The club was founded by employees of the German pharmaceutical company Bayer, whose headquarters are in Leverkusen and from which the club draws its name. It was formerly the best-known department of TSV Bayer 04 Leverkusen, a sports club whose members also participate in athletics, gymnastics, basketball and other sports including the RTHC Bayer Leverkusen (rowing, tennis and hockey). In 1999 the football department was separated from the sports club and is now a separate entity formally called Bayer 04 Leverkusen GmbH.
On 27 November 1903 Wilhelm Hauschild wrote a letter – signed by 170 of his fellow workers – to his employer, the Friedrich Bayer and Co., seeking the company's support in starting a sports club. The company agreed to support the initiative, and on 1 July 1904 Turn- und Spielverein Bayer 04 Leverkusen was founded. On 31 May 1907 a separate football department was formed within the club. In the culture of sports in Germany at the time, there was significant animosity between gymnasts and other types of athletes. Eventually this contributed to a split within the club: on 8 June 1928 the footballers formed a separate association – Sportvereinigung Bayer 04 Leverkusen – that also included the handball and fistball players, athletics, and boxing, while the gymnasts carried on as TuS Bayer 04 Leverkusen. SV Bayer 04 Leverkusen took with them the club's traditional colours of red and black, with the gymnasts adopting blue and yellow.
Through this period, and into the 1930s, SV Bayer 04 Leverkusen played third and fourth division football. In 1936, they earned promotion to the second highest class of play of the period. That was also the year that the club wore the familiar "Bayer" cross for the first time. They made their first appearance in upper league play in 1951, in the Oberliga West and played there until 1956, after which they were relegated. SV Bayer 04 Leverkusen would not return to the upper leagues until 1962, just one season before the formation of Germany's new professional league, the Bundesliga. The next year saw the club in the Regionalliga West, tier II, where their performances over the next few seasons left them well down the league table.
2. Bundesliga to Bundesliga, UEFA Cup, and DFB-Pokal
SV Bayer 04 Leverkusen made something of a breakthrough in 1968, by winning the division title, but were unable to advance through the playoff round to the first division. They were relegated again in 1973, but made a quick return to what was now called the 2. Bundesliga after just one season spent in the third division. Four years later, the team handily secured a place in the Bundesliga to start to play there in the 1979–80 season.
By the mid-1980s, SV Bayer 04 Leverkusen had played their way into the upper half of the league table and were well-established there by the end of the decade. It was during this time, in 1984, that the two-halves of the club that had parted ways over a century later were re-united as TSV Bayer 04 Leverkusen e.V. The new club took red and white as their colours.
In addition to becoming an established Bundesliga side, the club earned its first honours with a dramatic win in the 1988 UEFA Cup. Down (0:3) to Espanyol after the first leg of the final, they drew even in the return match and then captured the title (3:2) on penalty kicks.
That same year, long-time Bayer Leverkusen executive Reiner Calmund became the general manager of the club. This is regarded as one of the most important moves in the club's history, as Calmund ushered in a decade and a half of the club's greatest success through shrewd, far-sighted player acquisitions.
The club captured its next honours in 1993, with a 1–0 win in the German Cup over a surprising Hertha Berlin amateur squad. In the following season, in a game also known for its 45 m "German Goal of the Year" by Schuster (a goal which was later also named "Goal of the Decade"), Bayer 04 played against Eintracht Frankfurt early in the season, and, as both a "tip of the hat" to their own history as well as an attempt to perhaps upset the Frankfurt team, Bayer played in its new 3rd colors, which were old-fashioned red and black stripes. (The jerseys were similar to the ones Frankfurt generally wore at the time.) This proved so popular with the fans that, very shortly thereafter, the team reverted to its "retro" colors of red and black, colors used on all home jerseys since then.
After a near disaster in 1996 when the club faced a relegation battle, Bayer Leverkusen established itself as a powerful side, offering a technically pleasing offensive style of play under new coach Christoph Daum, who was also helped by the signing of players such as Lúcio, Emerson, Zé Roberto, and Michael Ballack. Daum was later to be famously fired for a cocaine scandal that also cost him his ascent to the role of the national team coach.
Ulf Kirsten, three time top scorer in the German Bundesliga
The team earned a series of four second place from 1997 to 2002. The finishes of 2000 and 2002 were heart-breaking for supporters as on both occasions the team had the Bundesliga title within its grasp. In 2000, Bayer Leverkusen needed only a draw against Unterhaching to win the title, but an own goal by Ballack helped send the team to a crushing 2–0 defeat, while Bayern Munich clinched the title with a (3–1) victory over Werder Bremen. Two years later, the club surrendered a five-point lead atop the league table by losing two of its last three matches while Borussia Dortmund swept ahead with three consecutive victories in its final matches. The 2002 season has been dubbed the "Treble Horror", as Bayer Leverkusen were also beaten 4–2 in the German Cup final by Schalke 04, and lost the UEFA Champions League final to Real Madrid by 2 goals to 1, which also led to some of the English-language media dubbing them "Neverkusen". Still, the club entered the record books as the first team ever to reach the UEFA Champions League final which never won a national championship. They even had to qualify first for the participation in that year's UEFA Champions League.
The club went through startling reversals of fortune in the next two seasons. In the 2002 offseason, the team lost influential midfield stars Michael Ballack, and Zé Roberto, to archrivals Bayern Munich. The team flirted with relegation through most of the 2002–03 season leading to the firing of Klaus Toppmöller, who had coached the team during its most successful year, and he was replaced by the inexperienced Thomas Hörster. Charismatic coach Klaus Augenthaler took up the reins in the last two games of the season and helped avoid disaster with a win over his previous club Nuremberg. He then led Bayer Leverkusen to a third place finish and a Champions League place the following year.
That following season's run in the Champions League saw them get some measure of revenge on Real Madrid, opening their group stage campaign with a 3–0 rout of the Spanish giants, they would go on to win the group, but were defeated in the first knockout round by eventual champions Liverpool F.C. The club finished 6th during the 2004–05 season, and would enter the UEFA Cup the following season.
Early in 2005, Augenthaler was in turn fired as manager after the club got off to their worst Bundesliga start in over twenty years, with only one win in their first four league matches and a (0–1) home loss to CSKA Sofia in the first leg of their UEFA Cup match-up. Former German national team coach Rudi Völler was named as caretaker manager. Michael Skibbe, who was Rudi Völler's assistant coach at the national team, was named as his successor in October. Skibbe turned their season around and guided the club to a 5th place finish, earning another UEFA Cup place.
The 2007–08 season was not a successful one for Bayer Leverkusen despite a good start to the season. Five out of the last ten season games were lost to clubs in the lower half of the table. Michael Skibbe was heavily criticised towards the end of the season after he continuously changed his starting line up. Bayer Leverkusen also lost a lot of their support towards the end of the season. In the 1–2 home loss against Hertha Berliner SC, the Leverkusen fans caused a lot of commotion. Not only were they yelling their trainer to leave but Ultra fans who had seen enough, set fire to their jerseys which were then thrown onto the field. Michael Skibbe was fired in the afternoon of 21 May 2008. The reason for his departure was due to the fact that Leverkusen's goal for the season, to qualify for the UEFA Cup, was not reached.
The 2008–09 season got off to a great start for Bayer Leverkusen under their new Trainer Bruno Labbadia, who they had acquired from the Second League team SpVgg Greuther Fürth. As the season progressed however, the team failed to achieve any wins against top clubs in the Bundesliga, despite making it to the German Cup Final in Berlin where they then lost to a motivated Werder Bremen team. Leverkusen ended ninth in the season and Bruno Labbadia moved to Hamburger SV in June 2009. After only a couple of hours, Bayer Leverkusen presented their new Trainer Jupp Heynckes, who had just previously trained Bayern Munich after Jürgen Klinsmann's departure.
In contrast to many other German football clubs, which hold close ties to their working class roots, Bayer Leverkusen strives for a clean, family-friendly image. The BayArena has the reputation of being one of the most family-friendly football stadiums in Germany. Ironically, Bayer 04 was the first Bundesliga club whose fans identified themselves as Ultras and the city of Leverkusen is one of the old industrial cities of Germany.
Bayer Leverkusen is perceived by some[who?] to have an ongoing image problem of a different sort. Although they are a financially healthy club with a stable of strong players, many fans of the traditional clubs[examples needed] denounce Bayer Leverkusen as being a "plastic club", without traditions or a committed fan base, existing solely as a creation of their rich pharmaceutical company sponsor – Bayer AG. As a result, the club and their fans have started to emphazise their industrial origins[further explanation needed] with proudness, calling themselves "Werkself" (Eng. "Factory team", "Millhanders") or "Pillendreher" (Eng. "Tablet twisters").
However, this is not a unique phenomenon in football. Other famous clubs such as PSV Eindhoven, FC Carl Zeiss Jena and Sochaux share a similar reputation[according to whom?] of being works teams. As distinguished from the various Red Bull teams (Salzburg, New York and Leipzig) which has been established or redefined in the recent past primarily for commercial reasons, the formation of Bayer Leverkusen was motivated by the idea of promoting the conditions of living of the local factory workers at the beginning of the 20th century. In due consideration of the tradition of the factory squad UEFA allows Bayer Leverkusen, in contrast to Red Bull Salzburg, to use the brand name of Bayer in European club competitions.