For the time in seven years a club from East Germany is in the Bundesliga, but RasenBallsport Leipzig’s rise into Germany’s top-flight has been dogged by boycotts and protests over its Red Bull-fuelled commercial structure.
When RB Leipzig opened their Bundesliga account at home to Borussia Dortmund, the away supporters refrained from travelling to Leipzig in protest at their opponents’ commercial structure and lack of identity.
Leipzig, to most, are simply a marketing tool – something the Germany FA itself took issue with. Unable to call themselves ‘Red Bull Leipzig’, they had to get creative. The club is officially named RasenBallsport Leipzig, literally Lawn Ballsport Leipzig, but RB Leipzig will do. The Bundesliga initially felt that Leipzig didn’t satisfy the criteria for ascension into the top division, but backed down after Red Bull threatened to pull the plug on the project – but before, the changes required were much more strict in terms of financial backing from particular owners.
Along with this, the club have completely bent their way round the ’50+1 rule’ entirely. The rule indicates that, in order to obtain a license to compete in the Bundesliga, a club must hold a majority of its own voting rights. The rule is designed to ensure that the club’s members retain overall control, protecting clubs from the influence of external investors.
Wolfsburg and Borussia Dortmund were exceptions as they were founded by workers – so in essence not really exceptions – but in the case of most onlookers it’s easier to explain it that way. They could have simply taken over the club they bought but instead wanted to make it into a marketing tool. The club only has 17 voting members and most of those are Red Bull employees. Most German clubs have thousands, tens of thousands or in the cases of Borussia Dortmund and FC Bayern Munich, hundreds of thousands of supporters get the chance to vote on the club’s business.
Of course, there are positives. The employment that their training base and match-day revenue streams bring to the town, as well as educating people in the local community. That and their young squad, and friendly fans are the major plus points.
In August, a severed bull’s head was thrown onto the pitch by fans of second division side Dynamo Dresden during a German Cup first-round game to emphasise the average football fan’s disgust at what Leipzig stand for. Banners reading ‘Kill the Bulls’ and ‘Red Bull deserve beatings’ were on display during the game in Dresden and were typical of those seen around German grounds at Leipzig away games ever since their establishment in 2009.
There is also a real emphasis at the club to poach the best young talent away from other clubs. Of course it is admirable that they give youngsters so much opportunity, but that also takes advantage of the smaller clubs who can’t compete financially and really need the money. Every club does it, but somehow it serves to emphasise Leipzig’s corporate, ‘rob the poor’ mentality. For example, they signe two promising youngsters, Lukas Klostermann and Gino Fechner from VfL Bochum for around €1million, whilst Bochum were forced to shut down their reserve team that summer to keep the club financially viable.
Most clubs think they have an incredible academy as a result, though they’re yet to produce a true academy product – Bayern Munich’s Joshua Kimmich is the closest they’ve come, though he did break through properly under Pep Guardiola in Bavaria. Although the club has only been around for seven years, and it takes time to build a functioning academy, a look at Dynamo Dresden, for example, a club in close geographical proximity, have Niklas Hauptmann and Marvin Stefaniak, two true youth products, in their first team. We’ll probably see them at much bigger clubs very soon.
Backed by endless cash, they have gone from the fifth division to the first in the space of just eight seasons. For some, they are the modern success story, a sleek outfit who could one day help to break Bayern Munich’s dominance after many teams attempted such a breakthrough. For others, they are a betrayal of everything German football holds dear to its heart. Tradition, identity and, most importantly, the fans’ ability to have a say in the way their club is run.
The fact they actually exist and were able to bend the rules and now pump in huge money is probably the biggest issue as other clubs continue to struggle financially and produce academy players to ensure their survival in respected leagues around the world. The level of hostility shown towards the German league’s new boys is more than just petty jealousy from former second division rivals.