RB Leipzig: The Unrelenting Force
Written by Lewis Redmond
For the first time since 2009 there is a club from the east side of Germany in the Bundesliga. Having been in existence for little over eight years, RasenBallsport Leipzig have defied all odds to rise from non-league obscurity to the very summit of the German game. However, it is not all a cause for celebration; the commercial background behind their establishment and consequential success has infuriated many a football fan from Berlin to Bonn, from Bremen to Bavaria.
On 19th May 2009, energy drink giant Red Bull managed to purchase the playing license of SSV Markranstädt, a modest fifth-tier club based just eight miles west of Leipzig. While many fans objected to the takeover of the club, with all the seven founding members either employees or members of the Red Bull firm, Red Bull went ahead and have, just over seven years down the line, formed a footballing force to be reckoned with and a team sitting currently second in the German top flight, just 10 points behind German champions Bayern Munich.
Owner of Red Bull, Dietrich Mateschitz, a friend of German legend and World Champion Franz Beckenbauer, had the dream of adding a German club to his already impressive roster of football clubs worldwide (namely Red Bull Salzburg, New York Red Bulls and Red Bull Brasil). However, unlike these clubs, German ruling forbid Leipzig from having a sponsor in their name, hence “RasenBallsport”, translating in English as “Lawn Ball Sport” while still incorporating the spinal company initials of “RB” within the name.
This coupled with another cunning idea of pumping up the cost of a club membership to €800 (more than 10 times what you would be required to pay for the same luxury at Bayern Munich) meant that RB could weave around the issue of fan control, a condition in Germany where almost every club must abide by the ‘50+1’ rule, giving all members a fair balance of power when it came to the election of board members at the club. RB’s solution for this was to hike up the membership prices to ensure that, to date, there are only 17 members at the club with the power to vote for board elections, freeing up the room for the Red Bull businessmen to run the club as they wish.
And it is these kinds of tricks being implemented by club hierarchy that are making ‘Die Rotten Bullen’ (The Red Bulls) the most incensing of establishments in the modern game, not least to fellow teams populating the German top flight. One Hertha Berlin fan told BBC World Service: “RB Leipzig is just a marketing construction, just a company. Hertha is a traditional football club” when the two teams crossed paths at the Red Bull Arena (renamed after originally being built for the 2006 World Cup) in December, with a 2-0 win for Leipzig subsequently moving them to the top of the Bundesliga at that time, leap frogging the reigning Bavarian champions to summarise the steep soar in success they had endured. As well as this remark from the Hertha fan, other fans have also let their feelings be known about the club, with it seeming like many believe they were just established in a bid to try and sell more soft drinks. As well as these opinionated words, clubs have refused to play pre-season friendlies against RB, with opposing fans boycotting games, while more active demonstrations against the club include the severed head of a bull being thrown on to the pitch by one set of opposing fans along with the FC Köln faithful blocking the streets so the team bus could not get through when the clubs met at the start of the season.
And it does not stop there either. In August 2015 when hosting RB, the producers of the Union Berlin match day programme took the page out which is usually dedicated to the visiting team, and instead published a 700-word article on the history of bull farming, while the reception from another club earlier in the campaign was so aggressive that the RB players had to make for the team bus as soon as the final whistle had sounded, not even having time for a shower or team talk in the dressing room after the conclusion of the match.
However, despite all this hate and, to an extent, threat from opposition teams, RB Leipzig just keep on producing. In their first season in the Bundesliga, the east German outfit still currently remain second in the league, with high profile signings including the recruitment of 21-year-old German starlet Timo Werner from VfB Stuttgart in the Summer, accounting for 14 of their goals so far this season. This certainly proves a stark contrast to their inaugural season in existence where, playing in the German fifth-tier in the 2009/10 season, RB were seeing attendance gates of just over 2000 fans.
Speaking again to BBC World Service from the club’s new state-of-the-art $37 million training complex, club director Ralf Ragnick said of all the hatred of his team: “I think that when a new club like ours is founded people immediately see us as a rival and a threat”. Speaking on the commercial intention of the club Ragnick simply added: “The number of cans (of Red Bull) we sell doesn’t matter to us.”
With the formation of the franchise the sole aim was for the club to have reached the top-flight of German football within eight years, with the idea of finding and recruiting young players at the start of their careers to hopefully trigger more success for the club with these players being hungrier to taste it; the average age of the first team squad is staggeringly, at just a little over 23 years old. However, having already reached this goal in a reduced time, owner Mateschitz claimed “I don’t want to be 80 by the time we win our first Bundesliga title. No pressure then.
Well in fact there isn’t that much pressure at all.
With RB still occupying the position of the second-best team in Germany, they have secured a place in next season’s Champions League group stage. And with Mateschitz’s plea, they still have another eight years to develop and improve enough to win the title, before the owner reaches 80 years old.
Hate them or not, there is no halting RB Leipzig’s rapid ascension to the elite level of German football and, given another few years, we could may well be looking at a team capable of dethroning the formidable Bayern Munich. RasenBallsport Leipzig are here to stay.