BY JAMES RODGERS
East Germany has become something of a footballing wasteland in recent years. The facts speak for themselves; with no clubs from the former German Democratic Republic having appeared in the Bundesliga since 2009 and Toni Kroos the only member of the entire World Cup winning squad to have been born in that region. Iconic clubs from the DDR-Oberliga such as Dynamo Berlin and Hansa Rostock have sunk into regional league obscurity, while others have simply been liquidated.
It is this bleak landscape and vacuum of footballing potential that has been capitalized on by energy drinks conglomerate ‘Red Bull’, as the Austrian company seek to exploit the 12.5 million citizens living in the old eastern bloc and build a European superpower. Going into the winter break, the club has stormed into pole position in the 2. Bundesliga with a three point lead on title rivals SC Freiburg and more importantly have an 8 point cushion protecting their hopes of automatic promotion.
One would assume that their incredible five-year journey from the 5th division to the highest echelons of the German game would be a massive source of pride for the region and the country itself. However, ‘die Roten Bullen’ seem to fly in the face of everything that the Bundesliga has come to represent in recent years, while they have been accused of killing the tradition of football in Germany.
They swiftly became the most controversial club in Germany after Red Bull bought their playing license from SVV Markranstadt, a local Leipzig- based club, in 2009. The energy drinks giant changed the club’s name, crest and colours and moved them to the 44,345 capacity Red Bull Arena (formerly Zentralstadion) in 2010. This enraged the followers of the small club and the footballing community at large who view them as a sort of MK Dons on steroids.
Initially, Red Bull’s license application was refused by the DFB (the German FA) due to their proposed name of Red Bull Leipzig. Therefore, in order to circumvent the advertising restrictions they created the convoluted compound noun of “RasenBallsport” (literally translates as Lawn ball sport), which is conveniently shortened to portray the initials “RB”. In addition, Germany’s vaunted 50 +1 rule maintains that the club itself must have a controlling stake so that commercial interests can’t gain control. However, until last season they only had eleven members to make decisions on behalf of the club, all of whom were Red Bull employees. Even now, with the league threatening to revoke their licence it remains at around the 300 mark. In contrast, Schalke has 136,205 members and control of the club is firmly in the hands of the supporters. These sneaky political intrigues have also drawn the ire of fans worldwide.
Much of the club’s success so far has been dependent on their superior financial backing, however, their decision to install former Schalke, Stuttgart and TSG Hoffenheim manager Ralf Rangnick as Sporting Director and now Manager has also been inspired. Rangnick has been an undeniable success and has built the club up from scratch to arguably the most exciting and potential-filled team in the country.
From a tactical perspective, Leipzig are reminiscent of the Borussia Dortmund side who swept everything before them with Jürgen Klopp at the helm and will fit in well with the counter attacking style which has come to define the Bundesliga. Their energetic, high-pressing game and recruitment focus on young, top level players are major contributors towards why they are regarded as such a threat to Germany’s established order.
Indeed, their transfer activity has been ambitious and intelligent and undeniably boosted by their financial backers. This summer they garnered lots of headlines in Germany for their €8million capture of 20-year-old striker Davie Selke from Werder Bremen, making him the most expensive player in the division. The wunderkind, who picked up the golden boot and player of the tournament awards in Germany’s U19 European championship victory last year, has repaid their investment already having directly contributed to 9 goals in 18 Bundesliga games. He is an example of Leipzig’s focus on bringing through home grown talent. In fact, bosses at the club also hired the esteemed Frieder Schrof as their new head of youth development in order to replicate his huge successes with Stuttgart and create a reliable production line into the first team with a state of the art academy.
Nevertheless, there has been vitriolic opposition to the presence of the club in the 2.Bundesliga as a bitter campaign dubbed “Nein zu RB” has been created by ten rival supporters groups in that division, including the illustrious “Traditionsvereinen” Kaiserslautern, 1860 München and Nuremburg. Ralf Rangnick attributes some of the widespread negativity towards the project being “partly fear that Leipzig might take away one of their (Bundesliga) places”. The most severe and noble criticisms have emanated from cult club 1. Union Berlin, whose 20,000 strong support held a 15-minute silence in September while dressed almost entirely in black ponchos to protest against the actions of RB Leipzig. The fact that this was all done with the support of the club management serves to illustrate the levels of antipathy between the two clubs. In fact, they cancelled a summer friendly with Red Bull in 2011 due to fan unrest and both Nuremburg and Stuttgart followed suit.
Interestingly, Berlin and Leipzig are now the only clubs in Germany’s top two divisions located in areas that were formerly controlled by the German Democratic Republic. Union’s primary criticisms of Leipzig being that they are merely a “marketing product pushed by financial interests” and that to be a true football club you need “loyalty, standing terraces, emotion, financial fair play, tradition, transparency, passion, history and independence” – things which Leipzig are seen not to have by the wider football community. Ironically, to their detractors, RB embody all the things wrong with capitalism and over-commercialisation within the sport.
Like the unpopular bankrolled ‘Werkself’ clubs (factory owned clubs) Wolfsburg, Leverkusen and Hoffenheim, Leipzig are also hated for the added economic advantage that comes with having private investors. They are also regarded as having a ‘plastic’ fan base. It is hard to muster fervent support when a club is not yet ten years old and this means that it is largely family-friendly spectators rather than fanatic supporters who turn up each week. However, this doesn’t seem to have proved an obstacle for Wolfsburg, who having made their Bundesliga debut in 1994 and with an average attendance only marginally higher than that of Leipzig’s, now have become one of Germany’s premier footballing forces in the last few seasons. Additionally, Leipzig fan groups such as ‘Rasenballisten’ are trying to forge an identity and more loyal, passionate support. They accept some of the negatives of Leipzig and have chosen to try and change the support and identity of the club instead of stop it. They proudly proclaim on match-day banners that “The Rasenballisten stand for football, Leipzig and fan culture, not for sponsors!”
In Leipzig, understandably it has been viewed as a positive with 70% of people asked in the ‘Leipziger Volkszeitung’ welcoming the initiative when it first came about. Football had reached rock bottom in Leipzig, with former heavyweights Lokomotive Leipzig dropping down to the fourth and fifth divisions and FC Sachsen facing insolvency. Both recognised its positive influence on the area and when playing in the same division, neither condemned its existence.
They have also put the Red Bull Arena into regular profitable use, when it had been virtually abandoned after being done up for the 2006 World Cup at great expense. They have sold out the stadium on multiple occasions with attendances averaging 25,025 in 2014/15, with an average yearly increase of 9,000 since 2012/13. This can be expected to rocket if the promotion hopefuls can achieve their goals this year.
In addition, it could be argued that they have the best chance of providing a real challenge to Bayern’s unfaltering stranglehold over the Bundesliga. Pep Guardiola’s side have been iridescent this term and their tactical nous, world class talent and vast fan base have led them to have another early commanding lead over the competition. Despite the equally scintillating form of a resurgent Dortmund, the league’s critics will say that for the Bundesliga to be regarded as one of the best leagues in the world, actual sustained competition for the title is required and for that they need significant private investment. Jürgen Klopp’s description of the German title race is as pertinent as ever and with Carlo Ancelotti being named Guardiola’s summer replacement that doesn’t look set to change any time soon. (“We have a bow and arrow and if we aim well, we can hit the target. The problem is that Bayern has a bazooka.”)
Arguably in lieu of Volkswagen’s economic tumult, only Leipzig have the financial backing to rival Bayern’s aggressive transfer policy and worldwide support. Even Uli Hoeness has said that “If it (RB Leipzig) works, it is good for all football, not only for the East” and in fact FC Hollywood might be in danger of becoming the people’s champion if a pantomime villain such as Leipzig launches a title challenge.
In any case Leipzig will be fascinating club to watch develop over the next few years, whether you like them or not.
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