THE CITY of Leipzig was at the heart of football’s development in Germany. The sport first emerged there in the 1890s and VFB Leipzig were the first German champions. In January 1900, the Deutscher Fußball-Bund was formed in Leipzig. As part of the old DDR, Leipzig was a major urban centre, but its economic and cultural importance declined during the Soviet years. Yet the city played a key part in the fall of communism – in October 1989, the residents of Leipzig took to the streets bearing the banners, “We are the People”. It sparked peaceful protests involving 100,000 – “outside of Berlin, people were willing to take risks” – and within a short time, the wall was down. The seeds were sown in Leipzig and as a result, the city earned the tag, “Stadt der Helden” – City of Heroes.
The integration of the old East Germany was a social and economic challenge for Germany. Leipzig, for example, was seen as a crumbling city in Saxony. In fact, just before the wall fell, a TV documentary, concerned about the state of the place, asked, “is there hope for Leipzig?”.
There clearly was, because Leipzig is now Germany’s boom town, its new “creative capital”, a title that invariably attracts some scepticism when any city is seen as the home of the fashion, media and communication hub. There’s a lot of talk about how great the city is, how “livable” it has become, which has led to cynics giving it the label, “hypezig”.
But when it comes to football, there’s a lot of noise coming from RB Leipzig, the club that is bucking the trend in Germany and raising a few Prussian and Bavarian eyebrows. In 2016-17, RB Leipzig, a fledgling club that has big backers, will play in the Bundesliga, kicking off at Hoffenheim at the end of August.
It is not a club we immediately associate with Leipzig. When East was East and West was West, Lokomotive Leipzig was the club we all knew from the DDR, along with Dynamo Dresden, Magdeburg, Dynamo Berlin and Carl Zeiss Jena.
Lokomotive were more known for their name than anything else. One of the most notable aspects of Eastern Bloc football was the functional names given to some of its sporting entities. Communist regimes loved to have football teams that identified with industry, the workers or military. Anything with CSKA in the name was army, Dynamo was the police, Torpedo – well, you can guess there, and Lokomotive was, of course, linked to the railways. The first German club to be formed by workers was actually Lipsia Leipzig in 1893.
Lokomotive, whose roots are in the history of VFB Leipzig, won the NOFV-Oberliga Sud in the fifth tier of German football in 2015-16. They didn’t just win it, for Lokomotive were unbeaten in 30 league games, winning 22 and accruing a goal difference of plus 64. Unsurprisingly, given the club’s history and cult status, Lokomotive enjoyed an average gate 10 times more than their rivals. Their crowds were around 2,700 at the Bruno-Plache Stadion, while second-placed International Leipzig were watched by less than 250.
In the post-DDR years, Lokomotive declined and the city became something of a barren wasteland for football, despite hosting World Cup 2006 games at the impressive stadium now called the RB Arena.
Red Bull, the Austrian drinks company, had the idea to add Germany to its portfolio of football clubs and in particular, eyed Leipzig and the old East Germany as ripe for growth. It’s an organisation that has exploited its marketing potential to the full and has also attached itself to some high profile sporting events. In 2014, Red Bull’s revenues totalled EUR 5bn after selling more than five billion cans of its peculiar beverage.
In 2005, Red Bull took over Salzburg in the company’s native country. The club has dominated Austrian football over the past few years. A year later, Red Bull took over New York’s MetroStars and renamed them New York Red Bulls. In 2007, they established Red Bull Brasil in the state of Sao Paulo. The franchise expanded to Africa in 2008 with Red Bull Ghana.
Germany had been on Red Bull’s radar for a while and moves to buy St. Pauli in Hamburg and Fortuna Dusseldorf were both rejected. They also considered Dynamo Dresden. But in 2009, they acquired the license of SSV Markranstadt and then changed the club’s identity. They wanted to rename the club Red Bull Leipzig, but German football was very uncomfortable with such a blatant commercial move. There’s a little bit of hypocrisy in that, given that a number of German clubs have been backed by big business – such as Wolfsburg and Volkswagen, SAP with Hoffenheim and Bayer and Leverkusen. Moreover, Schalke benefit from a big investment by ubiquitous energy company Gazprom.
Red Bull got round this by calling the club Rasenballsport Leipzig (roughly translated as ‘lawn ball sports’) but they are known as RB Leipzig. Their financial backing has made them unpopular with the rest of German football – banners with the slogan “Nein zu RB” are often seen among the fans – but it has not stopped local people from coming out in support. Crowds have grown exponentially over the past seven years – from 2,000 in 2009-10 to 28,000 in 2015-16.
Despite this impressive growth trajectory, football folk in Munich and Berlin are worried that the very structure of German football is being undermined by the rise of RB. They have long treasured the 50+1 rule that decrees that no investor can gain majority voting rights in a club registered as a stock company. This gives members the chance to veto such issues as ticket price exploitation.
RB Leipzig does have a membership scheme, but it is not registered as a stock company, so it cannot really be accused of breaking the 50+1 rule. However, it is hard to become a member – Bayern Munich charges EUR 60 per season, while RB membership is something like EUR 800. Hence Bayern has 224,000 members while RB has just 11!
RB Leipzig ended 2015-16 in second place in Bundesliga 2 and will be the first team from the old DDR heartland to play in Germany’s top division since 2009. Not everyone is unhappy about that, for Bayern Munich’s domination of the Bundesliga is getting tedious. Red Bull’s patronage will enable RB Leipzig to buy players that can compete at the upper level, and the growing support suggests that the club can become bigger and bigger. They may find they will receive the sort of reception that Chelsea and Manchester City have been getting ever since they benefitted from inflated investment. It is not uncommon for envy to rise to the surface in football, but in Germany’s seemingly democratic culture, Leipzig now find they are sitting uncomfortably among the elite. The Bundesliga may be a lot more interesting in 2016-17.