RB Leipzig: The competition to Bayern Munich's Bundesliga stranglehold?
RB Leipzig's rise mirrors that of Leipzig itself, Germany's fastest-growing city.
On a rather chilly Sunday afternoon of September 2014, the 2. Bundesliga’s latest entrant RB Leipzig made a short trip northeast to the capital, Berlin. Scorching through the lower divisions in just a matter of five years, the club sitting pretty at the top of the table were to face a Union Berlin side lying firmly in the relegation zone.
Being widely renowned as the most hated team in German football, they probably would have seen it all coming. And yet, the scene that unfolded as the referee signalled for kick-off at the Alte Försterei Stadium left them totally unprepared. An eerie silence engulfed the crowd as the ball set rolling, a protest that was set to last for the next 15 minutes.
Large banners unfurled all over the tiny ground stated the decaying plight of football culture in Leipzig as Union’s strong fan base symbolically dressed in black plastic ponchos, instead of their traditional red, expressed their common solidarity to the cause.
Prior to 2009, Dietrich Mateschitz, the much-criticised owner of Red Bull, searched for three and a half years for a suitable investment to add to his growing football empire. A first attempt to enter the German football scene was made way back in 2006; however, the huge financial requirements for acquiring a top division club dissuaded the investment.
Having turned his attention back to East Germany, Leipzig was selected as the most favourable place for investment, a suggestion by none other than Mateschitz’s close personal friend, Franz Beckenbauer.
To establish a completely new club would have meant starting in the Kreisklasse, the absolute bottom of the German football setup, which was not feasible. Through a proposal from Michael Kolmel, the company sought out to purchase the licence of fifth division club SSV Markranstädt, thus acquiring the playing rights for the fifth tier Oberliga.
Unlike sister clubs Red Bull Salzburg and New York Red Bulls, the German Football Association rules forbade the use of a sponsor’s name in the club name. So Mateschitz came up with a corporate masterstroke – registering the club instead under the name “RasenBallsport (Lawn Ball sports) Leipzig” or “RB Leipzig” for short, thus keeping the Red Bull identity intact. One can’t be blamed for thinking the acronym actually stood for something else!
After just a year in Germany’s fifth division, the rise has been rapid and constant: A remarkable journey of five promotions spanning across a mere period of 7 years since origin . Three years in the fourth division, a year in the third tier and two in the second, before finally attaining the objective of full Bundesliga status at the end of the 2015-16 season.
Criticisms and controversies
The 50+1 ownership rule dictates that the club has to have a controlling stake and that commercial interests cannot gain control in any manner. Given how the German regulations advocate utmost priority to the concept of fan ownership in football, RB Leipzig have understandably ruffled a few feathers.
To become a member of a club in Germany is typically inexpensive, with the likes of Bayern Munich having close to 300,000 members, charging approximately €60 a year.
Though complying with the membership regulations, the unique approach adopted by Mateschitz hasn’t gone down too well with the outsiders, with many dismissing the club as “an advertisement to sell energy drinks and mint money”. Charging a whopping €800 a season and a right to reject an application without reason, RB Leipzig has just 17 members with voting rights at present, with a majority having ties at Red Bull. So much for fan power eh?
The criticism has been widespread and protests a fairly normal sight at Leipzig's away matches, with both the management and the fans of rival clubs alike not mincing any words to express their displeasure against the said ‘marketing tool’. Not even the Leipzig team bus has been spared, often being pelted with counterfeit dollar bills printed with a caricature of Dietrich Mateschitz depicted with a large hooked nose and the texts ‘Shit Red Bull’ and ‘In Capitalism he trusts’.
In fact, the loathing has often bordered on plain hatred, with a number of clubs having had to actually promise their supporters not to agree to pre-season friendlies against RB.
The Conundrum: Business Avenue or ... a Sleeping Giant?
While most have been relentless in their criticism, others see the club as a beacon of hope for the decaying plight of East German football. Since Energie Cottbus were relegated way back in 2009, there have been no teams in the Bundesliga from the east, in stark contrast to five regulars from the west. A worrying trend for a region boasting of a population exceeding 16 million.
Now with a vibrant zest of youth, attractive football and rapid success, the joy of Leipzig fans knows no bounds. Though they aren’t winning many friends outside, they hardly care whether they are hated or not. Despite the owner’s ulterior motives, the fans are just thrilled that things are finally on the up, and that football is once again a relevant commodity in a city rich in culture and heritage.
Despite Leipzig’s impressive academy structure, they have often been accused of an overly aggressive transfer policy when it comes to poaching some the best talents in Europe. Red Bull’s money has helped build the kind of modern training facilities the region had been missing for years, with sporting director Ralf Rangnick stating he wants every young talent in the country to run through their professional academy, fitting of a club with big aspirations.
It’s hardly a secret that Leipzig was established with the primary objective to create another marketing avenue for Red Bull, and secondly as a football club. But if one is of the opinion that they just want to make a quick buck and leave could not be more terribly misunderstood.
A mere look at the facilities that have been set up at the club’s training base should be enough to convince that this has always been seen as a long-term project, a deliberate attempt to unearth the East’s unused potential. With Mateschitz having already set his sights on Champions League qualification and even Bayern Munich’s title dominance, one can safely conclude that the Bundesliga status was just the start.