A MAN wearing a VFB Leipzig hat and a Lokomotive scarf walked through the centre of town with just a little air of defiance. It was matchday at the Red Bull Arena and the bars and restaurants were gradually filling up with RB Leipzig fans grabbing a pre-match meal or beer.
The Lokomotive fan was not interested in the pre-match build-up, however, for as far as his kind are concerned, there is only one proper football club in Germany’s fastest growing city. He might give Chemie due respect, but they are plying their amateur trade in the Oberliga. Like many fans of the team from the Probstheida end of the city, he probably believes Lokomotive represents the heart and soul of Leipzig football.
But not everyone necessarily feels like that, indeed, the rise of RB Leipzig, with its controversial motives and corporate attachment, has been welcomed by the young and old alike in Leipzig. RB Leipzig are attracting crowds of over 41,000 to the arena, a 40% rise on 2015-16 when the club was in Bundesliga 2.
Germany’s other football clubs, who have protested week-in, week-out, wherever RB Leipzig play, are not happy about this audacious new arrival that is, supposedly, just a marketing tool of the Red Bull organisation. “Red Bull do not care about Leipzig, if chess was the most popular sport and could be used for their marketing purposes, they would go into that rather than football. It is clearly a marketing exercise,” insisted Matthias, a Lokomotive fan and co-author of a book on the old club.
People like Matthias get quite animated about the Red Bull phenomenum, prompted by the long-term decline of their own club and the way that RB Leipzig have steam-rollered their way into the local sporting psyche. “It’s not a real club, it is manufactured and artificial,” said one Energie Cottbus fan. “I genuinely feel sorry for the people who are buying into this. I really do.”
But close to the stadium before the club’s game with Hoffenheim – who can claim to be the second most despised club in the Bundesliga due to the heavy patronage of the founder of software company, SAP, Dietmar Hopp – RB fans are enjoying the moment.
“It is great to have a Leipzig team in the Bundesliga,” said Fabian. “This new club suits us – Lokomotive and Chemie both have more political attachments and personally, I don’t like that. We enjoy meeting our friends, travelling around Germany, drinking, singing and having a good time. RB have put Leipzig on the map, although we’re not totally happy that we’ve needed Red Bull to achieve Bundesliga football for Leipzig.”
There is no apparent concern that if Red Bull pull out, the dream could come to an end. Leipzig is a city that is growing quickly, following the period after reunification in which it slumped and started to shrink. Suddenly, it has become a tourist destination. “Please don’t call us the new Berlin,” said Thomas, a bookshop owner in the city centre. “Leipzig is a very different city and RB have helped to bring it to people’s attention. I don’t like football especially, but I think RB has been positive for us.”
Nevertheless, it is easy to see why fans of the city’s traditional clubs might feel resentful. Both the Lokomotive ground, the Bruno Plache Stadium, and Chemie’s Alfred-Kunze Sportpark, are wonderfully archaic and a reminder of a time before the corporatisation of football. Matthias sees the RB audience as a different kind of customer rather than passionate football fans. “When you support a club, you feel the ups and downs, you take the pain as well as the good times. The RB crowd, I think, does not realise that.” We both agreed that the challenge will come when RB are no longer successful. At the moment, they are on a steep learning curve, but that could so easily change if the money dried-up or Red Bull come up with a new strategy.
Some RB fans freely admit that the attraction of top-class football, in a terrific stadium, is an irresistible proposition. Steffen, for example, was a Bayern Munich fan and switched to a club from his home town. “I stood at the Allianz with a friend and we said, ‘wouldn’t it be great to see a Leipzig team play here?’, so when RB was formed, it gave us that possibility. We love it, but I am not sure I could watch the club if it fell down the leagues. Bundesliga is what it is all about for me and others.”
Did a new club have to be formed to achieve that goal? Apparently, Red Bull did approach the city authorities and enquire about coming into Leipzig and taking over either Lokomotive or Chemie. They received no enthusiasm for that project and instead, took a different route. It is difficult to see how Lokomotive’s fans would have accepted such a project given that it would take control of the club in a new, unpalatable, direction.
It is also easy to see why Leipzig was a target for Red Bull. Salzburg were taken over in 2005 and the company tried to eradicate the past as they changed the colours and made somewhat naïve and insensitive statements about having “no history”. They are now perpetual winners of the Austrian Bundesliga, but the fans are unhappy that there has been considerable player traffic between Red Bull Salzburg and RB Leipzig. “If I were a Salzburg fan, I would be pretty pissed off right now,” said the fan from Cottbus. “RB Leipzig fans need to know that Red Bull will do what they like and won’t care about how the supporters feel.”
Right now, though, the “Red Aces” and other groups that have attached themselves to the club, are enjoying Leipzig’s new status. They may sing their hearts out for the team, but they don’t necessarily like Red Bull or what the company stands for. “We are not interested in Dietrich Mateschitz or the Red Bull drink. We don’t buy that, or wear the shirts with their logo on,” remarked Fabian. “We are here for the football.”
From an entertainment angle, RB Leipzig are producing some excellent football. The game with Hoffenheim, with RB in second place and the visitors in third, and unbeaten, was being billed as “El Plastico” by cynics. That didn’t stop almost 40,000 turning up on a bitterly cold afternoon at the Red Bull Arena, a stadium that deserves mention for its appearance. Originally built in 1956 as the Zentralstadion and was designed by Werner March, the architect behind Berlin’s Olympic Stadium. It was built from the debris from World War Two bombing of the city and initially had a capacity of 100,000.
It later fell into disrepair before being renovated for the 2006 World Cup. A new stadium was effectively constructed inside the bowl of the original and was connected by bridges. It makes for a spectacular view when you reach the top of bowl before descending into the stadium itself.
Approaching the stadium from the main road, crossing the Fest-weise, a snow-covered field, only served to whet the appetite for a glimpse of the ground. There was something of a carnival atmosphere as people congregated outside, drinking beer and eating sausages. Then you walk up steps, many steps, to reach the pinnacle. In my bag was the 50th anniversary book of Lokomotive Leipzig, generously gifted to me by the author. As the security guards rifled through my rucksack, they lifted the book out, grinned and then told me I would need to deposit my bag during the game in the sort of container you would find at Rotterdam docks. I sensed the Lok book was the tipping point, but the excuse was they did not want any bombs in the ground.
Inside the ground, the only empty seats seemed to be in the Hoffenheim corner. Leipzig had recovered from their pre-Christmas mauling at the hands of Bayern Munich and returned from the winter break with a 3-0 win against Eintracht Frankfurt. Hoffenheim may have been unbeaten, but they had drawn 10 of their 17 games.
Leipzig were still without one of the stars of the season in Germany, Emil Forsberg, who was suspended, but their other key men, Willi Orban, Timo Werner, Naby Keita and Marcel Sabitzer, were all in the starting line-up.
Hoffenheim went ahead in the 18th minute after a swift counter-attack, finished off by Nadiem Amiri. But 20 minutes later, RB Leipzig equalised through Werner. There were some complaints of a handball in the build-up, but 1-1 at half-time was just about right.
But Ralph Hasenhüttl’s team are nothing if not persistent, evidenced by the number of goals scored in the last 15 minutes of games. Leipzig took control, assisted by a red card for Hoffenheim’s Sandro Wagner for a nasty-looking challenge. With 13 minutes remaining, Sabitzer scored the winning goal, a low shot that took a deflection as it rolled past the excellent Hoffenheim keeper Oliver Baumann.
As I left the stadium, I saw fans of all age revelling in another victory for their team. It cannot be denied that RB Leipzig play good football. The stadium has a healthy atmosphere and the curious of Leipzig are clearly enjoying the moment. The RB Leipzig experience, with its corporate attachment and “just add water” element, very much captures the zeitgeist. It is easy to criticise the ethos if you’re steeped in the traditions of the game, but there is something exciting about matchday at the Red Bull Arena.
And talking of stadiums, a trip to the snow-covered Bruno Plache Stadion, the home of Lokomotive, was an altogether different affair. It’s old school football, with a grandstand that was built in 1922, big areas of terracing and even a hut where the Stasi used to put Lok’s fans under surveillance. What more could you want? It is a million kilometres away from the Red Bull Arena, but I would wager that football hipsters would surely put the Bruno Plache on their list of places to visit.
This explains, to some extent, the discomfort that long-standing football fans have with RB. Lokomotive, using their original VFB Leipzig name, enjoyed just one season in the Bundesliga in 1993-94. After that, the club spiralled out of control, dropping into the Regionalliga and then Oberliga before going bankrupt in 2004. To some extent, Lokomotive’s plight reflected the decline of the city – six months after reunification 96% of all industrial jobs disappeared in the city. Unemployment in Leipzig was higher than just about any major city in Germany. People suffered, which is ironic given that the movement to bring down the old DDR started in Leipzig. When the city started to recover and grow again, it was tailor-made for top level football. Perhaps it was simply easier for Red Bull to “create” their own club rather than transform an existing set-up?
It is worth noting that German football is not free of corporate influence. Bayer Leverkusen is owned by Bayer AG, the pharmaceutical company that invented Aspirin. Schalke 04 has been boosted by a significant investment from Gazprom and Volkswagen owns Wolfsburg. So, with RB and Hoffenheim, that accounts for 28% of the Bundesliga, but as The Economist said, Germans prefer their supposed “flat, egalitarian meritocracy over bubbly, caffeinated commercialism.”
As it stands, footballing Germany hates RB Leipzig, but the fans are only too aware of the hostility shown to the club. Equally, RB fans are quick to put down Lokomotive as being hampered by fans with right wing tendencies, which I gather is an outdated view of the club. The problem is, reputations are hard to shake off.
Will I return? Most definitely. Leipzig has plenty going for it and also provides access to other DDR football locations. I understand why people get bent out of shape about RB and I can see the attractions of spending an afternoon at Lokomotive. Make no mistake, this is a fascinating football location.
Thanks to Matt Ford, Matthias Loffler and Steffen Schoepe for their help with this article.