Drama in three acts



A stage director could hardly have come up with a better show. This season for Bayer 04 had everything that makes a classic drama. Strong characters, a suspense curve with a dramatic fall for the hero, conflicts, self deceit, the unstoppable navigation towards the catastrophe and finally catharsis, salvation, the thrilling final against FC Kaiserslautern.

And everything was – as it should be – laid out in the first act. Bernd Schuster played the ambivalent hero in the Bundesliga opening fixture at Hansa Rostock. The 'blonde angel’ scored on a 15 minutes with a direct free kick to make it 1-0 for the Werkself and proved herself to be an outstanding defensive organiser as the kicker analysis read after the game, "launched counter-attacks with controlled passes." But then he made a stupid mistake and was sent off for kicking out on 77 minutes. Goalscorer, playmaker, red card – the unwilling sweeper had made his mark on this game at the newly promoted club, which Bayer managed to win 2-1 with a man down.

Act one: promising start

The win was followed by two draws against the future champions Borussia Dortmund (1-1) and at Borussia Mönchengladbach (0-0), who could have beaten the team under coach Erich Ribbeck with a bit more luck. After another draw (1-1 against St. Pauli) and two wins at Stuttgart (4-1) and against Eintracht Frankfurt (2-0) Bayer 04 moved up to second place behind Bayern Munich. And the first two rounds in the DFB Cup were also successful with the Black and Reds beating both Duisburg and Mönchengladbach 2-0. It was a promising start to the season.

Then came the big match at Bayern. And in this game on matchday seven, Rudi Völler, Ulf Kirsten and Co. competed on equal terms with the league leaders. A penalty converted by Jürgen Klinsmann on 89 minutes to make it 1-0 for the hosts deprived the Ribbeck team, with Bernd Schuster again playing in midfield, of a deserved point.

Although Bayer 04 were then unable to achieve more than a draw on four occasions, the team were still fifth in the table after eleven games in part thanks to a strong defence with goalkeeper Dirk Heinen and Holger Fach as sweeper shining. And after three wins in succession against Karlsruhe (4-1), Uerdingen (2-1) and 1860 Munich (1-0) the team were up to third place by the end of November.

The drama with Schuster

However, a conflict had been brewing in the background for a while. In the autumn, the dispute between Erich Ribbeck and Bernd Schuster about his role in the team had grown into a rift. The breakdown in the relationship between the pair could not be repaired. Schuster played his last game for Leverkusen in the DFB Cup quarter-finals at Regional League side Lok Altmark Stendal on 31 October, which ended in a 5-4 win for Bayer 04 on penalties. The 35-year-old was first put on the bench by Ribbeck and then sent to the stands. Legal action followed. The main actor had become a peripheral figure who did understand how to arouse a lot of media interest in this role and also provoke disquiet in the team.

Bernd Schuster (third left) surrounded by teammates Ioan Lupescu, Mike Rietpietsch and Rodrigo (from left to right).

The Black and Reds went into the long winter break with two annoying 1-0 defeats against seventh-placed Freiburg and sixteenth-placed Kaiserslautern. The Werkself created the best goalscoring chances against Freiburg but were again and again frustrated by the outstanding goalkeeper Jürgen Schmadtke who was able to save a Paulo Sergio penalty in the last minute. And the Bayer players fluffed numerous chances at the Betzenberg stadium. There was evidently a spanner in the works at the end of the first act. Nevertheless, being sixth in the table and only one point behind fifth place was enough to qualify for the UEFA Cup.

Then there was an enforced and tortuously long break. Because the first two games in the second half of the season were postponed due to the winter weather, Bayer 04 only started playing in the New Year at the end of February – two and a half months after the last competitive match at Kaiserslautern. With three draws and a 2-0 victory in the rearranged game against Hansa Rostock, with new signing Carsten Ramelow scoring both goals, the team came out of their hibernation and appeared to be on course for the UEFA Cup until the middle of March. They were two points away from fifth place having played two less games. No need to be nervous.


Then this star-studded team with European ambitions and experienced players like Ioan Lupescu, Markus Münch, Holger Fach, Paulo Sergio, Ulf Kirsten, Rudi Völler and Hans-Peter Lehnhoff suffered four 2-1 defeats on the bounce against Bayern Munich, at Werder Bremen, at St. Pauli and at home in the derby against FC Köln – and found themselves back in eleventh place with just a five-point lead over the relegation spot of sixteenth. However – crazy as it seems – they were only seven points behind fifth place having played a game less. These calculations and the distorted table due to postponed matches made the situation complicated. And it also clouded many people's views. Where should we we look? Up? Or down? The situation was one thing above all: dangerous!

The Werkself see red

After just one win from the last ten games and, by the derby defeat on matchday 26 at the latest, a number of observers believed the club would now call it quits. However, the club kept faith with Erich Ribbeck. Three days after the 2-1 defeat against the neighbours, Bayer 04 took on Schalke 04. In terms of drama, this match on 9 April 1996, a Tuesday night, was the climax of the second act.

After an early lead through Ulf Kirsten on six minutes the match went wild. Referee Uwe Kemmling sent Markus Münch off on 27 minutes for a second yellow card offence, Ulf Kirsten mounted a vocal protest and was also sent off a minute later with his windscreen wiper gesture attracting a second yellow card. It got even livelier on the hour mark: Carsten Ramelow was shown a red card by the referee for a foul on Martin Max that was deemed a professional foul. With three men down, the Werkself fought heroically at the Park Stadium for half an hour and stood firm against the Schalke attacks. Until the minute before the final whistle. Then, David Wagoner, the future Schalke coach, breached the Leverkusen defence to score the equaliser at 1-1 – a debilitating blow.


Emotions were high after the final whistle. The visitors complained about the referee and their fate. And who knows: If the team had gone home with all three points despite the ludicrous imbalance in numbers, then that could have provided a mental boost for the next games. Instead disaster appeared to be taking its course.

On the following Sunday, a day after Rudi Völler's 36th birthday, Erich Ribbeck not only had to deal with the suspension of the trio of Münch, Kirsten, Ramelow against Fortuna Düsseldorf but also with the next setback: Christian Wörns was shown a red card shortly after the restart for a professional foul and the Werkself, again with a man down, only managed a 0-0 draw. Bayer 04 and dismissals were a factor in that season: With a total of five red cards, three cases of two yellows and nine one-match bans the club were bottom of the fair play table.

Caught between two stools

Following another unlucky draw at Hamburg SV, where Harald Sporl converted a penalty with three minutes to play to make it 2-2, the Werkself entertained Karlsruher SC on matchday 30. "Ahead of this game, the coaches reckoned we could still get into the UEFA Cup," recalls Rüdiger Vollborn. And anybody who wanted to be as optimistic as Erich Ribbeck could be and back it up with numbers. The gap to fifth place was still only six points – and his team still had the game to catch up on against Borussia Dortmund. At the same time: The lead over relegation place 16 had shrunk to six points. Bayer 04 were between two stools.

After the 90 minutes against KSC, it was clear to see it couldn't be sugar coated and nobody could fool themselves: The situation was becoming dire. The 2-1 home defeat meant the end for Erich Ribbeck as coach. Only three points separated the club from the relegation spot. Assistant coach Peter Hermann undertook the rescue mission and the bell sounded for the third and last act.

ACT THREE – salvation almost in last minute

And he started with a shattering performance. On 30 April, another Tuesday night, a completely shaken group lacked any fighting spirit against the bottom team KFC Uerdingen who were already certain to go down. Bayer 04 suffered a demoralising 3-0 defeat in Krefeld. Nerves were shattered.

Only Rudi Völler resisted, but he "was left high and dry with his commitment," as the kicker reported. The former Leverkusen player Marek Lesniak was the surprise package for Uerdingen, scoring the first goal himself and providing the assist for the other two strikes. Peter Hermann was visibly contrite at the post-match press conference. Something had to change with the attitude of his team as quickly as possible.

Rollercoaster ride continues

Hermann picked up the pieces and started putting them back together again. There was not much time until the next match. Just four days. The interim coach set his players up for the next task at a quickly arranged training camp in Much. And his team looked completely different against 1860 Munich. It was clear that everybody had not only recognised the serious the situation but also rediscovered their fight and passion. Rudi Völler and Ulf Kirsten put their team 2-0 up, Olaf Bodden netted a consolation goal. The 2-1 win gave reason for hope.


But the rollercoaster ride continued. Just three days later, the Hermann team lost 2-0 in a rearranged match against the champions to be Borussia Dortmund in spite of a decent performance. And the next away match at Freiburg, with Bayer 04 organising a train for their fans in the hope of securing top-flight status and then being able to celebrate on the way home, ended in disappointment. After the 2-1 defeat in the Breisgau it was clear: The clash against FC Kaiserslautern on matchday 34 would be a final for all or nothing.

A letter causes awkward silence

As before the victory against the Lions from Munich, the team spent several days in the training camp in Much. It had evidently helped and footballers are known for being superstitious. But this time it was completely different. "We went stir crazy in the solitude and seclusion," said Rudi Völler looking back. "The couple of percentage points of optimism we had before also disappeared after the time there." Reiner Calmund, the former general manager, also saw the training camp in Much as a mistake in retrospect. "It felt like doing something for the sake of it."

Even the well-intentioned idea that the staff at the club HQ should appeal to the players consciences in the training camp by making clear that there jobs would be at risk in the event of relegation, "only succeeding in getting everybody even more down," as Peter Hermann recalls. Nevertheless: Many a player started to mull things over. "As a player you often don't know how much hangs on the success or failure of the team," said Carsten Ramelow who was visibly affected by the incident. "Silke Steinhausen read a letter out loud to the assembled team and it opened my eyes as a young player. Of course, it's clear to you that a lot of people work as a club and that you're not just playing for yourself. But in the precarious position we were in, it might possibly needed to be made clearer in this personal way. I thought the idea was good."

As a player you often don't know how much hangs on the success or failure of the team

Silke Steinhausen, who started at Bayer 04 in 1995 and today works in the marketing department, remembers the situation with a certain amount of discomfort. "It was uncomfortable to me because I was still very young and suddenly had to say in front of so many stars that they should put their backs into it for my colleagues. But Calli placed great value on it." When she was finished there was an awkward silence amongst the group. Did her words really have an effect?

On 18 May, the dog's dinner the team had brought upon themselves and the immense pressure seemed to weaken the legs of the players. There had already been two defeats against Kaiserslautern that season: 1-0 in the first half of the campaign and the same result a few weeks before in the semi-final of the DFB Cup. Now came the third meeting. At the Ullrich Haberland Stadium, the diggers were already there for the planned rebuilding of the arena, which would not have been implemented in the event of relegation. Kaiserslautern did all they could to get more stand tickets for their fans. Reiner Calmund obviously knew how to prevent that. Nothing would have been less useful than an away game at home.

On the brink

 The personnel situation was tense. Ulf Kirsten was ruled out with a muscle injury, Claudio Reyna with a knee inflammation and Christian Wörns also dropped out late on with a knee problem. Marcus Münch was available although he had hardly trained and a long planned groin operation was specially delayed so he could help the team out. For Rudi Völler it was the last Bundesliga match of his career and two days later he would be playing his testimonial against a Germany team.

"There was no question we were a bit wobbly going into into this final decider against Kaiserslautern," said Mike Rietpitsch later. Kaiserslautern took the lead shortly after the restart through Kuka and FC Köln were also 1-0 up at Rostock, "we were relegated at that point – Bayer 04 were on the brink like never before or since," said Rudi Völler.

The rest of the story, the crucial images, the heroes and tragic figures have long become embedded in the collective fan memory: Kuka's huge chance to make it 2-0 brilliantly saved by Dirk Heinen; Mike Rietpitsch's pile driver from distance, Reinka's defending high up the pitch, Marcus Münch's plucky shot into the back of the net to make it 1-1; the goalscorer buried under his celebrating teammates; the final whistle blown by referee Bernd Heyenemann; Andy Brehme crying on the shoulders of his friend Rudi Völler.

The drama developed into a worthy finale.