When Bild, kicker magazine, and Bayer Leverkusen’s own website announced that 19-year old goal keeping phenom, Bernd Leno, had signed a five-and-a-half year contract to continue wearing the Bayer cross on his jersey, Leverkusen fans couldn’t be blamed for greeting the news with sudden cheer and then immediate sadness. Elation at signing one of the foremost young talents in the Bundesliga, and depression at the reality that we’ve probably seen the last of a Leverkusen goal-keeping legend, who has been with the club since 2000 as a youth. Rene Adler is working his way back to fitness after a patella injury (knee), and although his physical therapy is progressing, it also seems to be taking longer than most originally anticipated. In fact, in the last several days he has had to scale back his rehab schedule, suggesting that he won’t be back in early January as planned.
At the beginning of the season, Adler’s injury, and a lack of faith in in-house options David Yelldell and Fabian Giefer, was enough of a concern for Leverkusen brass, Rudi Völler and Wolfgang Holzhäuser, to make them look for a suitable replacement outside of the team. Enter 19 year old Bernd Leno, who was plying his trade as the back-up (and heir-apparent) goalkeeper at VfB Stuttgart. When he came to Leverkusen after the second game of the season it was to be on a half-season loan basis only, but that was before Leno kept three straight clean sheets in his first games and acquitted himself as a Champion’s League-quality keeper. By early October, it had become clear that it would be in Leverkusen’s (and Leno’s) best interest to retain him, and efforts were begun to ensure that he would stay at the BayArena after the initial loan period. Indeed, Leno offered his analysis of the situation by indicating that he wanted to be in Leverkusen and that it would be truly “bitter” for him if he couldn’t advance with the rest of the team into next year’s knock-out stage in the Champion’s League tournament.
Depending on reports, Leverkusen paid Stuttgart somewhere between 7 and 8 million Euros for Bernd Leno’s services – a fee that caused many Leverkusen jaws to drop. It is, as the glass half-empty pessimist will tell you, one of the most expensive goal keeper transfers ever within the league (only Manuel Neuer’s move to Bayern cost more – much more), but, as the glass half-full optimist will tell you, it’s less than what Stuttgart were asking for initially. Early on in the negotiations, Bayer had offered 6 million Euros to keep the young goalie, but Stuttgart came back with a stupefying demand of 10 million. After both sides quieted down somewhat they met again, and the final cost of the sale indicates that both sides made concessions and found a compromise all parties could live with. As Stuttgart’s own Fredi Bobic stated, “In the end, it was a business decision, which all interested parties could easily live with.”
Well, one interested party, Rene Adler, is probably not thrilled about this development, but he probably shouldn’t be the focus of this new deal. Adler, if he returns to 100% fitness, should have no problem finding another club to retain his services. Whether that’s in Germany or abroad is, at this time, inconsequential – if he’s willing to lower his asking price, he will play again, and at a high level. Rather, my focus is on the team that Leverkusen is (not so) slowly assembling, seemingly piece by piece. The second most important jewel of last summer’s transfer window was, of course, Andre Schuerrle, for whom Bayer paid almost the same amount of money as the it did for Leno. This coming summer, the club has already lined up CB Philip Wollscheid from FC Nuernberg for 5 million Euro, giving Leverkusen a potentially formidable, and more importantly young, interior back two with Omer Toprak.
The 13 million Euro that Leverkusen have spent for Leno and Wollscheid would appear to be a bargain for two of the most talented young players at their positions. We certainly know now where some of that 20 million Euro from the Champion’s League will be going, and we can only hope that it won’t be needed to pay penalties for the Tel Da Fax fiasco. But, more importantly, both are locked into contracts until 2017, which continues Leverkusen’s practice of handing out five year contracts to its younger players (sorry, Micha). Additionally, players like Schuerrle and Toprak are signed through 2016, and you have to believe that Leverkusen will do everything in their power to re-sign Lars Bender at the end of his term in 2014, while highly talented young players like Danny Da Costa and Karim Bellarabi will be asked to contribute more in the next years.
Now, any number of unanswered questions still stare Leverkusen in the face, especially what will happen with some of the current squad who are injured. Players like Renato Augusto, Hanno Balitsch, and Tranquilo Barnetta were expected to provide important leadership and/or reliable support, but the success of the team (especially in the Champion’s League) without these players suggests that they might not be as integral as previously thought. Older players like Simon Rolfes, Manuel Friedrich, and Michael Ballack will be handled on an individual basis, but one feels as if perhaps we should begin our good-byes soon.
Finally, to my point; as a glass half-full optimist, it feels as if the right foundations are being laid for…wait for it…a title by 2014/2015! Yes, it’s a pie in the sky dream that every Leverkusen fan has every couple of years, but it seems as if the stars are really starting to align again, and the current crop of young players being brought in suggests that Voeller and Holzhaeuser are intent on building a team to challenge the Bayerns and Dortmunds of the Bundesliga for the foreseeable future. And at the back of it all, standing confidently and non-plussed, will be a young man with the same initials as the team for which he plays. Bernd Leno, Bayer Leverkusen…it feels like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.