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Record 44-game unbeaten run brings to an end 31 years of hurt and ridicule for Bayer Leverkusen

By Ben Morse, CNN

(CNN) — ‘Jurassic Park’ has just been released. The Chicago Bulls have won their third NBA title in a row. The last episode of ‘Late Night with David Letterman’ has been broadcast.

Fast forward – there have been five more ‘Jurassic Park’ films since June 1993. The Bulls won another three-peat of titles. The ‘Late Night’ show franchise has seen multiple hosts.

However, if you were a fan of German soccer club Bayer Leverkusen, little changed for you over those 31 years – there was just a lot of disappointment.

Since winning the German Cup in 1993, Leverkusen relentlessly explored increasingly agonizing ways of spurning chances to win trophies.

A 42-year-old man from Spain’s Basque Country has changed that though now.

Xabi Alonso’s Midas touch has brought a modern day footballing miracle to Leverkusen, sweeping in a wave of positivity and optimism for a team often associated with heartbreak.

Alonso might only have just set out on his managerial journey, but a 44-game unbeaten run is imperious for even the great teams in soccer history, but for one with Leverkusen’s history, it’s pretty remarkable.

The current season has already reaped rewards in the form of the Bundesliga title, with potential domestic and European competition success transforming this into a season for the ages.

But more than that, it has sought to banish the demons of years past.

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“Neverkusen.” “Vizekusen” (“Second-kusen”). “The Eternal Bridesmaids.” “The Nearly Men.

All nicknames Leverkusen had acquired for its uncanny ability to stumble at the last hurdle.

It lost in painful circumstances to Real Madrid in the 2002 Champions League final due to one of the greatest goals in European Cup history. Die Schwarzroten have finished second in the league multiple times. The club has seen cult figures grace its doors before leaving for pastures new after the catalogue of gut-wrenching defeats.

For Leverkusen’s long-suffering fans, they were there just to be ridiculed by rival fans.

“When you’re going to the stadium and in the Bundesliga, all the other team’s fans say, ‘You’ll never win the Bundesliga,’ and this is hurting a little bit,” Olaf Schmidt – Leverkusen fan and volunteer at the club’s BayArena – told CNN Sport after traveling to London to watch his team play its Europa League quarterfinal second-leg tie against West Ham United.

But Alonso has restored Leverkusen’s pride.

The former Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Spain international midfifelder has instilled a never-say-die attitude into his players; his squad has become renowned for its propensity to pull late goals out when the odds seem stacked against them – including on Thursday night when Jeremie Frimpong scored in the 89th minute to keep the longest unbeaten run in the history of Europe’s top four leagues (Germany, England, Spain and Italy) alive.

Alonso has brought bravery to a team which has been personified by fragility.

His players must be courageous to execute Alonso’s possession-based style of play and, through his signings and temperament, the Leverkusen coach has asked for bravery from those around him to believe in the system.

Whether it be Florian Wirtz’s wizardry on the ball and incisive passes or the discipline needed from his defenders and goalkeeper to recycle possession in their own penalty area, this Leverkusen team has become a winning machine under the man from Tolosa.

Not in their wildest dreams could Die Werkself fans have imagined their team would supplant Bayern Munich, the Bundesliga champion for the past 11 seasons, and in such emphatic fashion.

And to the pocket of vocal Leverkusen supporters – dressed all in red, hopping up and down, celebrating their ‘Deutscher Meister’ campaign while serenading their favorite players – at the Olympic Stadium in London to see Bayer advance to the Europa League semifinals after drawing 1-1 with West Ham to win the quarterfinal tie 3-2 on aggregate, this means so much more.

Leverkusen sealed its first league title in its 119 year history with five games to go, battering Werder Bremen 5-0 in front of the home fans to kickstart the party of all parties.

Alonso was doused in beer, there were tears and fans streamed onto the pitch to celebrate an until now once-in-a-lifetime achievement.

“It was unbelievable. I’ve only been a fan for around about 20-25 years, but I know a lot of people who were fans when the club came to the Bundesliga, which was 45 years ago,” Schmidt told CNN.

“And we never could win the Bundesliga and it was so impressive. Everybody was on the pitch this evening, everybody was crying.”

After years being the butt of the joke, Leverkusen fans could finally spin the narrative.

“All our supporters, we sang: ‘We will never win the Bundesliga.’ It showed the verbal (middle) finger to others,” added Schmidt.

German football values the structure of its club ownership, as evidenced by the 50+1 rule – where supporters will always retain a majority ownership of a team, even by one vote – to ensure fans retain a say in the running of the organization. This has historically meant that the Black and Reds aren’t beloved by their contemporaries due support and backing from pharmaceutical company Bayer.

But Leverkusen’s seminal season under Alonso has superseded that and captured the imagination of many German football fans given it has come at Bayern Munich’s expense.

And the season isn’t done yet. As well as reaching the semifinals of the Europa League, the 2023-24 campaign could finish with a famous treble as Leverkusen faces second-tier FC Kaiserslautern in the German Cup final in May.

And as for all that pain and the mocking that came with it?

“That’s history,” Uwe Schewiola, a Leverkusen fan since 1992, told CNN.

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