Let’s do the Leipzig again…

Leipzig_von_oben_Zentralstadion

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.

Leipzig6

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.

www.gameofthepeople.com

 

Standing by the wall: What became of the “crack” East Germans?

Leipzig fans...still hanging in there
Leipzig fans…still hanging in there

On Germany unity day, it is perhaps appropriate to recall the days when East Germany produced some pretty useful footballers and devilishly difficult teams to beat. While the East never matched the West for international success, teams like Dynamo Dresden, Magdeburg, Vorwaerts and Carl Zeiss Jena all presented difficult hurdles in European competition. A trip “behind the curtain” was invariably shrouded in mystery, a mild air of threat and, of course, omnipresent uniforms. I recall more than one English team, travelling to Cold War Europe, taking a stash of tea bags and sausages with them on an Inter-Cities Fairs Cup trip to ensure they could acclimatise! You don’t need Typhoo in Sofia and Bucharest these days!

Sons of the silent age

It was a different world and another time, however. One former East German resident once told me that, as a football fan, he was often harassed by the secret police, to which I responded, “If you knew they were secret, they surely were not.” As flippant as this remark may have seemed, this highlighted the ever present fear of the state. We’ve all seen the film, “The lives of others”.

Football in East Germany, which had to play second fiddlem to some extent, to sports that emphasised the strength and vitality of the youth of the socialist state, was invariably corrupt in the Eastern Bloc. The state made sure those teams that represented the army and secret (and not so secret) police prospered. Any team with Dynamo in its name was linked to the police/Stasi and thus hated by other fans. But there were four types of club in the old East German football set-up: the Dynamos; Vorwaerts, overseen by the Ministry of Defence; clubs with no affiliations such as Magdeburg and Carl Zeiss Jena; and pure and simple works teams (come on, name Turbine Potsdam’s best player!).

There is a much-repeated story about the head of the Stasi, Erich Mielke, visiting the Dynamo Dresden dressing room in 1978 to tell them that, despite winning the title that year, it was Dynamo Berlin’s turn to dominate the competition from thereon. They did, until the Berlin wall started to crumble and the Stasi lost its grip on the DDR. Mielke, in a society with a free press, would have been great copy. Among his soundbites: “Football success will highlight even more clearly the superiority of our socialist order in the area of sport.” Imagine Tweeting that!

Dynamo later sought to soften their image and distance themselves from a regime that was heading for the exit door, changed their name to FC Berlin. They were still disliked.

Not everyone just sat back, however. The fans of Union Berlin, who despised Dynamo, were a radical bunch and flew in the face of the state. When a free-kick was awarded in a game, they would chant, “Die Mauer muss weg!” – the wall must go.

Heroes

As far as international football goes, East Germany’s golden period was between 1972 and 1976. In the Munich Olympics, the DDR was joint bronze medall

Sparwasser
Sparwasser

ist with their stablemates, the Soviet Union. This was a strong Olympic tournament and the Eastern Bloc’s strength in “amateurism” really shone through, with Poland winning gold, Hungary silver and the USSR and DDR bronze. Two years later, came one of the pivotal moments in 20th century footballing history as the East beat West 1-0 in the 1974 World Cup thanks to a goal from Juergen Sparwasser. The next Olympic Games saw the DDR beat an excellent Poland team 3-1 in Montreal to claim gold. Eight of the team that beat the West in Hamburg in the World Cup received gold medals in Canada, highlighting the sham that was amateur status in the 1970s.

Low

Once reunification arrived, DDR football all but collapsed. Financially, clubs from the East could not possibly compete with the likes of Bayern Munich, Hamburg and Werder Bremen, although some tried and allowed their spending to get out of control. In 1990-91, the last year of the old Oberliga (renamed from the DDR-Oberliga to the NOFV-Oberliga, which then became part of the German regional structure), only two clubs, Hansa Rostock and Dynamo Dresden, qualified for the unified Bundesliga. Hansa were relegated in 1992 and Dresden followed three years later.

So what happened to the pre-eminent names of DDR football, and where are they now?

Hansa Rostock: 3.Liga (13th in 2013-14)
Dynamo Dresden: 3.Liga (relegated from Bundesliga 2 in 2013-14)
Rot-Weiss Erfurt: 3.Liga (10th in 2013-14)
Hallescher FC Chemie: 3.Liga (9th in 2013-14)
Chemnitzer FC: 3.Liga (12th in 2013-14)
Carl Zeiss Jena: Regionalliga Nordost (3rd in 2013-14) – step 4
FC Lokomotive Leipzig: Oberliga Nordost-Sud) – step 5
FC Stahl Brandenburg: Brandenburg Liga – step 6

Eisenhuttenstadter FC Stahl: Brandenburg Liga – step 6
FC Magdeburg: Regionalliga Nordost (2nd in 2013-14) – step 4
FC Berlin: Regionalliga Nordost (promoted from NOFV Oberliga Nord in 2013-14) – step 4

FC Sachsen Leipzig: Bankrupt 2014 (reformed club BSG Chemie Leipzig)
Energie Cottbus: 3.Liga (relegated from 2.Liga in 2013-14)
Victoria 91 Frankfurt: Dissolved 2012

mAGDEBURG (300x128)Of these teams, only Hansa Rostock can claim to have made much of an impact in the Bundesliga. They had a decade in the top division between 1995 and 2005.Generally, and sadly, East German clubs have been plagued by financial problems. The last legacy East Germany side to play in the Bundesliga was Energie Cottbus, who were relegated in 2009, a year after Hansa Rostock fell from grace. Apart from Dresden, Lokomotive Leipzig are the only other East German side to have played in 1.Bundesliga, and that was just for one season in 1993-94.

Breaking glass – the decline of Jena’s finest

It’s sad to see that some of the names from the 1960s and 1970s have fallen off the football map.

Carl Zeiss Jena were a club that owed its roots to its workers. In the old socialist empire, such a team was laudable and epitomised the collective pursuit of fitness, health and shared objectives. The town of Jena was dominated by the optical glass manufacturer, Carl Zeiss. The football club won the East German title in 1963, 1968 and 1970 and in 1981, reached the European Cup Winners-Cup final, losing to Dynamo Tbilisi. They started reunified life in 2.Bundesliga and went down the ladder, wracked with scandal and financial problems. Today they play in front of fewer than 3,000 people in Regionaliga Nordost and in 2014-15, they are not doing badly at all.

Magdeburg (pictured), meanwhile, enjoy good support for a regional league team – over 7,000 people at their home games. They are also in the Nordost, but they too have enjoyed better times and at their worst, they were attracting fewer than 500 fans. But Magdeburg are the only club from the East to win a European trophy, beating AC Milan in the 1974 European Cup Winners-Cup final. Like Carl Zeiss, they have also experienced financial crisis.

Lokomotive Leipzig are something of a cult club but they are even further down the German pyramid and have been usurped by RB Leipzig, who have made waves in recent weeks over Red Bull’s patronage and bold ambitions for the club. Lokomotive have almost disappeared from view, which is a great shame for a club that was the first national champions of Germany (in their original guise as VFB Leipzig) in 1903. RB, incidentally, are going well in 2.Bundesliga, and may well be the first Eastern side to make a splash for some time.

What in the world?

What does the future hold for clubs from the East? Look at a map of the Bundesliga and it makes depressing viewing, a lop-sided football nation. One step down, though, there is RB Leipzig and FC Aue, from a city of just 18,000 people. It may take many more years before the East can compete with the West, but there’s no shortage of interest among the fans – the recent game between Dynamo Dresden and Chemnitzer in 3.Liga attracted a crowd of just under 30,000. Perhaps a team from DDR football’s past could be on its way back?