RB Leipzig earned promotion to the German top flight last season, just seven years after a dramatic overhaul remodelled the club entirely. On the surface, this would appear to be one of the most meteoric of meteoric rises; four promotions in quick succession and a fairy tale akin to the likes of AFC Wimbledon’s phoenix-from-the-flames heroics. But delve a little deeper and the story behind RB Leipzig couldn’t be further from the mystic nostalgia for which football fans yearn.
In 2009, energy drink, Red Bull cofounder Dietrich Mateschitz completed his acquisition of fifth division side SSV Markranstadt and proceeded to implement wholesale change to the East German outfit. The club’s name, strip and badge were all reinvented – Mateschitz looked upon all that he had made and it was good and lo and behold, RB Leipzig were born. And while the Austrian had done the same in his homeland with Red Bull Salzburg, as well as branching out to New York and Brazil, this is something quite alien. Mateschitz’s Red Bull dynasty is now taking on Germany – and to the annoyance of millions of fans, it’s succeeding.
A country which so staunchly prides itself on its footballing principles, Germany is a wholly unnatural climate in which to cultivate a brand-name club. In fact it has regulations in place specifically to deter against this sort of capitalist invasion which has riled fans and fellow clubs. But Mateschitz is canny – he will not let mere bureaucracy deny him an empire. German football clubs are required to be accountable to their members, the fans, when electing their board (this is known as the 50+1 rule). Fans pay a small fee, they become a member and are thereon in an inherent part of the future of the club. However, in order to retain total control, RB have a membership cost of €800; over ten times that of Bayern Munich. Leipzig have, in total, 17 members who possess all the voting power, meaning that the interests of Mateschitz and Red Bull are assured.
Regulations are also in place to prohibit clubs from having branding or sponsorship in their name. However, one more rule means nothing – nothing except another Mateschitz master stroke. For the RB in Leipzig’s name doesn’t stand for Red Bull. It stands for RasenBallsport – literally ‘Lawn Ball Sport’. RB remains in the name, as too do the trademark charging bulls on the badge, yet staggeringly the sponsorship regulations remain untarnished. I said he was canny, didn’t I?
But let’s leave the ethics of German football to one side for a moment and concentrate on their rise. RB have quickly asserted themselves as a force in German league football and now have the chance to take aim at the European stage. During their seven years, they have accumulated assets which many clubs in the world still can’t boast over a history of one hundred years, let alone fewer than ten. Six years ago they moved to a new ground with a capacity of over 40,000 (it’s called the Red Bull Arena—who’d have thought it?). In 2011, they appointed their first sporting director in the form of German football sage Ralf Rangnick (now linked with the England job), who has handled the gargantuan transfer budgets well. This growth follows a path which will worry the rest of Germany – having achieved their goal of Bundesliga football within eight years, they now have their eyes on the title before 2020.
RB Leipzig go into the upcoming season with a few names you may recognise – Rani Khedira, the younger brother of Sami, failed to make his mark at Stuttgart and has been at RB since 2014. Austrian forward Marcel Sabitzer appeared in all three of his country’s abysmal Euro 2016 matches and he, too, has been plying his trade at Die Bullen for two years. RB also managed to poach youngsters Oliver Burke from Nottingham Forest – the flying Scotsman this year and Davie Selke from Werder Bremen of the Bundesliga last season – a raw but talented centre-forward who managed to fire Leipzig to promotion in his first season. But the key to their success has been the fact that despite their wealth, they haven’t been tempted into pursuing big name stars immediately. They’ve competently compiled a squad of hungry, young players and the statistics attest to this; goals were shared throughout the team last season, with the likes of the aforementioned Sabitzer and midfielders Dominic Kaiser and Emil Forsberg all netting with regularity behind Selke, the top scorer. Despite the owner’s megalomania, there are no egos in the playing personnel.
And as well as all of this, you have the geographic significance of RB’s success. For years, the Bundesliga has been crying out for an East German team to put itself on the map. Indeed, the reunification has been anything but for football in Germany – Western teams have largely dominated, as have western-born players. In fact of their entire World Cup winning side in 2014, only Toni Kroos hailed from East Germany. So it’s arguably a refreshing change to have a team finally challenging the regional disparity which the Bundesliga has suffered of late.
What Leipzig are and what they are doing is not in any way bad. Nobody can have any qualms their style of play or the composition of their squad, they’ve revived East German football, they’re an exciting addition to the Bundesliga and, despite the immense criticism, haven’t broken a single rule. What matters, however, is how they have done all this. They have essentially defiled the very traditions on which German football was built. And should more follow suit, Leipzig will justifiably be known as the epicentre of a corporate movement which threatens to change Germany’s footballing landscape forever.