A newly-established club in eastern Germany has ruffled a few feathers and prompted questions about the commercialisation of the modern game.
It was a warm Sunday afternoon in the capital, and Union Berlin’s Alte Försterei Stadium was bustling with thousands of German football fans, not unlike any other matchday. The sole difference on this particular matchday (September 21), was the arrival in Berlin of RB Leipzig, Germany’s newest and most widely-deplored football club.
Not for the first time in their short history, RB Leipzig would find themselves subject to unusually contemptuous opposition. The club, only founded in May 2009, has already made quite a name for itself and fans of Union Berlin only too willingly confirmed this. In protest against RB Leipzig’s commercial power —which will be explained shortly — nearly 20,000 Union supporters donned black ponchos and wore t-shirts exhibiting strong anti-Leipzig messages. A sizable banner hung behind one of the goals, displaying the message: “In Leipzig, the football culture is dying”.
The match’s first 15 minutes saw Union Berlin’s fans remain silent. It was a loud kind of silence, and one perhaps born out of anger towards a newly-promoted team that, somehow, sat top after five games unbeaten. While new additions to the Bundesliga 2. are traditionally uninspiring, RB Leipzig had taken the league by storm, and it wasn’t all that surprising when considering their short but successful history. Unlike most other clubs, Leipzig boast the unconditional backing of a global super-brand. Short of money, the team from Saxony most certainly are not.
RB Leipzig are the fourth footballing venture undertaken by energy drink colossus Red Bull, and have risen through the ranks like a team possessed. Climbing from German football’s fifth tier — a now distant memory — RasenBallsport Leipzig (German regulations forbade them the Red Bull title), are growing into something of a footballing superpower. Waltzing the German lower leagues since their inaugural season in 2009/2010, three promotions in five seasons means the side hailing from East Germany are now based in the second highest tier.
Playing in the impressive 44,345 capacity Red Bull Arena, the young German side have never made secret their intentions to upset the Bundesliga hierarchy. Owner Dietrich Mateschitz quite unashamedly stated in 2011: “We are developing RB Leipzig with the aim of playing in the Bundesliga in three to five years. We also want to get into the Champions League and be successful there, which is something you can only achieve with a club that plays in one of the top leagues.” Mentioning the ‘top leagues’ was essentially Mateschitz surrendering, surrendering that RB Salzburg of the Austrian Bundesliga do not and will not have the domestic competition necessary to thrive in the Champions League. Leipzig, however, look certain to achieve these goals in the not-too-distant future, thanks largely to the uncompromising structure that Red Bull has put in place.
Not only do RB Leipzig have fine young talent among their ranks which includes £9,000,000 man Massimo Bruno, but they also have a vast array of experienced and ambitious staff. Ex-Liverpool manager Gérard Houllier is the club’s global sports director, for example, while the current manager is former German international Alexander Zorniger, who boasts a 63% win ratio. Sporting director Ralf Rangnick led Hoffenheim from the third division to the first, and so has experience of reaching German football’s elite level. He was recently quoted as saying he wants ‘every young talent in the East [Germany] to run through our professional academy’. So looking at the current structure in place; money, stadium and management, it’s hard to see anything other than success for the Red Bulls.
Even Bayern Munich CEO Karl-Heinz Rummennige has claimed that ‘RB Leipzig is a problem’. The problem he refers to though isn’t only a football team that can threaten the dominance of his Bayern side, but rather a problem that threatens German football’s entire culture. This coincides with the point the Union Berlin fans were attempting to convey with their black attire; that all clubs would be the same if bought out and entirely funded by global brands. The black was symbolic of the monotony that football would endure if every team took the route of RB Leipzig. But shout as they may, it is a certainty that fans of the Red Bulls don’t mind the clubs ethos but actively support it, as long as there is success where it matters; out on the pitch.
With the decline of football seen in East Germany since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Leipzig fans will argue that Red Bull’s financing is a great thing for the region. Realistically, from East Germany only RB Leipzig have a chance of upsetting the Bundesliga hierarchy in the near future. Red Bull has introduced the kind of football facilities to the region that have been missing for years, and for those living in the East, this surely can only be seen as a good thing.
While fans around the world are growing tired of seeing big clubs like PSG, Manchester City and Monaco throwing their money at success, those in Germany have become more fearful of just how quickly (and easily) a newly-established club can overtake their own. And they may have a right to be upset. But in the context of the Berlin Wall, and the divide which has never been greater between Western and Eastern football in Germany, surely the rapid rise of RB Leipzig can only be a good thing?
By Ryan Hill