The Bundesliga makes its return this weekend, and with it perhaps the most controversial team in European football. In most countries, a newly promoted side finishing second, pushing the dominant (and less than well-liked) champions all the way to the wire and, to top it all, playing with an exciting young team would be admired. Instead, when it comes to RB Leipzig, it represents the changing of tradition, the removal of what has been good about the German game, and a new era in commercialism. It might seem a strong term, but when it comes to Germany’s traditional footballing structure, Die Roten Bullen are hated.
East Germany has often been under-represented in the Bundesliga. When the country was reunified after the fall of communism, Dynamo Dresden and Hansa Rostock were deemed to have enough quality to be adopted into the top flight, but a slew of players sought their riches in the West and rushed to join traditional Bundesliga powerhouses after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Thomas Doll made for HSV, Andreas Thom went to Leverkusen, Matthias Sammer to Stuttgart. Uwe Rösler waited a couple of years before making his dash to the West. And countless others, free from dictatorial rule, tried to make their fortunes. Dresden failed to cope with this, and without the support of the state were unable to compete, lasting just a couple of years before relegation. They haven’t returned to the top flight since. Rostock did better, despite initial relegation. They returned to the Bundesliga for a 10-year stint in 1995, and spent another year there in the 2007/8 season. But East German football has struggled. The introduction of RB Leipzig, however, offers success, however gained, to the former GDR.
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In many ways, it is the ultimate irony that a team so entrenched in a capitalist system, bankrolled by Red Bull as they are, should offer hope for the former communist nation. In another way, it might be seen as another symbol of the failure of socialism in the twentieth century. Either way, their style has certainly sent shockwaves around the European game. Red Bull first showed interest in entering German football as far back as 2006, when their owner was advised by Franz Beckenbauer that no team from Austria could win the Champions League. An initial attempt was made to buy historic Sachsen Leipzig, but these were rejected by the league with considerable fan protest. Like those before them, the company then looked west, making a laughable attempt to invest in St. Pauli (Hamburg’s second club are renowned for their anti-capitalist, socially-conscious platform) and then 1860 Munich and finally Fortuna Düsseldorf, a move that was again vetoed by the German football authorities.
And so, back to Leipzig, and this time to fifth tier side SSV Markranstädt. Beyond the reaches of the DFB, Red Bull were able to purchase the playing license of the village side, and create a whole new team in their own image. On 19th May 2009 Die Roten Bullen were born. Unable to use a company name in their team name (RB stands for RasenBallsport, ‘Lawn Ball Sports’) they set about branding as much as they could with the Red Bull logo. They began life at Markranstädt’s Stadion am Bad and, with a strong showing secured immediate promotion, signalling their intentions by buying Timo Rost from three divisions higher and moving to the renamed Red Bull Arena. Despite big signings, the club failed to secure successive promotions, and appointed Ralf Rangnick as Sporting Director in 2012 to win the league. He did so.
Life in the third tier really began to show how RB Leipzig planned to achieve success. Furnished with a €100 million budget, the side made a number of signings, including current Bayern star Joshua Kimmich. A good start saw them amongst the promotion places, and despite not winning the league, another raft of signings in January saw them secure the all-important second promotion spot. Despite disputes with the DFB over new licensing, Leipzig took part in their first season at the second tier, once again outspending all of their opponents – they were the 8th highest spenders in all of Germany. Despite a strong start (and more spending in the winter transfer window) the club finished in fifth place, not enough for promotion but enough to lose manager Alexander Zorninger his job. After Thomas Tuchel turned them down, Rangnick himself took over the side for the following season, during which he led the side to second and a place in the Bundesliga. Stepping back upstairs, he poached Ralph Hasenhüttl to take the top job.
While the East German city celebrated their first appearance in the top flight for many decades, the rest of Germany bemoaned the promoted side, especially as they went unbeaten for their first thirteen games, finishing the season in second place ahead of Dortmund. The concern is not just for a side so controlled by corporate interests – Wolfsburg are owned by Volkswagen and Leverkusen by Bayer – and not even for vast overinvestment into the side – Rangnick’s old side, Hoffenheim, have already opened that door. It is more to do with the feeling of the club trampling on German football traditions. The coveted ‘50+1’ rule, where fans always own a majority share of their clubs, is technically adopted, but membership price for RB Leipzig is prohibitively high so that the Red Bull company maintain control. In the 2. Bundesliga a membership of just eleven, eight of whom were company employees. They follow the letter of the law, but not its spirit. And German football fans worry that this will take the soul out of their game.
Their ignominy is, however, tinged with a little nobility – RB Leipzig promote youth in favour of experience, and have an age limit in place for the players they sign (they reportedly turned down Jamie Vardy while he was at Fleetwood Town for being too old). And they undoubtedly showcase these players on a wider stage – Oliver Burke would hardly have had the opportunity to play Champions League football had he stayed at Nottingham Forest, and it is doubtful teams would be clamouring so hard for Naby Keita and Timo Werner had they spent the season playing for Salzburg and Stuttgart’s reserves, respectively. The Red Bull Arena, a laughing stock in the lower divisions, was full in the top flight, providing an East German powerhouse in the Bundesliga that has long been lacking. And, for now at least, it is refreshing to have a new team shaking up the traditional order. Whether that is still the case if Leipzig buy their way to the title remains to be seen.
The extended Red Bull family provides some cause for concern. Recent rule-bending has allowed both RB Leipzig and Red Bull Salzburg to both take their places in the Champions League, something that was thought to have contravened UEFA’s laws of the game. Beyond Europe, Red Bull also have stakes in South America, Africa, and most famously, New York. Given the free-for-all between Leipzig and Salzburg when it comes to players (there is little negotiation, and no barrier, to players moving from one to the other), it is possible to imagine their interests around the world facilitating a similar arrangement. How convenient it could be for Leipzig, who run the risk of breaking Financial Fair Play laws, to have their sister clubs signing world class players and paying phenomenal wages, only to loan them to the German outfit free of charge.
Some may say the soul of football was lost long ago (many point to the 1992 creation of the Premier League). But in Germany, with its fan culture, its membership rules and its recognition of history, it remains. For now. In the future, who knows? Red Bull have shown that success can be, largely, bought. The City of Leipzig have shown that there are willing recipients of this kind of investment. It may be a longer way around than say Man City of PSG, but it is possible to buy your way into the most traditional of football leagues. And that is a cause for concern. As we have seen across football, when power is concentrated in too few hands, and when those hands turn out to be malevolent, it is always, without exception, the fans who suffer. Red Bull don’t appear to be malevolent in their intentions – not yet. But they have highlighted the way for those who might be.
We may decide as fans of football to reject the Red Bull project, but given their early success, their promotion of youth, and their impressive local support, they are here to stay. Like it or not, we have to accept it.
Check out our piece on another side changing things up!