It was raining cats and dogs on that night in the sparsely populated Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb. Particularly in the first half, it was reminiscent of the World Cup semi-final between Germany and Poland on 3 July 1974 given the huge puddles on the pitch. "Football? At times, it looks more like water polo!" wrote the Rheinische Post after the 1-1 draw between Croatia and Germany on 29 March 2000. For the daily newspaper, the match 21 years ago today was "one of the most curious meetings in the history of German international football."
This friendly, ten weeks before the start of the European Championship finals in Belgium and the Netherlands, was not only unusual due to the playing conditions. It was historic because nine Bayer 04 players were in the two squads. Seven Werkself players had been called up to the Germany team by the then coach Erich Ribbeck and two Leverkusen players were in the Croatia squad under national coach Miroslav Blazevic.
For the Germany team, Jens Nowotny, Michael Ballack and Ulf Kirsten started with Carsten Ramelow, Paulo Rink and Stefan Beinlich coming on as substitutes. Only Oliver Neuville remained on the bench. Boris Zivkovic and Robert Kovac were in the Croatia line-up. Eight international players from one club and one match: According to statisticians, that had never happened before in the 92 years of German international football. The ZDF commentator Béla Réthy declared with surprise at the start of the match: "A Leverkusen majority in the Germany team: That's an absolute first.": The usually so dominant Bayern block this time only consisted of the duo of Oliver Kahn and Thomas Linke due to the late withdrawal of Markus Babbel and Jens Jeremies.
In spite of the rain-soaked pitch, the two teams produced some attractive passing football at times. Germany took the lead on 12 minutes with a header from Hertha Berlin's Marco Rehmer from a Didi Hamann cross. Croatia levelled on 70 minutes through Niko Kovac who had played for Bayer Leverkusen until the summer of 1999 before moving on to Hamburg SV.
Like his brother Robert, Niko Kovac became an international player at Leverkusen under Christoph Daum – as with so many other Werkself players in the four years with Daum at the helm. The then Bayer 04 coach was unable to disguise his pride after this historic international with the record number of Leverkusen players and saw it as a "significant chapter in the history of Bayer." He referred to the significance of the "presence of our players in the national team" and added with a smile: "Leverkusen can't be stopped."
Ten Bayer 04 players won international caps for Germany between 1983 and 1996. Herbert Waas was the first and Ulf Kirsten the last up to that point. In the four years under Daum from 1996 to 2000, Nowotny, Beinlich, Ramelow, Rink, Neuville and Ballack made their debuts for Germany as Leverkusen players. And all of them – plus Ulf Kirsten – were in Erich Ribbeck's squad on 29 March 2000. And the national coach knew Bayer 04 first hand. He led the club to the UEFA Cup triumph in 1988 and was in charge again from 1995 to 1996. Now, four years later, 'Sir Erich' was looking for his final squad for the European Championship starting in June.
And he found plenty of suitable candidates from his former club after a fantastic season. Ten days before the Croatia match, the Daum team registered the biggest win in the history of the club with a 9-1 victory at Ulm – and they were involved in an exciting race for the title right up to the final matchday, which the Black and Reds dramatically lost at Unterhaching.
Back to the international in Zagreb: Béla Réthy named Jens Nowotny as the man of the match. "For me, he was the outstanding player, top marks with a star," said the commentator about the Leverkusen captain who won nearly every challenge and held the German defence together in the second half as Croatia grew stronger and stronger. There was also a positive assessment of Michael Ballack, who the Rheinische Post named amongst the best players in the Germany team: "In his fourth international appearance, the former Kaiserslautern player not only impressed with his creativity but also his strength in the air." Carsten Ramelow, who replaced goalscorer Marco Rehmer at the start of the second half, who was as imposing as usual, had some good moves and set up his teammate Ulf Kirsten with a cross. But the 'Schwatte' failed to score in his 47th international. Paulo Rink, the "Brazilian German" (Béla Réthy), replaced him seven minutes from full-time and, like fellow substitute Stefan Beinlich (88'), he was unable to make his mark.
While many observers saw this 1-1 draw in the build-up to the European Championship as a "sample without any value" (Rheinische Post), others saw it as a "satisfactory performance and a step forwards" (ZDF reporter Michael Palme). And most-capped international Lothar Matthäus, then already 39 years old, was confident after his 145th International: "It's the right way to perhaps play further forward in the European Championship than we've dared in recent performances."
Unfortunately that was a deceptive hope as the European Championship in Belgium and the Netherlands, with all the Leverkusen players from the Croatia game in the Germany squad with the exception of Neuville and Beinlich, proved to be a great disappointment. Germany went out in the group stage and Rudi Völler took over from Erich Ribbeck as the Germany coach. Two years later, he led Germany to the World Cup final against Brazil in South Korea and Japan. Almost everything was different but one thing remained constant: the strong Leverkusen presence in the national squad. Völler picked five Bayer 04 players for the World Cup and three were in the starting line-up for the final (Ramelow, Schneider, Neuville), one was on the bench (goalkeeper Hans-Jörg Butt), Michael Ballack was suspended – and for Brazil, Lucio was the sixth Leverkusen player and he was able to kiss the World Cup trophy after the 2-0 win for the Selecao. "Leverkusen can't be stopped": Christoph Daum was proved to be right.
A large number of Werkself players have regularly been called up for their national teams for a long time now. Again and again there are internationals with a large number of Bayer 04 players – as for example 18 months ago in the 2-0 win for Germany in a friendly against Finland when Karim Bellarabi, Kevin Volland, Julian Brandt, Bernd Leno and Jonathan Tah lined up against their Finnish teammate Joel Pohjanpalo.
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