How Bayer Leverkusen are building an environment for Exequiel Palacios to feel at home

Euan McTear

The BayArena is a long way away from the Estadio Monumental. It’s 11,600km in distance. It’s an 18-hour journey. It’s a long way from home for Exequiel Palacios. 

Yet the Argentine midfielder’s new club Bayer Leverkusen are doing all they can to make the BayArena feel like the sort of environment he can thrive in. That’s what they do for all their new arrivals and they have particular experience when it comes to South Americans. While the Bundesliga has never really been a league to have attracted lots of players from the continent, Bayer Leverkusen have a proud history of bringing exciting talents to Europe and propelling them towards the top. 

Arturo Vidal, Lúcio and Zé Roberto all adapted to European football at Die Werkself in the past before moving on to other clubs on the continent, while the current squad also contains Brazilian left-back Wendell, Brazilian winger Paulinho, Chilean midfielder Charles Aránguiz and Argentine forward Lucas Alario.

“It’s easy because if a South American player is coming then there are already a few here,” Bayer Leverkusen sporting director Simon Rolfes said of the club’s readiness to host South American up-and-comers like Palacios.

“When you come in our dressing room, one corner is more or less a South American corner, a Spanish-speaking corner. At Bayer Leverkusen, we have a long history [of having South American players] and we have a really good department for taking care of them. We have a lot of knowledge about potential problems they may have with integration. It’s very professional here when it comes to taking care of the players and also the families. They come with the families, the kids and the wife. We take care of everything.”

The staff at the club invest significant time ensuring the players stay in the kind of area that makes sense for them and their family and that’ll be the same with Palacios. Leverkusen is a very small and industrial town, with a population of just 163,000, so many of the young players who join the club decide to live in nearby Cologne, the fourth-largest city in Germany with over 1,000,000 people. For Palacios, that’d be the logical choice and these are the kinds of logistics that Carlos Sobarzo, the club’s official head of integration, will work on with the player and his representatives. 

Palacios will be assisted as he learns the language, but he won’t need German straight away as there are many Spanish-speakers at the club – and not just the fellow South American players. As Rolfes added: “We have a lot of people speaking Spanish now at our club. We have a CEO from Spain, but also coaches and staff members are speaking Spanish. We have a teacher who is teaching the staff Spanish in various departments. So, a lot of employees here speak Spanish and we make it very easy for players to integrate.”

The thing the sporting department believe helps the most, though, is the style of football. Lucas Alario jokingly advised Palacios to build up his endurance and physicality to prepare for the Bundesliga, but the former River Plate midfielder will be playing for a team and a coach, in Peter Bosz, that believe in getting the ball down on the ground. “We play technical football,” said Rolfes. “South American players are usually good technical players, so we have a style where they can integrate very quickly.”

That’s what Palacios will be hoping for as he gets his Bundesliga career under way, starting with a trip to Paderborn on January 19th. “I’m going to try and do things well like Charles Aranguiz and Lucas Alario are doing now for the club,” the new signing stated. “I want to continue down the same path as them.”

Euan McTear is a Spanish football journalist and author. You can find him on La Liga Lowdown and read his books – Eibar the brave and and Hijacking La Liga.