold its traditional parade – during which its fans will have the chance to greet the players – until May 26, the day after the conclusion of the country's other major domestic competition, the German Cup. (Leverkusen are also favorites to win.)

Organizing that celebration was something of a challenge: Leverkusen, a small city sandwiched between Cologne and Düsseldorf, does not have a civic building with a ceremonial balcony large enough for the team to greet its fans. (The club has said it has several options in mind, although nothing has been decided.)

“We will adorn our city in black and red wherever possible,” the city's mayor, Uwe Richrath, said in a statement.

It's not a problem the club – or the city authorities – have had to deal with before. Bayer Leverkusen, founded more than a century ago as a sports venue for workers at the nearby Bayer chemical plant, has won only two major awards in its long history. The most recent dates back to 1993.

Instead, Leverkusen became almost synonymous with heartbreaking defeat. In 2002, the club took on the anglicised nickname “Neverkusen” after losing the league title, the German Cup and the Champions League, the European football competition, at the last hurdle. That reputation is so deeply ingrained in the club's soul that Bayer Leverkusen has patented the German equivalent, Vizekusen.

Alonso's team will, in the coming weeks, exorcise those ghosts in quite spectacular fashion. His team has yet to lose a game this season and can still finish the season with more major honors (three) than it has had in its entire history.

This achievement has significance that will extend far beyond his hometown.

The ritual dominance in recent years of Bayern Munich, the country's biggest and by far richest club, has become a source of considerable concern – both for German fans and for the league itself – as the annual race to win the championship has begun. championship, the Bundesliga. seem stale and predictable.

As evidenced by the many messages arriving at Bayer Leverkusen, there is little relief in German football at the prospect of a changing of the guard, even if temporary.

“I can absolutely say it's great for the Bundesliga,” said Peer Naubert, marketing director of Bundesliga International, the organization that promotes German football abroad. “Having the same sample for 11 consecutive years didn't have a negative impact, but it didn't have a positive one either.”

Bayer Leverkusen's success has allowed the Bundesliga to tell a different story to its international audience. At least some of this can be attributed to Alonso himself: it's surprising, for example, how much of Leverkusen's social media output includes its manager, a beloved former player of Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bayern, three of the most famous clubs in the world.

But the league as a whole has also seen concrete benefits, Naubert said. “In terms of awareness, interest and the number of die-hard fans,” he said, citing a metric the Bundesliga uses to describe viewers who tune in regularly, “we have seen a significant increase.”

Many more people watch Leverkusen matches than in the past, he said, but more and more people watch other teams too. There has been a corresponding increase in the league's social media footprint. “There's a certain freshness, I think,” Mr. Naubert said.

Reaction among fans was mixed. It would be an exaggeration to suggest that Germany is thrilled at the prospect of Leverkusen winning the championship. Fans are too loyal to their clubs and German football is too regionalized for that. The club also lacks the broad diaspora that rivals such as Bayern or Borussia Dortmund have, and therefore does not intrude into the national consciousness as much as others.

Leverkusen also occupies a somewhat difficult position in the firmament of German football. As a branch of corporate giant Bayer, it is one of the few exceptions to the cherished German model: the so-called 50+1 rule, in which fans must be the majority owners of their clubs. It's a long-standing exception, but it's still an exception.

That status means Leverkusen is “a kind of original sin,” said Dario Minden, spokesman for Unsere Kurve, a group representing Germany's organized fans. It is this corporate support, he believes, that has allowed the club to weather the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic better than other teams.

“The important thing to see is that the only thing that broke Bayern's dominance was the building of a giant pharmaceutical company,” Minden said.

But Leverkusen's prominence is no balm for the financial imbalance that has allowed Bayern to win the league every year since 2012, he said.

Also the fact that Leverkusen are confident they can build on their success – Alonso rejected approaches from both Liverpool and Bayern to stay as manager next year, and the team expects to keep their star player, Florian Wirtz – is not evidence of a new, fairer dawn for rivals across the league.

As an Eintracht Frankfurt fan, Minden admitted, he feels no joy in any team other than his own winning the championship. “Although maybe it's because I'm a bad person,” he said.

However, one aspect of the championship provided him with some comfort. “We have this beautiful word,” he said. “Schadenfreude.”

Like much of Germany, Minden may not actively celebrate Leverkusen's impending victory. He can, however, take some pleasure in the fact that it means Bayern Munich, after 11 long years, will once again experience what it means to finish second.

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