Bundesliga new boys RB Leipzig – reviled, divisive, compelling

by Paul Little

Why are RB Leipzig being dubbed the most hated club in German football? Because Red Bull’s cash gives them wings.

Wings that have helped build a football club almost from scratch that threatens the existing order of the game there, indeed its very culture.

 

If you’ve not heard much about them, here’s a quick history lesson.

In 2009, energy drinks manufacturer Red Bull bought the playing licence of small-time SVV Markranstadt, a local Leipzig-based club in eastern Germany, to further boost its corporate brand through its burgeoning sports interests.

The energy drinks corporation changed the little club’s name, crest and colours and moved them into Leipzig’s more or less abandoned 44,000 capacity Zentralstadion (built for the 2006 World Cup), which was subsequently renamed the Red Bull Arena.

Seven years on, RB Leipzig – fuelled by Red Bull’s cash – have powered up through Germany’s leagues and are hot on the tail of champions Bayern Munich.

The club’s very existence, however, has caused a furore in the German game, where the role of fans in the running of clubs is considered sacrosanct and where a club and its owners must be separate entities.

To try and ensure this, German football operates the 50+1 rule, which requires that a club and its supporter members must have a controlling stake (51%) so that outside investors cannot take sole control.

Red Bull have been accused of doing their utmost to bend and break this rule – and the club has faced near constant protest from opposition fans, from having a severed bull’s head thrown onto the pitch by Dynamo Dresden supporters, to fan boycotts, to hipster favourite club St Pauli refusing to display the RB Leipzig crest on their website.

It’d be unfair, however, to suggest that everyone in Germany would like to see the Red Bull project fail.

There are many who believe that ownership rules need to be relaxed to allow for the kinds of rich benefactor investment we’ve seen in England.

Stronger German clubs and a more competitive Bundesliga, the logic goes, will lead to bigger TV deals from which all clubs will benefit.

For all the negativity that surrounds the club, and I must say I’m largely on the side of the traditionalists here, there are some positives to the Red Bull revolution.

 

One major plus is that the East German upstarts do at least play with a pleasingly attacking philosophy. Credit for that approach must go to respected sporting director Ralf Rangnick – who played a big role in Hoffenheim’s similar rise several years ago.

Rangnick’s focus on recruiting young talent rather than established stars has been key to the energetic, counter-pressing game that has seen Leipzig compared to Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund.

It was notable that the club’s two biggest summer signings, the young Scot Oliver Burke and the Guinean Naby Keita (dubbed the African Deco) are 19 and 21, respectively.

The €26 million spent on the two nicely underlines Rangnick’s plans to trying to build something sustainable – as does the €22 million the club’s owners have invested in training and youth development facilities.

And the club’s youthful vigour has been paying dividends on the pitch – only one of RB Leipzig’s 20 league goals this season has been scored by a player aged over 25!

Moreover, their 10 game unbeaten run from the start of the season is a record for a newly promoted side.

The 24 points amassed leaves them level on points with leaders Bayern – the first time in six seasons that any side has been level with the champions after 10 rounds of the Bundesliga.

Another positive to the story is that whatever Red Bull’s ultimate motivation, it has brought life back to a part of Germany that had become a football desert.

The club is the first from the old East Germany to play in the Bundesliga since 2009.

And with 40,000 fans regularly attending RB Leipzig’s home games, the club seems to be winning the hearts and minds of success starved fans from across the region.

And there’s one more plus. RB Leipzig’s rise is adding some much needed spice to a league that has become something of a procession in the last four seasons.

Love them or hate them, and let’s face it, most loathe them, their enterprising and attractive football and villainous reputation could help make for a compelling season in Germany.

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