October 19, 2017

Goodbye Chicharito, Bayer Leverkusen and the Bundesliga Will Miss You

It appears that, except for technicalities and his medical exam, that Bayer Leverkusen’s Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez will leave the Bundesliga to play for West Ham United for a €14.5m transfer fee and $16.9m release clause set to be activated.  While Bayer Leverkusen will make money on the deal, the club and the Bundesliga as a whole will be poorer as the iconic Mexican international returns to the EPL.

Chicharito, 29, has scored 136 goals in 346 matches in all club competitions in the top leagues of Mexico, England, Spain and Germany since beginning his career with Chivas Guadalajara during the 2006/2007 season.  In his two seasons at Leverkusen, he scored 39 goals in 76 matches in all competitions, although his goal production dropped by half (13 goals) in last year’s nightmare campaign that saw Bayer Leverkusen drop from 3rd in the Bundesliga table to 12th in one year and actually have a relegation scare.

Despite a less-satisfying season for Die Werkself last season, Chicharito has been a huge draw in not only Mexico, but the United States and Latin America in general. According to quote in 442 from Leverkusen CEO Michael Schade,

We didn’t buy him IChicharito) because he’s an image player,” the 63-year-old says. “We bought him because he’s a good striker, of course. Secondly, we learned that he’s a PR icon, and that’s what we’re doing [with him] now.

Mexico is an important market for us. We launched our new jersey on July 1, and in the first four weeks we sold more than 12,000 only in Mexico. That was exactly the number that we’d sold in Germany in the years before, so this is extraordinary

During their January weeklong 2015 visit to Orlando to compete in the Florida Cup, Die Werkself sold over 5,000 replica jerseys.  On their first visit to the Florida Cup the year previously before Chicharito had joined the club, they sold very little merchandise.  Anecdotally speaking, friend of the Fanatic Eric Bruehl, longtime host of the excellent Neverkusen Pod,  told me he’d never seen Leverkusen kit worn on the playing fields of weekend rec leagues in LA until Mr. Hernandez joined the Werkself.

Having been to all three January visits by Leverkusen to Orlando the last two years, the increase in interest in the club and attendance at practices was stark since the Mexican international joined the club.  I finally was able to get a selfie (poorly taken) with Chicharito last winter — he is so surrounded by fans everywhere he goes that it is difficult to get near him.   Like the other Leverkusen players, he was always good at signing autographs and posing for photos, despite the countless demands from fans.

And Leverkusen (and the Bundesliga’s official website) have devoted reams of photos, quotes and stories about the striker over the last two years.  Chicharito’s signing with Leverkusen greatly increased the club’s stature. Again from Schade on Fox Sports

Javier Hernadez is a legend in Mexico and it’s incredible the amount of media interest this has sparked,” Schade said at a sponsorship meeting at the club’s BayArena home on Monday.” He has exceeded all of our expectations, even for the Bayer [holding] company”

Particularly nice, as pharmaceutical giant Bayer Leverkusen bought out US-based Monsanto in 2016, a corporate giant based in St. Louis With Chicharito’s popularity not only in Mexico, but also the U.S. (he was the 15th most-followed football player on Twitter per statistics two years ago),  awareness in North America of the club’s brand grew alongside the corporate brand’s identity.

Brian Blickenstaff’s January, 2016 article on Vice Sports got right to the point concerning Chicharito’s impact on Leverkusen.  He cited the history of the club in a relatively small city (120,000 population) playing in a relatively small stadium (the BayArena holds 30,000, compared to the 80,000 that can be accommodated at Borussia Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park) along with its perception, particularly in Germany, of NOT being a ‘traditionsverien” club because of its corporate affiliation. To counteract this, Leverkusen decided to consciously work to build their foreign fanbase (something ALL Bundesliga clubs are seeking to do) and find a niche as a “small, elegant club” that is family-friendly and competes as an elite club in Europe.  Enter Chicharito, as Blickenstaff states

One measure of Chicharito’s popularity, and his impact on Bayer’s marketing department, is social media. Chicharito had over 5 million Twitter followers when he joined the team in the summer of 2015. Bayer’s official German Twitter, by contrast, had about 200,000. The team saw an opportunity given the player’s popularity in the United States and Mexico, and launched both Spanish and an English Twitter accounts. The Spanish account had over 30,000 followers in just a couple weeks. (It’s now north of 50,000). This might not sound like much, but again, Bayer’s German Twitter account, the account that serves its home market, has a little more than 240,000 followers as of this writing. The club’s Facebook account has also grown at a rate of about six percent over the last month, which, according to Bayer’s own statistics, is higher than second place PSG, which saw about 3.5 percent growth during that period; or Bayern Munich’s, which saw around 1.5 percent grown.

The club isn’t just trading in the digital currency of thumbs ups and heart “likes”, though. It’s selling shirts, too. In the weeks following Chicharito’s transfer, Bayer sold between three and four thousand shirts in Mexico alone, despite Mexican fans having to pay a $20 import tax. (The club has since found a manufacturer in the United States, which brought the shirt price down.)

And now, the Chicharito era is over.  It’s not unexpected.  From the same ViceSports article, Jochen Rotthaus, Bayer’s Director of Marketing and Communications, explained

We know Chicharito won’t always be there. Everyone leaves. Therefore we must make sure our club brand is so established that the people say ‘Chicharito plays for Bayer 04, but when Chicharito isn’t there anymore, I still love Chicharito, but my new love is Bayer 04

The question is, how will Leverkusen replace not only the off-the-field awareness and following of the club created by Chicharito being one of its top stars, but on the field, too — those 39 goals in just 76 matches were important and losing them creates a legitimate void.  With the club in transition from the Roger Schmidt era and the ugly March to May stretch run by the club under his successor, Tayfun Korkut, what will happen?  The club is clearly involved in changeover, with important players having departed before Chicharito this summer with others potentially leaving and the appointment of new coach Heiko Herrlich, 45, who has had success coaching at lower levels in Germany but never has coached a first division side despite having a lengthy playing career in the Bundesliga.  Will the progress made by Leverkusen over the last years (a consistent European presence until this season coupled with a pleasing, if sometimes frustrating, style of play) have led to a huge step backward by the club, with Chicharito’s departure the symbolic indicator of the club’s transition to something new, unknown and potentially much less appealing?

Only the future will tell, but I, along with so many others, will miss Chicharito’s presence in Leverkusen’s lineup and in the Bundesliga — his goal-scoring, his humility, the ability to ride the ups and downs of competing at the world’s highest level with grace and wisdom along with the joy with which he celebrated ALL Leverkusen goals and of course that he, like me, is a North American, a member of the New World.  Senor Hernandez has been one of my absolute favorite players to follow, and I will watch him with West Ham …but wow, I wish he was staying at Leverkusen, or at the least, staying in the Bundesliga.  (Can you imagine him playing off Mario Gomez at VfL, along with Raffael and Lars Stindl at BMG, or working with Jhon Cordoba at Köln to pick up the slack created by Anthony Modeste’s transfer?)

Daydreams aside, it’s goodbye to Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez and hit time in Germany.  Thanks for the memories !!!

Finally got to say hello to Chicharito last January in Orlando

 

 

 

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Gerry Wittmann

Gerry is the founder of the Bundesliga Fanatic. Besides loving German football, he also enjoys the NBA, collecting jerseys and LPs, his pets and wishes he had more time for fishing, bicycling and learning the bass guitar.

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