18.09.2021Bayer 04

#RoadtoGlasgow – Sebescen: 'We knew what to expect'

Today, Saturday, Zoltan Sebescen is back in action with the Bayer 04 Veterans team who are competing in the Germany Over 40s Cup near Frankfurt. Exactly 20 years ago, on 18 September 2001, he played his first Champions League game for the Werkself at Lyon, which was also the first game in the group stage. In an interview with, the former right-back recalls the 1-0 win and many other highlights in the Champions League during that memorable season.

Zoltan, what do you remember about your first group match at the Stade Gerland?
It was my first game in the Champions League and I was quite nervous. I had goose bumps when they played the anthem before kick-off. An unforgettable moment. Lyon dominated French football at the time. They had a really strong team and they had sent FC Bayern packing six months before with a 3-0 defeat. Sidney Govou scored two goals in that game. And then there were also people playing like the Brazilians Edmilson and Juninho. We knew what to expect.

Were you set up for a defensive battle?
We were actually relatively inexperienced going into this competition. Yes, we did have big plans. But nobody expected us to do anything spectacular. So what did we have to lose. We just wanted to play in the way we could. Lyon put us under tremendous pressure. We were really lucky in certain situations. On the other hand: We defended with passion, threw ourselves into challenges and used one of our few chances to make it 1-0.

A goal you set up.
Yes, I played a low ball into the penalty area from the right and Ulf, in his inimitable manner, somehow slid in to put the ball in the net. We held onto the lead, were happy that we’d won our opening match away to such a strong team and we flew back to Germany in confident mood.

Zoltan Sebescen made his Champions League debut against Lyon.

If you look at your starting line-up from back then and read names like Lucio, Nowotny, Placente, Ballack, Schneider, Ramelow, Bastürk, Neuville and Kirsten then you'd say today: Wow, what a team! But people often forget that many of them were just at the start of their great careers 20 years ago.
Exactly, many of them were already international players. But men like Michael Ballack, for example, actually developed into world class players in that season. Or if I think of Lucio and Jens Nowotny: In that season you could have let the two of them be on their own in defence and not much would have happened. But it's right, that wasn't necessarily to be predicted in September 2001.

You played a big part in the success and were involved in 14 out of 17 games in the Champions League – and that as a new member of the team.
Everything fitted in very well in that team and in that season. New signings like Jörg Butt, Yildiray Bastürk and I settled in really quickly. For me, Bayer 04 were the next level after two years at VfL Wolfsburg. I had to adjust: At Wolfsburg, I always played the attacking role on the right side and that was the position that Bernd Schneider had at Bayer 04. Klaus Toppmöller put me on the right side of the back four. But to be honest: I would have played on the left at the back if the coach wanted me to.

You celebrated your next victory against a big opponent just one week after the Lyon game.
Yes, and after our 2-1 win against Barcelona at the latest, everybody knew where Leverkusen was on the European football map. After games like that where we were able to win after going behind we gained an incredible amount of confidence. We knew about our attacking qualities and that's why we were never nervous. Even after going a goal down against Barcelona. But, of course, it was clear to us that we couldn't win every game in a season with three competitions. So we were relatively comfortable about the big defeats at Arsenal and Juventus.


The Werkself also beat Barcelona on the second matchday in the group.

What made your team so special in addition to the already mentioned defensive and offensive qualities?
A lot of factors played a role. We definitely had high quality across the team. And we had a lot of individual class. But we also had a coach who understood how to put these individual parts of the puzzle together in the right way. He was an outstanding motivator. But also our assistant coach Peter Hermann played a big part in the success. Peter was an incredible tactician and there were very few people in the league who were his equal. The coaching team worked perfectly together. And there were two or three leaders on the pitch who had a word with the younger players if it was necessary. The hierarchy was right, the team spirit was brilliant. Everything just went right in that season.

Which games were your personal highlights?
Apart from my debut in Lyon and the final in Glasgow, it was definitely the quarter-final against Liverpool and the semi-final against Manchester United. It was incredible playing at Old Trafford. I shouldn't actually have played there due to a knee problem but then I came on in the second half for Jenne (Jens Nowotny, ed.) after he got injured. We drew 2-2 after going behind twice and we were applauded by the Manchester United fans after the full-time whistle. They paid us respect and honoured our performance and I thought that was great. I have good memories of all our games on the island: even the 4-1 defeat at Arsenal. On the one hand, because our travelling fans created an incredible atmosphere at Highbury. I really soaked in that atmosphere because I was on the bench at the start. On the other hand, I scored a good goal just before the end – even though it was only a consolation in that game where Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry showed us our limitations.

Zoltan Sebescen and his teammates celebrate in front of the travelling fans after the 2-2 draw at Old Trafford.

You mentioned your injury. You should actually have had an operation on your left knee earlier due to the torn meniscus. But you gritted your teeth and took medication against the pain. Did you regret that later because you had big problems with your knee for so many years?
That's right. But I’d do the same again today. If you have the chance to play in a semi-final and a final in the Champions League then you definitely want to be there. Back then I had no doubt about it. I got injured in the 4-2 win against Liverpool and then Jenne suffered a torn cruciate after 10 minutes in the second leg against Manchester United and I came onto the pitch with my torn meniscus. And I had to deal with Ryan Giggs for 80 minutes and he was definitely one of the faster players. But many of us were run right down at the end of the season with the incredible number of matches in three competitions plus internationals.

Nevertheless, you made it to the final.
Yes, I'm still incredibly proud today that I was on the pitch at Hampden Park – and I also still believe we were the better team.

Zoltan Sebescen was born in Ehingen on 1 October 1975. He started playing football in the youth set-up at Stuttgarter Kickers where he spent his first years as a professional player making 53 appearances for the Kickers in the second division. In 1999, Zoltan joined VfL Wolfsburg (49 appearances, 10 goals) and he signed for Leverkusen in the summer of 2001. He made 56 appearances for Bayer 04 in three years (seven goals, seven assists). He made one international appearance for Germany. Zoltan ended his playing career in August 2005 due to continuous knee problems. He has played for the Bayer 04 Veterans the last two and a half years. The 45-year-old also plays regularly for TV Unterboihingen in the eighth tier of German football. Zoltan Sebescen's main job is as a store leader at Decathlon Germany in their branches in Esslingen, Baden-Württemberg.

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