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RB Leipzig : A necessary evil in German football

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© RB Leipzig Facebook

RB Leipzig : A necessary evil in German football

Why are RB Leipzig, a club that was founded just seven years ago and has made it to the top flight, perceived as a parasite in German football?

On 9th September, 2016, several fan groups of Borussia Dortmund decided to boycott the trip to the Red Bull Arena in Leipzig where their team played newly-promoted sideRB Leipzig.  They decided to watch not even a live screening, but instead hear a radio coverage of the match at the club's old ground  Rote Erde. As it followed, the visiting side walked on to the Leipzig pitch without their world-famous “Yellow Wall” in the stands, and were handed a shock first defeat of their 2016-17 campaign by the newly-promoted side.

But this was not the first time “Traditionsvereinen”(fan bases of traditional clubs in Germany) have shown their bitterness towards RB Leipzig. Back when they were in the third division, supporters of the club Hansa Rostock refused to enter the stadium for the first 10 minutes; at Union Berlin one year later, this time it was the second division, and almost every Berlin fan came dressed in black and remained silent for 15 minutes. Even last month after their promotion to the German top flight, when Leipzig travelled to Dynamo Dresden for a Cup match, a section of the home crowd threw a severed bull’s head on to the pitch.

With their fans boycotting the trip to the Red Bull Arena, Dortmund suffered their first league defeat at the hands of RB Leipzig © RB Leipzig Facebook

Any other normal fan who prefers to follow English Premier League or the La Liga will be curious to know why a club is hated so much despite their sudden rise from playing in the fifth division in 2009 to be promoted to the Bundesliga by 2016. When clubs such as FC Augsburg, playing in the Europa League after being founded in 2004, are called inspirational, why are RB Leipzig, a club that was founded just seven years ago and has made it to the top flight, perceived as a parasite in German football?

A large section of fans despise RB Leipzig just by looking at the club's name. “RasenBallsport” Leipzig(meaning lawn ball sports) is a cover-up for the club more commonly called Red Bull Leipzig. It was chosen by the founders Red Bull Gmbh, the famous fizzy drinks conglomerate, when the rules set by DFL(German Football League) did not allow clubs to contain product placement in their names. In order to match the initials of their brand name, the owners went for a club that plays lawn ball sports. “It is scandalous that a purely commercial marketing branch of an Austrian drinks manufacturer may actually compete in Germany's top flight. This contradicts all sporting and emotional values,” one of the BVB's fan-club statements read as the fans decided to cancel their Leipzig trip.

Another chief reason for the public's spite for the East German club is their ownership model branded by the German fans as bloated commercialism. In Germany, the ownership of clubs is called as the “50+1 model”, where a majority of the shares are held by club members and fans, not by the club itself. For example, Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich's majority shareholders are its 270,000 plus members and fans, who have to pay 60 Euros per year, whereas around 300 of the 600 active club members at Leipzig work at Red Bull, paying around 800 Euros yearly. 

It is a well-known fact that German clubs act in the best interest of their fans than to squeeze money out of them. That is the reason a season ticket at Borussia Dortmund costs less than two matchday tickets at Arsenal's Emirates stadium. So when a club's finances are so openly dictated by a $4.2 billion-worth company in a footballing culture that holds its fans and members in the highest regard, there has to be a sizeable amount of opposition.

But, if it is looked from the viewpoint of a common man living in Leipzig, the answer is not at all negative. East Germany has become a footballing wasteland for over the past two decades—except for someone like Toni Kroos, there hasn't been a football talent who was born around the area. Traditional clubs in Leipzig, former heavyweights such as Lokomotive Leipzig and FC Sachsen had dropped to the fourth and fifth divisions when in 2009, a lowly, much-ignored club called SSV Markranstädt's license was purchased by Red Bull. The company had already owned football clubs in Austria, USA, Brazil, and Ghana.

For a city with a population of half a million, people did not have a local club to support around a 150-mile radius. Red Bull took over the local stadium that was left to rot after the 2006 World Cup and turned it into a commercially viable venue to host football matches - now called the Red Bull Arena. The stadium recorded average attendances of 25,025 in 2014/15 after the club got promoted to the 2. Bundesliga and the 45,000-seater venue was sold out on many occasions during their season-winning campaign of 2015/16. Now even after their promotion to the Bundesliga, the match ticket at the Red Bull Arena stands at a reasonable rate of 35 Euros which is even lesser than a 54-Euros match ticket at another newly-promoted club SC Freiburg.

The Red Bull Arena has recorded an average attendance of 25,025 in the 2014/15 season and match tickets are available at a reasonable rate of 35 Euros per match © RB Leipzing Facebook

When the club management at no point looks to cash in on their top-flight promotion, opposition fan groups argue that the club lacks passionate fans. Their primary argument is that the matches at the Red Bull Arena are attended by families who come to enjoy their weekend rather than chest-beating football fanatics entering the stadium in a rally across the town. “For a true football club you need loyalty, standing terraces, emotion, financial fair play, tradition, transparency, passion, history and independence,” says one of the fan group leaders of Leipzig's former rivals Union Berlin.

Fans at Manchester United and Arsenal were enraged as they witnessed Chelsea and Manchester City prospering and challenging for the title with the help of financial muscle gained by new billionaire ownerships. “Stop ruining football with money,” many cried out. But because of the deeps pockets the new owners had, the landscape of English football has turned more competitive. The Premier League, which was dominated by three clubs until the early 2000s, suddenly turned into an exciting football league that attracted fans across the world. Nobody can deny that the rise of cash-rich clubs has played a part in the broadcasters agreeing to pay the Premier League £5.5 billion for the 2016-17 season.

Whereas clubs like Manchester City and Chelsea or another rich club such as Paris Saint-Germain have neglected the prospect of youth academies, RB Leipzig, under the leadership of former Schalke, Stuttgart and Hoffenheim manager Ralf Rangnick as their sporting director, have slowly but steadily built a system that captured budding talents around the country rather than looking to throw money at every possible turn. 

Leipzig's signing of Germany's U-19 striker Davie Selke from Werder Bremen in 2015 turned many heads in the Bundesliga © Getty Images

Though the signings of Scotland's Oliver Burke and Germany's U-19 star Davie Selke made Leipzig the highest spender from 2. Bundesliga, Rangnick's purchase of players such as Massimo Bruno, Emil Forsberg, and Marcel Sabitzer clearly showed how much they valued young talent within their ranks.

With a vision to play European football within the next few years, die Roten bullen also roped in Frieder Schrof as the head of their youth development in 2015. After running a successful academy in Stuttgart that produced the likes of Mario Gomez, Sami Khedira and Kevin Kuranyi, Schrof was put in charge of an investment of 35 million Euros in building a youth academy which opened shortly in September, 2016.

Despite investing heavily in the transfer window, RB Leipzig also invested 35 million in building a world-class youth training facility with an aim to develop home-grown talent ©

With the financial muscle to back them in the transfer market and a carefully planned youth academy to nurture home-grown talent, Red Bull Leipzig are showing signs of a club on their way to become a powerhouse. While it is quite obvious that they have not done everything by the book, their ambitions clearly match that of those clubs that are on the top. Recently, former Bayern Munich president Uli Hoeness, when asked about the rise of Leipzig, said, “If it (RB Leipzig) works, it is good for all football, not only for the East(Germany).”

It also appears Bayern Munich are bored of their domination at the summit of the German top flight and want clubs to be big enough to compete with them. According to a report by The New York Times, Leipzig's CEO Oliver Mintzlaff revealed his recent conversation with Bayern's President Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.

“I was on a plane with Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, the chief executive of Bayern Munich, on Wednesday. He said, and I agree entirely, that it would be awesome for Bayern to have more competition. The secret of the Premier League is that there are five or six strong teams. Here, it is just Bayern and Dortmund. We need more. It is about having a competitive league, not just one club that wins every year. With the power of Red Bull and a lot of hard work, in a few years, we could help that.”

With their goals and ambitions in right place, the “Lawn Ball Sports” club is just like the Roman Abramovich-owned Chelsea - it could only be a matter of time before they rise enough to change the face of the football in the country to dethrone the likes of Bayern and Dortmund.

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