When RB Leipzig clinched promotion to the 1. Bundesliga behind SC Freiburg last season, I immediately felt a sharp pang of disappointment. As a long-time believer in the concept of the Traditionsverein (“traditional team”), an upstart founded in 2010 with a shed load of money made from the sale of energy drinks left a slightly nauseating taste in the mouth. For many Bundesliga watchers, the club’s ascent to the top flight was a step into the unknown.
Time has done its thing. While my feelings towards the RB Leipzig business concept remain, I have slowly started to change my opinion on the team and what they are doing. We are only ten weeks into the current season, and while off the field the team will always be an ever so slightly tacky advertising franchise, on the pitch the impression has been nothing but positive. A case of Red Bull gives you wingers, one might say.
Eastern Promise and Decline
Since the collapse of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the unification of the former East and West Germany in 1990, Eastern German clubs had been on the decline. DDR mainstays like Dynamo Berlin shrivelled away with the regime and struggled for survival in the nether reaches of the amateur league pyramid, both Dynamo Dresden and Hansa Rostock had short and unmemorable flings with the top flight, and more recently the likes of Energie Cottbus have come and gone.
Dresden has seen something of a revival in recent years and FC Erzgebirge Aue (formerly Wismut Aue in the old DDR-Liga) have yo-yoed between the 2. Bundesliga and 3. Liga, but the new Eastern power base sits in Saxony’s largest city, Leipzig. Not from an old, established and traditional source, but a completely new one.
A Footballing Train Crash
When one thinks about Leipzig in a football context, the first name that comes to mind is 1. FC Lokomotive, better known as “Lok”.
Like Dynamo Dresden, Lok had always been chasing the coat-tails of Dynamo Berlin - the term controlled by and for the state security service, or Stasi. A finalist in the now defunct European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1987, Lok were one of the many East German teams that appeared to fare better in European competition - probably due to the absence of Stasi-controlled officials that more often than not determined the outcome in domestic fixtures.
The collapse of the communist regime would see major changes for Lok. The club was almost immediately reformed under its pre-war banner of VfB Leipzig, reclaiming a connection to a team that had claimed the German championship on three occasions.
For a short while, things worked. VfB won a place in the 1. Bundesliga in 1992/93, but a dismal debut season saw them make a hasty return to the second division. There would be no return. From that point the only direction was down, and the club plummeted faster than a rock thrown into the Cospudener See, the artificial lake to the south of the city. It was a footballing train crash.
By 2004, VfB Leipzig were floundering in the lower tiers, and before long they were bankrupt. Cue a new formation, and a return of Lok - a club that had stitched itself into the fabric of the city far more than anybody had assumed. It may have had its roots in the communist past, but the club was like a comfort blanket for the city’s football fans.
By 2009, the reformed Lok had slowly started to reestablish themselves, but at the same time other deals were being struck in the city of Leipzig. Or rather the small town of Markranstädt, located some thirteen miles to the west.
Old Traditions Versus New Business
In 2005, Austrian energy drink company Red Bull and their chairman Dietrich Mateschitz had pulled off a major coup, buying out the historic Austrian team SV Austria Salzburg. It was not just a buyout, but a major exercise in football club re-branding. Austrian clubs had long had a history of corporate involvement: between 1999 and 2005, FK Austria Wien had become FK Austria Memphis Magna - Memphis being the brand of cigarettes owned by Austrian-Canadian billionaire Frank Stronach.
While the Memphis brand certainly raised eyebrows in Vienna, the club maintained its link with tradition. This was not the case when Red Bull took ownership of SV Austria Salzburg. In a stroke, the entire tradition and history of the club was wiped out with nary a flinch. Austria’s traditional violet shirts were consigned to history, and were replaced by a new kit modelled on Red Bull’s corporate colours. The club crest was changed to what was pretty much the Red Bull logo.
SV Supporters were aghast, but the move away from the old days was relentless. FC Red Bull Salzburg was born. All attempts at some sort of compromise between the owners and supporters came to an inevitable sticky end, and in the end the traditionalists would give up and reestablish a new club from scratch with the old name.
A template had been created, and Red Bull accelerated its move into football - following their successful entry in Formula One motor racing. American Major League Soccer (MLS) team New York/New Jersey MetroStars were next, and were renamed the New York Red Bulls. Then came Red Bull Brasil, a new team based in São Paulo.
It was only a matter of time before the company would turn to Germany, and having made a number of inquiries they settled on Leipzig - apparently on the recommendation of German legend Franz Beckenbauer.
The New Club is Born
For the Leipzig clubs and their supporters, the waves could be felt. As a team that had battled hard to save its tradition, Lokomotive were always going to be off limits for the Austrian company. However, the decision to base a new club in Saxony clearly rankled with Lok’s supporters, who felt that they were entitled to be the biggest club in the city.
Initially Red Bull looked at taking over Lok’s smaller city rivals, FC Sachsen Leipzig. Known as Chemie Leipzig in the DDR years, the financially troubled fourth-tier club were ripe for the picking. In short, the city’s football clubs were in a mess. The reformed Lok were struggling to establish a foothold, and there were two other clubs effectively hatched from the same egg, FC Sachsen (founded in 1990) and BSG Chemie (refounded in 1997).
Red Bull were all set, only for their plans to be scuppered by the DFB. As a fourth tier team, FC Sachsen were subject to the association’s licensing rules. Unable to rename the club for what were clearly seen as advertising purposes, Red Bull had no choice but to give up. As BSG Chemie were too far down the league pyramid, the company was forced to look elsewhere. Their eyes turned to nearby Markranstädt.
Red Bull had discovered that aiming too high was doomed to fail, while starting from scratch was not an option. They quickly found their target. Unlike fourth-tier FC Sachsen, fifth-division SSV Markranstädt were not bound by DFB regulations and administrative red tape.
On 19th May 2009, the new club was born. Unlike their Austrian, US and Brazilian incarnations however, the company was forbidden to use “Red Bull” in the new club name. The result was the filling of a legal loophole that bordered on the ridiculous. The club was named RasenBallsport Leipzig e.V., with RasenBallsport (grass ball sports) providing the key initials “RB”.
Legally, the club is RasenBallsport Leipzig e.V. Conventionally, they are called RB Leipzig. For most however, they are what they have always wanted to be - Red Bull Leipzig. In what was a wise move, SSV Markranstädt were made an affiliate club.
Ownership, Membership and the 50+1 Rule
Company-owned football clubs are not a new idea in Germany. Bayer 04 Leverkusen are perhaps the most famous, while VfL Wolfsburg are owned by Volkswagen. TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, another small club that have made it big in the last decade, was created and bankrolled by SAP software magnate Dietmar Hopp. All three of these clubs are exempt from the 50+1 rule determining that members have collective majority ownership.
The situations are markedly different. Both Leverkusen and Wolfsburg are works clubs, originally founded for workers rather than commercial ventures. Hoffenheim, meanwhile, had originally adhered to the 50+1 rule before the club’s 6,000 members voted to give Dietmar Hopp majority ownership. After much debate, the club was given an exemption by the DFL on account of Hopp’s long-term interest and investment; a former Hoffenheim player at the amateur level and dedicated local supporter, the technology mogul had funded both the youth and senior setups for over two decades. TSG may have developed into a successful commercial operation, but it had been created as a labour of love.
RB Leipzig are a different kettle of fish entirely. Unlike Leverkusen and Wolfsburg, there is no industrial blueprint. Unlike Dietmar Hopp and Hoffenheim, the owners cannot claim to have had a dedicated long-term local interest. They only have a handful of “members” - all of whom are company employees. Membership costs are prohibitive, and there is also a vetting process. Not like paying your sixty Euro a year to become a member of FC Bayern München.
A Recent Precedent
There was actually a recent precedent for the Red Bull venture, a story that had started out in much the same way but had slowly disappeared from view. In 1996, two small Westphalian clubs, TuS Ahlen and Blau-Weiß Ahlen, had merged to form a new club, LR Ahlen. Like the “RB” in RB Leipzig, the “LR” in LR Ahlen was similarly manufactured. While the LR officially stood for Leichtathletik und Rasensport - “athletics and grass sport” - the reality that it really was the name of cosmetics manufacturer LR International, owned by local businessman Helmut Spikker.
Spikker had initially propped up TuS Ahlen, but following the creation of the new club he had started to cast an eye on the future. Players with top-flight experience were shipped in. In 2000 the team won promotion to the professional ranks of the 2. Bundesliga, and after a sixth-placed finish in their first season a spot in the top league was a very realistic objective.
Alas, it was not to be. The team made little obvious progress, and were an unimpressive mid-table fixture until their relegation to the Regionalliga Nord in 2006. By this time, light had dimmed for the increasingly impatient Spikker. He pulled his company out of the deal, and the club dropped the “LR”. As Rot-Weiß Ahlen, there was a brief revival when the club climbed back into the 2. Bundesliga in 2008, but another relegation two years later would signal the beginning of the end.
Rot-Weiß only had one season in the 3. Liga before they were deemed insolvent, and there was no stopping the fall. Today, they are in the fourth-tier Regionalliga West.
Unlike Helmut Spikker’s failed project in Ahlen, RB Leipzig’s rise was perfectly planned and plotted out. Money was spent, but not too much. There were no big names, but well-targeted up and coming talents commensurate with the standard of the league and opposition. Money was not thrown blindly, and everything was done incrementally. Say what you like about the club and how it came to be, but nobody can doubt that RB’s business practices were sound. Bold without being overly optimistic, and well-considered without being conservative.
The long-term plan, too, was well considered. The club would have to achieve four promotions to reach the 1. Bundesliga, and the owners set the target at ten years. It was clear that this was a long-term investment rather than a fly-by-night project.
Initially, the newly-formed RB Leipzig was centred around the existing SSV Markranstädt team in the NOFV–Oberliga Süd. Development was gradual, but the difference between the professional ethos of the new club and their amateur rivals soon began to show. At the first time of asking, RB gained promotion to the Regionalliga Nord.
The rise to the fourth level saw the club move from the small Stadium am Bad in Markränstadt to the new Zentralstadion in Leipzig - now renamed the Red Bull Arena. It was the first of many big moves for a club that was still at the very much in development. The infant had grown quickly, but the toddler would go through some teething problems.
They owners remained patient; they were still inside their ten-year target. RB’s first season in the Regionalliga saw them achieve a creditable fourth place. Good, but not good enough for promotion. Careful staffing work was going on behind the scenes, and the following season saw the club edge ever closer with a third-place finish.
The following season, things were cranked up considerably. The key appointment was former Schalke 04 coach Ralf Rangnick, a smart and industry savvy innovator who was perfectly placed to build on what was a simmering success. Things finally clicked in 2012/13, as the club finished top, putting them in a two-legged qualifier against Regionalliga West winners Sportfreunde Lotte.
It was a close-run thing. After a 2-0 win at the Red Bull Arena in front of a record-setting crowd, things had gone rather flat in the second leg. Lotte had wiped out die Roten Bullen’s lead to take the game into extra time, but an unfortunate own goal for the home side gave Leipzig the advantage before a penalty from Stefan Kutschke wrapped things up.
RB’s perfectly-balanced import strategy, the professional coaching team and the owners’ sense of mission had all fallen into place. Managed from the sidelines by Rangnick and on the pitch by the young coaching prodigy Alexander Zorninger, there was also a growing sense of identification with local supporters. The club had gotten off to a slow start and had initially been burdened by the history of the more traditional Lokomotive, but by 2013 the Red Bull Arena had started to fill up on a regular basis.
In 2012/13 RB were not the dominant team in the 3. Liga, but they didn’t need to be. Second place was enough, with their final gala thumping of 1. FC Saarbrücken witnessed by a new record crowd of 42,713. The club was already professionally run, but they had finally broken into the professional league. They were but one step away from achieving their mission.
Things were far from simple however. The professional leagues were run by the DFL rather than the DFB, which brought with it a new layer of legal and licensing issues. RB was expected to be more of a football club and less of a business arm of Red Bull, and proposed changes ranged from changing the club badge through to the creation of a more open and transparent membership scheme. At the time, the club only had a handful of members - all employees of Red Bull GmbH. The league threatened the club with another season in the 3. Liga, and owner Mateschitz called their bluff. The licence was granted.
Another first-time promotion was not out of the question, but the overriding mission was consolidation. The budget was ramped up as a number of new players were brought in. Rather than spend money on players with established reputations, the club adopted a strategy of signing those with genuine potential - a policy that worked perfectly.
Austrian starlet Marcel Sabitzer was rather controversially plucked from Red Bull’s other project in Salzburg, rising German youth international Lukas Klostermann was signed from second division rivals VfL Bochum, and Sami Khedira’s younger brother Rani was signed from VfB Stuttgart. With young Dane Youssef Poulsen and the highly-rated Joshua Kimmich already in the fold, Leipzig had amassed what was arguably a basket of youth potential that rivalled the likes of international power hitters FC Bayern München and Borussia Dortmund.
It was not quite enough, though. Die Roten Bullen started well enough, but had dropped out of the top three with a third of the season gone. After years of relative patience, the owners had started to get frustrated as their target loomed large. More money was spent to bolster the squad in the winter break, and the unfortunate Zorninger was soon out of the door.
Cue Rangnick to take over the coaching duties at the start of 2015/16, and the completion of RB’s meteoric rise. The club continued to snare up and coming talent - Werder Bremen’s Davie Selke being the biggest - while continuing to feed from their Austrian franchise, much to the chagrin of their supporters. Having already released Sabitzer, Red Bull Salzburg fans were left fuming at the management’s decision to ship Austrian international Stefan Ilsanker across the German border.
Everywhere Leipzig played, they were met with anything ranging from indifference to outright hostility. Things could have gotten hard, but the sense of camaraderie that had started to develop among the squad of young players would provide the momentum they needed. The team has started slowly, but by the turn of 2016 they had made their way to the top of the 2. Bundesliga. A late spurt from SC Freiburg would see Rangnick’s men slip back down to second, but that was good enough.
The club’s founders had allowed ten years for the team to reach the 1. Bundesliga. It had taken them just seven. For Mateschitz, Rangnick and the Leipzig players, the dream had been achieved. For the majority of the Bundesliga meanwhile, they now finally had to live with the fact that the team nobody wanted in the top flight had finally made the ascent. The bitter irony for many observers was that while “plastic” Leipzig had made their way into the top league, a well-loved Traditionsverein, VfB Stuttgart, had been sent down.
Here to Stay
RB Leipzig will continue to get under the skin of their Bundesliga rivals, with some opposition supporters continuing to boycott the fixture or display anti-RB banners. There is no doubt that the Saxon outfit has redrawn the lines between what is a football club on the one hand and a marketing tool on the other. For some, that will never change. There is a deep sense of loathing across the entire strata of the German game, from Dortmund fans - who made a public showing of their distaste for the new “franchise” - to the rival Saxon fans from Dynamo Dresden - who marked their DFB-Pokal meeting by throwing a severed bull’s head from the stands.
In Leipzig itself, the need for a footballing focal point has for many trumped previously long-entrenched historical associations. RB has put the city on the map again, the club have built up a decent following, and many of those who may have been initially suspicious of the commercial motives have been converted. Lokomotive and its supporters continue to cling to their history and tradition, but the old club is no longer the safety blanket it used to be. RB Leipzig is here to stay.
RB’s owners have probably long conceded that they will never be loved, and that at best the club will continue to be tolerated. As an organisation, at least. On the pitch, meanwhile, their young side have put the rest - bar the very best - to shame. On the one hand there are the marketing tricks and corporate shenanigans, but on the other there is an exciting young team that have so far produced results way beyond their expectations.
A Breath of Fresh Air
While we can still look at RB Leipzig as an organisation and cast a jaundiced eye, as a football team - that is, a group of players simply playing football - they have been a breath of fresh air. There are no big stars in the Leipzig squad, but within a couple of years many of them will have surely crossed into that territory. In poaching fellow Austrian Ralph Hasenhüttl from FC Ingolstadt, Mateschitz has pulled out another rabbit from his hat.
Before the start of the season, my only interaction with RB Leipzig had been the occasional live 2. Bundesliga match, where I had inevitably ended up cheering for the opposition - even to the point of rooting for 1. FC Nürnberg or TSV 1860 München. This season I have seen a lot more of these feisty bulls, and I have liked what I have seen. There. I’ve said it now.
Simply, when one forgets about RB Leipzig the business, RB Leipzig the football team are very pleasing on the eye. It is no fluke that they have become the first newly-promoted team to start with a run of ten games unbeaten, and luck has not played too much of a part in their drawing level at the top with FC Bayern.
One would expect the lack of depth in the squad and overall lack of experience to take its toll at some point, but if their clinical disposal of Mainz is anything to go by, their run could go on for a while yet.
At the start of the season, I had looked at Bayern’s meeting with the Saxon upstarts at the end of the year as something of a hindrance. At best, an opportunity for the Südkurve to voice their discontent and produce their wittiest banners. If things continue to go where they are going right now, we might just end up watching one hell of a football match.
Ironically, less than five years after Red Bull’s failed takeover bid, FC Sachsen Leipzig were wound up for the second time in their short post-Wende history. Chemie, meanwhile, have fought their way up to the fifth-tier NOFV-Oberliga Süd - one level behind local rivals Lok.