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Bayer Leverkusen's unbeaten streak

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

One of the best sports stories of the year is unfolding right here in Germany. The soccer club Bayer Leverkusen has played 25 matches this season and has yet to lose one. Not only is Leverkusen undefeated, but they're also in the pole position to knock off one of the powerhouses of European soccer, Bayern Munich. So how did Leverkusen, a team based just north of Cologne, transform from one of the worst German teams to one of the best in just over a year? Let's talk to Musa Okwonga, who's based in Berlin and co-host of the "Stadio" soccer podcast. Hey, Musa.

MUSA OKWONGA: Hi. How are you doing?

SCHMITZ: Good. Thanks for joining us. So, Musa, how did Leverkusen manage to turn things around and become one of the must-watch teams in soccer this year?

OKWONGA: I think there's a couple of things. I think, first of all, I mean, American sports fans will know so much about the power of the front office. Recruitment's been incredible for Leverkusen, but the center of all of this is the inspirational coach Xabi Alonso, who was himself a great player for several teams and now is a phenomenal manager, having been coached by several great coaches himself. So I suppose Bayer Leverkusen is almost like the finishing school for everything he's learned in all his time as a great footballer, and he is at the core of this incredible team we're watching right now.

SCHMITZ: That's interesting. So Xabi Alonso, who used to play for Real Madrid - he's the manager and coach of Leverkusen this year. He just comes in, and he's able to change everything in just one year.

OKWONGA: The credit to Alonso is really that he brings that winning mentality as a footballer. But also, he does a really important thing in professional sport, which is that he gives his players freedom to make creative decisions. You look at someone like Andy Reid, the Kansas City Chiefs. One that he's great for is he really allows Patrick Mahomes to improvise. A lot of coaches wouldn't allow a quarterback like Mahomes to be that innovative. And the genius of Alonso is that his approach isn't actually tactics first. It's improvisation, innovation first. And he's given his players, in a very high-pressure environment, the freedom to make the most creative choices they can, and that's why they're so good.

SCHMITZ: That's interesting because, you know, when you talk about Andy Reid with the Kansas City Chiefs, you know, he gives a lot of freedom to Mahomes because Mahomes is probably one of the best quarterbacks ever.

OKWONGA: Right.

SCHMITZ: I'm wondering. You know, what kind of talent does Leverkusen actually have? I mean, is he giving freedom to players who were just amazing, but they were being restricted before?

OKWONGA: Before Mahomes was Mahomes, he wasn't. You have to give players the freedom. And if you look at the players in the Leverkusen squad, what's fascinating about them is the improvement in all of them once they've been given that room to create.

SCHMITZ: So, like you, I'm also based in Berlin. And for years, I've had a difficult time watching Bundesliga matches because every single year, Bayer Munich steamrolls the competition. But this year has been completely different because of Leverkusen. How has this team shifted the balance of the German soccer league?

OKWONGA: There's a couple of issues. I mean, first of all, you can't count out the power of victory fatigue. It's that great line from "The Dark Knight Rises" when Bane says to Batman, victory has defeated you. And I think they're a little jaded. Also, the key with Leverkusen is they're also a very attractive destination because there's not that much pressure. And they don't win very much, Leverkusen. So that's allowed them to go under the radar the last two years while Xabi's been building this ascent. And by the time they got everything together, it was too late for the rest of Europe. It's a bit like trying to stop a piano from rolling downhill. By the time you notice it, it's too late. And this season, Leverkusen are that piano.

SCHMITZ: That's Musa Okwonga, co-host of the "Stadio" soccer podcast. Musa, thank you.

OKWONGA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.