Less than halfway into its debut season in the top tier of German soccer, RB Leipzig has provided something that had been sorely missing — a real challenge to the suffocating dominance of Bayern Munich. The East German club is level with Bayern, the four-time defending champion, at the top of the standings. A remarkable start included zero defeats in its first 13 games, 10 of them victories. After defeating Hertha Berlin, 2-0, on Saturday, Leipzig will face its biggest challenge of the season when it travels to Munich on Wednesday to take on Bayern, not only the most famous German club but the most polarizing.
The matchup isn’t exactly David vs. Goliath, though. In fact, it’s possible to see it as a symbol of all that is wrong with the modern game.
Leipzig’s contentiousness begins with its name. The club was founded in 2009 when the Austrian energy-drink manufacturer Red Bull — which also owns Major League Soccer’s New York Red Bulls and Austria’s Red Bull Salzburg — bought a fifth-division club. Barred by German rules that forbid naming teams after corporate sponsors, the prefix “RB” was chosen. That’s short for RasenBallsport (“Lawn Ball”), but no one mistakes the connection.
It’s not the club’s only circumvention of regulations. Bundesliga rules stipulate that clubs’ majority voting rights be controlled by dues-paying members, essentially putting fan associations in control and limiting the power of a few wealthy owners. RB Leipzig skirted the rule by making its membership dues far costlier than other teams’, effectively limiting membership to a handful of fans, most of them with ties to the Red Bull corporation. Leipzig has also spent heavily on player acquisition in rising from the fifth tier to the top flight in just seven seasons.
Some, such as those in Borussia Dortmund’s supporters’ group, Sudtribune Dortmund, consider it a case of a wealthy business exploiting the game for marketing purposes. The group released a statement earlier this year denouncing the club’s arrival in the Bundesliga. “The project of the promoted club from Leipzig runs counter to all that connects us to football,” it read. “It’s a scandal that a marketing branch of an Austrian drinks manufacturer has been able to obtain a place in Germany’s top league. It contradicts all sporting and emotional values.”
RB Leipzig’s sporting director, Ralf Rangnick, believes much of the hostility to the club comes from its status as Germany’s youngest.
“Every club has their own supporters, and when a new club like ours comes along, they see the new club as a threat, as an enemy,” he said. “We’re writing our own history right now and in 10, 20 or 30 years’ time, that story will become history. We cannot blame ourselves for only being seven years old.”
Attitudes toward team ownership are far less puritanical elsewhere in Europe. The English leagues are a free-for-all in which Middle Eastern, Russian, Chinese and American owners have bought clubs without having to worry about local fans having a say. French power Paris Saint-Germain is owned by a Qatari investment group.
The direct corporate link isn’t unique to Red Bull, either. The initials of 23-time Dutch champion PSV Eindhoven translate as “Philips Sports Union,” reflecting its close link with Philips, the technology company. Italian giant Juventus has long been associated with the automaker Fiat.
It is not as though other Bundesliga clubs aren’t reliant on corporate money and influence. Schalke 04 has a major sponsorship deal with Russian company Gazprom while Bayern counts many of the giants of corporate Germany among its backers.
And while there is legitimate concern about Red Bull, there has been much less noise about the City Football Group, the Abu Dhabi-based entity that counts the Premier League’s Manchester City, MLS’s New York City FC, Australia’s Melbourne City and the Japanese club Yokohama Marinos among its properties.
German international midfielder Toni Kroos, who plays professionally for Real Madrid, is among those who don’t have a problem with the move by Red Bull’s billionaire co-founder, Dietrich Mateschitz, to invest heavily in the game.
“Mateschitz could also buy three yachts or four jets, but he’s into football,” Kroos told Kicker magazine recently.
“They have no star who has cost 30 or 40 million euros, and I’m sure if this team goes through a shopping street somewhere in Germany, people would not recognize three players.”
Part of the reason for that is that Leipzig has not invested in big-name foreign stars but primarily in talented young German and European players, an approach that has paid dividends on the field. Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side has played impressive, attacking football, in front of crowds averaging 41,000 at, naturally, Red Bull Arena.
Soccer crowds of that size have not been seen in eastern Germany since reunification; before this season, the region had not even had a top-tier club since Energie Cottbus was relegated in 2009.
The famous old East German clubs have fallen into severe decline. Dynamo Berlin plays in the regional fourth tier. The final champion of the East German Oberliga, Hansa Rostock, sits in the middle of the third. Leipzig’s historic team, Lokomotive, has also fallen on hard times, struggling in regional football.
In that context, RB Leipzig could be seen as the savior of East German soccer, providing some much-needed pride to an area that has had to cope with the trials of economic and social change without such welcome distractions.
Perhaps fans should reconcile themselves with the club. If current form continues it will be in the Champions League next season, the first East German club to qualify for that tournament since it evolved from the European Cup.
And if Leipzig manages to beat Bayern on Wednesday, well, the prospect of an even bigger surprise might not seem so fanciful.