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A decade after they came close to winning the treble, Goal.com looks at the famous side that earned the nickname 'Neverkusen,' investigating what has become of their stars

By Clark Whitney | German Football Editor

The 2001-02 campaign was a tumultuous one for Bayer Leverkusen, who were on the verge of a treble, but saw all titles slip away in the final weeks of the season.

With three Bundesliga games left to play, B04 were five points clear. Klaus Topmoller’s side suffered two consecutive defeats, however, and on May 4, ended the season in second place. A week later, they lost the DFB-Pokal final 4-2 to Schalke. And finally, on May 15, the Rhine side were beaten 2-1 in the Champions League final after Zinedine Zidane scored arguably the greatest goal in the tournament’s history, lifting Real Madrid to the title.

Leverkusen are back in Europe's elite club competition after a seven-year absence. They finished second in Group E behind Chelsea, and were drawn with Barcelona in the round of 16. And now, Bayer appear on their way out of the tournament, following a 3-1 first-leg defeat at the BayArena.

B04’s return to Champions League football coincides with the 10th anniversary of their run to the 2002 final. As that date approaches, Goal.com looks back at the team that flirted with glory, but ultimately earned the nickname 'Neverkusen', and investigates what became of its players.

LEVERKUSEN'S CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FINAL STARTING XI

Hans-Jorg BUTT

Though the 2002 final came just weeks before his 28th birthday, a decade later, Butt is still a professional footballer. He stayed at Leverkusen until 2007, during a challenging time in the club’s history, before moving to Benfica. After a year, he transferred to Bayern Munich to serve as backup to Michael Rensing, and enjoyed a personal renaissance as he became a starter. He even earned a recall to the Germany national team and appeared in his country’s win over Uruguay in the third-place playoff at the 2010 World Cup. The veteran is expected to finally hang up his gloves at the current season’s end.


Zoltan SEBESCEN

Boris ZIVKOVIC
LUCIO

Diego PLACENTE

Right-back Zoltan Sebescen was used in a marauding role in the 2002 team, and was useful both in attack and defence. Things went downhill for him as he did not play after 2003 due to persistent knee injuries. Two years later, in August of 2005, he retired as a professional footballer. After a brief hiatus, Sebescen returned to the game as coach and is now in charge of Stuttgarter Kickers' Under-19 team.

Similarly to Sebescen, it did not take long for Boris Zivkovic to leave Leverkusen. Though he wanted to stay, the former Croatia international was forced to depart in 2003 for financial reasons. After a brief stint with Portsmouth, he spent three years at Stuttgart and three more at Hajduk Split before retiring in 2009. He now works as an agent, representing several Croatian and other Balkan players.

Of all of Leverkusen’s 2002 stars, Lucio has since been the most successful. Not long after the final, the then-24-year-old won the World Cup with Brazil, and as his club declined, he was able to jump ship to Bayern Munich in 2004. In five seasons with the Bavarian giants, Lucio won three domestic doubles before being offloaded by coach Louis van Gaal in 2010. Inter scooped him up on a bargain price, and under Jose Mourinho’s reign, Lucio and the Nerazzurri won the treble. Now nearly 34, the veteran remains a key figure for the Italian outfit.

Left-back Diego Placente started in the Champions League final less than a full year after his transfer to Leverkusen from River Plate. A tactically proficient player, the Argentine defender, like Sebescen, was equally capable at both ends of the pitch. In 2005 he moved to Celta for a two-year spell. Since then he has played for San Lorenzo in his homeland as well as for Bordeaux, and is now at Nacional Montevideo.


Carsten RAMELOW

The anchor of Leverkusen’s midfield, and an auxiliary centre-back, Carsten Ramelow served as captain in place of the injured Jens Nowotny during the final. The Germany international stayed at B04 for the majority of his career, from 1996-2008, and suffered several heartbreaks with the club. Four times Bayer finished runners-up in the Bundesliga and twice they lost in the DFB-Pokal final. Knee injuries limited his playing time in the latter stages of his career, and after failing even to cope with the strain of playing for Leverkusen’s reserves, he retired in 2008. He now is vice-president of the German players' union, and works for Die Booker, a company that offers VIP boxes for fans at most Bundesliga stadiums.


Bernd SCHNEIDER

Yildiray BASTURK
Michael BALLACK

Thomas BRDARIC

Nicknamed ‘The White Brazilian', Bernd Schneider was a source of creativity in midfield for Leverkusen and Germany. Like Ramelow, he spent most of his career with B04, and experienced the club’s highs and lows between 1999 and 2009. Schneider was vice-captain of Germany, but surgery on his back saw him miss Euro 2008, and ultimately was the downfall of his career. He retired in 2009, and in May 2010 he participated in a testimonial along with several of his club’s stars from the 2002 team. To this day he remains close to Leverkusen, working both as a scout and with the club’s youth teams.

In the 2002 final, Yildiray Basturk operated as part of a pair of central players behind the lone striker, Oliver Neuville. Weeks later, he operated as a holding midfielder as Turkey advanced to the World Cup semi-finals before finishing third. His international career would be cut short in 2008 after a falling out with then-coach Fatih Terim. At club level, Basturk stayed at Leverkusen until 2004, and after spells at Hertha Berlin, Stuttgart and Blackburn Rovers, was unable to find a club in 2010. Last summer, after a year without success in landing a professional contract, he announced his official retirement, and intent to work in youth development.

If there is one player who personifies B04's 'Neverkusen' reputation of always being on the cusp of greatness, but never quite reaching the greatest achievement, it is Michael Ballack. The Gorlitz native carried his team to near-glory in 2002, scoring five goals in the Champions League and 17 in the Bundesliga, but came up short in all competitions. A month and a half later, his Germany side finished runners-up in the World Cup final. In 2008, he suffered a similar fate as Chelsea were beaten in the Champions League final and Germany lost the European Championship to Spain in the crowning game of the tournament. After leaving Leverkusen in the summer of 2002, he enjoyed some domestic success at Bayern Munich and Chelsea, winning four leagues and seven cup titles. The twilight of his career has been marred by feuds with Germany coach Joachim Low and the Leverkusen management. Now 35, he is expected to move to the United States this summer to play in MLS.

Thomas Brdaric scored just twice in the 2001-02 season and was second choice behind Ze Roberto, but started in the final due to the Brazilian’s suspension. Even so, he only lasted 39 minutes before being replaced by then-21-year-old striker Dimitar Berbatov. After the final, Brdaric stayed until 2003, before moving to Lower Saxony to play for Hannover and Wolfsburg. He retired in 2008, and was hired to coach Union Solingen the next year, but was sacked less than five months later. He recently returned to football, and since January has served as the sporting director of Uzbek side Bunyodkor.


Oliver NEUVILLE

Standing at just 1.71 metres, Oliver Neuville was a revolutionary in the striker role, dropping deep and moving wide to stretch defences in what was considered a rather unconventional approach at the time. In spite of his size, he was his side’s second-highest scorer with 12 Bundesliga goals in 2002, and he found the net eight times in the Champions League. Neuville was one of many to leave Leverkusen in 2004, and spent the next six seasons under low-profile at Monchengladbach. His final year was in the 2. Bundesliga with Arminia Bielefeld, and in the summer of 2011 he finally hung up his boots. The former Germany international represented his country at the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, and Euro 2008. After spending some time with the Gladbach youth department, he now is preparing for the certification exams to become a Bundesliga coach.

KEY SUBSTITUTES & ABSENTEES

Dimitar BERBATOV
 (on for Brdaric, 39')
Now a star of the game, Berbatov’s breakthrough for Leverkusen came in 2001-02. He was not selected from the start in the Champions League final, but replaced Brdaric on 39 minutes. After four more years at Leverkusen, he moved to Tottenham, and three years later he transferred to his current side, Manchester United. Following his move to England, he won two Premier League titles with the Red Devils, and reached the 2008-09 Champions League final, but for the second time in his career was denied club football’s most coveted trophy as his side lost to Barcelona.
   

Ulf KIRSTEN
 (on for Sebascen, 65')
The 2002 final arrived as Ulf Kirsten’s illustrious career was coming to a close. At 36 years of age, the veteran came on as a substitute for the final 25 minutes, but was unable to overturn his side’s deficit. A year later, he called it a day, having played 350 Bundesliga games for Leverkusen and scored 182 goals. Following his retirement, he founded the Ulf Kirsten foundation to promote athletics, particularly in the Dresden area, where he was born. After his career as a professional ended, he spent two years as assistant coach for the Leverkusen first team, before serving from 2006-2011 as head trainer of the reserves. To this day he is closely affiliated with Leverkusen, and helps promote the club especially in Eastern Germany.
   

Jens NOWOTNY
 (injured)
Leverkusen’s captain, Jens Nowotny was another critical player to miss the final, having picked up a serious knee injury beforehand. He stayed until 2006, but due to physical problems and a dispute over his salary, rarely played in the latter stages of his career. After his contract expired, he signed a three-year deal with Dinamo Zagreb, but soon his fitness troubles worsened. In February of 2007, at 33, he was forced to retire. He now works as a player agent at Insoccer.
   

Ze ROBERTO
 (suspended)
One of the most important players in his side’s 2001-02 campaign, Ze Roberto had the misfortune of being suspended for the 2002 Champions League final. Along with Ballack, he made the transfer to Bayern Munich in the summer of 2002. Both left in 2006, with Ze Roberto moving to Santos after a falling out with Felix Magath. A year later, the trainer was gone, and the Brazilian returned to Germany, where he played for four seasons, at Bayern and Hamburg. Last summer, he switched to Al-Gharafa in Qatar, on a two-year deal. However, in January, that contract was terminated. He now is without a club, but recently - and with his 38th birthday approaching - spoke of interest in continuing his career.

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