Leverkusen? Leverkusen! It’s gameday, folks. It’s the day we either seal our passage into the quarterfinals of the Champions League or crash and burn in a fiery wreck that will lead directly to a whole batch of cules throwing themselves off the metaphorical bridge over the gulf in class between this year’s team and last year’s double winning machine.
It’s an odd moment to be a cule. It’s as if not winning a myriad of trophies is suddenly not our style. Yet 5 of the club’s 21 league titles and 3 of its 4 European titles have been won since 2004-05. And now that the club is in the final of the Copa del Rey, a competition that it has won just once since 1998, there’s little fanfare about it. Barça are the best team in the history of the Copa del Rey, having won it a record 25 times. Athletic, who we play on May 25 at the Vicente Calderon, has won it 23 times. Only there’s no hubbub about it because, well, we should win it, right?
And so it’s Leverkusen and the weight of expectation. It’s Leverkusen and the need to win or the season is a failure. For someone who has been a fan of the team since before the adulation of modern times, since before the “best team ever” accolades began to rain down (though after the Dream Team era), it’s hard for me to understand the gutted feeling people have at being in second place. What of the Sporting match? That was as thrilling a contest as you’re likely to find, no matter what it meant to the final table.
That’s what this Leverkusen match should mean: playing your heart out and enjoying your team. There’s no Madrid in this, there’s no Mourinho, there’s no ref conspiracy, there’s no UEFACEF/Q-F-ACEF. It’s just 22 men and an inflated bladder making art on the field. To fail to enjoy that because we’re x points down or y points up or z days away from the nth clásico is to forget that this game is beautiful and, above all else, fun.
Saturday, sitting with a couple of friends in an almost entirely empty bar and watching Keita’s goal curl into the corner was profoundly reassuring for me. I found myself cursing at the screen when the ref made a bad call (or even simply didn’t do as I commanded) and cheering loudly and hopping up and down when the ball went the right way and ended up in the net. It was fun again. It was passionate again. It was from the heart, rather than the tension and agony of playing some high-profile game; there was verve, there was desire, there was a team competing as one.
So yeah, it’s gameday. Let’s play. I’ll be gutted if we lose, but only because we lost, not because it’s the end of the season or the end of a cycle or anything. Simply because we lost. I lost last night in my league match and our season is over. I’m sad about the loss, but the season being over is just a consequence of that. Play to have fun, watch to have fun. If you’re not having fun, if you’re not enjoying your experiences because you’re not winning trophies every 3 days, you’re in the wrong line of work.