Vidal & Bender Sagas Make Bayern vs. Leverkusen the Weekend's Match to Watch

Clark WhitneyFeatured ColumnistOctober 25, 2012

MUNICH, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 5:  Robert Kovacs of Bayern in action against Andriy Voronin of Leverkusen during The Bundesliga match between FC Bayern Munich and 04 Bayer Leverkusen at The Olympic Stadium on February 5, 2005 in Munich, Germany.  (Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)
Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

Historically, Bayern Munich vs. Bayer Leverkusen has never been a great rivalry. The clubs are separated by over 360 miles on the Autobahn, with one being the Bundesliga’s record champions and the other having never won the title.

As of late, however, considerable bad blood has developed between the clubs. Their mutual animosity has not grown for cultural or regional reasons, nor has it had anything to do with events on the pitch in their fixtures. Instead, their relationship has become strained due to events in the transfer market over the last 15 months.

It all began in the spring of 2011, not long after Jupp Heynckes announced he would step down as Leverkusen coach. His employers at the time knew he was on his way to Bayern, and soon it was made public that he intended to bring star midfielder Arturo Vidal with him.

Even though the Chilean was entering the final year of his contract and at the time had not garnered serious interest from a top club, Leverkusen sporting director Rudi Voeller and CEO Wolfgang Holzhaeuser firmly pledged to turn down any approach from Bayern. And turn down Bayern they did: Although the Bavarians offered as much as €14 million, Leverkusen refused to sell.

Later in the summer, Leverkusen accepted a €12.5 million bid from Juventus, infuriating the Bayern board. Uli Hoeness accused Vidal of breaking his word, but by that time the point was moot: The deal was done.

Bayern would rue missing out on the player the following May, with Heynckes calling for a top-class central-midfield signing following their loss to Chelsea in the Champions League final.

In the summer of 2012, after learning Athletic Bilbao would not budge from their €40 million valuation of Javi Martinez, the Bavarians looked elsewhere in a relatively sparse market. Lars Bender was their first-choice alternative to Martinez, but Holzhaeuser flatly refused Bayern’s approach. In the end, die Roten paid the full €40 million for Martinez, with Uli Hoeness later admitting the price was €10-15 million too high.

Bayern may forever lament not signing Vidal, whose combativeness and energy would have been invaluable in the Champions League final, especially in extra time. And now, especially with Martinez struggling to adjust to life in Munich, the German record champions can only feel they ought to have spent far less and signed Bender. If not for Leverkusen’s pesky resistance, things would have been much easier for Bayern.

No Bundesliga club is particularly eager to sell to Bayern, but Leverkusen are more reluctant than most. In 2002, shortly after Leverkusen reached the Champions League final, Bayern signed star midfielders Michael Ballack and Ze Roberto. Two years later, the Bavarians added Lucio to their ranks, spelling the end of Leverkusen’s brief spell as one of Germany’s top sides.

When Leverkusen finished second in 2011—and ahead of Bayern for the first time since 2002—they were aiming to avoid a repeat of what had happened a decade prior. After Bayern signed Heynckes, selling Vidal to their rivals would have amounted to sporting suicide—and not for the first time.

Heynckes led Bayern to a 3-0 hammering of his former side last September, and Leverkusen were clearly below their previous standard. Die Werkself finished fifth in May, although they had a say in denying Bayern the title as they won the return leg 2-0 at the BayArena.

Following Heynckes’ move and the Vidal saga, Bayern’s pursuit of Bender was most certainly unwelcome to Leverkusen. Holzhaeuser was especially peeved when Heynckes told reporters at a press conference that he’d sent a text message to congratulate the midfielder for a goal scored at Euro 2012, adding that “maybe [the message] would bear fruit.” This came after, according to the Leverkusen CEO, the two clubs had agreed to keep the matter strictly internal.

When Bayern and Leverkusen kick off in the Allianz Arena this Sunday, it won’t be any ordinary match. The hosts will feel bitter for B04’s stubbornness, which certainly cost them sporting success last season, and arguably a sizable amount of cash this summer. Leverkusen, too, will have a legitimate gripe, having twice seen their progress nipped in the bud, with Bayern in each case being at least partly a responsible party.

It may not be a derby, but from the perspective of the players and coaches, it might as well be.

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