A new name is making waves in Germany’s top flight, but as Kevin Hatchard explains, the rise of RB Leipzig is a divisive and complex phenomenon.
As the clock ticked into the 89th minute, RB Leipzig’s record signing Oliver Burke looked up, and saw space to drive into. The tackle the former Nottingham Forest whiz-kid no doubt expected to come in never materialised, so he kept gliding into the penalty area. Borussia Dortmund continued to back off, so the Scottish teenager looked up and delivered an inch-perfect cross for Naby Keita. 21-year-old Keita, a £12.75 million signing from Red Bull Salzburg, smashed the ball into the roof of the net, and took the roof off the Red Bull Arena. History had been made, with Leipzig’s first home goal in the top flight yielding their first ever win in the Bundesliga. To put the icing on the cake, the three points were collected against mighty Borussia Dortmund, the team most of Germany thinks and hopes can challenge Bayern Munich for the title.
The goal underlines what RB Leipzig are trying to do, in that a 19-year-old created a chance for a 21-year-old. Both Burke and Keita came at a hefty price – Leipzig are a club in a hurry to grow, and simply haven’t had time to develop youngsters of their own. Their squad is packed with potential – 20-year-old Timo Werner and 21-year-old Davie Selke are both strikers who could become regulars in the Germany squad in the next few seasons, highly-rated centre-back Lukas Klostermann is just 20, and influential Swedish midfielder Emil Forsberg is only 24.
Under likeable, passionate coach Ralph Hasenhuttl, RBL are playing enterprising football. Against both Hoffenheim and Dortmund, they have played on the front foot, happy to go toe-to-toe with their opponents. They are giving young players a chance at the highest level of domestic German football, and they are representing the old East Germany, which hasn’t been done by a top-flight side since Energie Cottbus were relegated from the Bundesliga in 2009.
Under normal circumstances, RB Leipzig would be fast becoming many fans’ second-favourite team, a club to be revered. However, Leipzig are no ordinary club, especially in the fan-orientated domain of German football. Immense pride is derived from how German clubs are run, and how fans are treated, and RB Leipzig are seen as a threat.
Rasenballsport Leipzig are the culmination of energy-drink company Red Bull’s efforts to grow their network of top-flight football clubs. The company looked at clubs in Munich, Hamburg and Dusseldorf, but more often than not they were stymied by the furious protests of supporters who didn’t want to see their clubs taken over. They eventually settled on Leipzig, and approached fifth-tier side SSV Markranstadt, who sold Red Bull their place in the Oberliga in 2009. Seven years and four promotions later, RBL are in the top flight.
Traditionalists see RB Leipzig as a threat to German football’s status quo. The “50+1” rule prevents companies from simply buying clubs lock, stock and barrel. Before 1998, clubs were run by members’ associations. A rule change means clubs have been converted to limited companies, but the system is still geared towards the idea that club members retain the majority of shares and thus the lion’s share of control. Fans can shape ticketing policy, and have a big say in who gets the top jobs at their club.
RB Leipzig’s membership fees are eye-wateringly expensive, the club can reject membership requests, and Red Bull employees feature heavily on the list of members. This is seen by many as a dangerous circumvention of the rules, and because the people of Leipzig are by and large just delighted to have a top-flight club again, the protests have come from elsewhere.
Leipzig have had their team bus attacked on several occasions, nails and screws were scattered on the pitch before a friendly with FC Frankfurt, and a bull’s head was thrown onto the pitch at a recent cup defeat to east German rivals Dynamo Dresden. Several Borussia Dortmund fans’ groups boycotted the weekend’s game, and similar protests are expected throughout the campaign.
With huge resources at their disposal, RB Leipzig are in the Bundesliga to stay. If they continue to develop young talent, and eventually challenge for the title, there are arguable positives to be drawn from their rise. All the while, they will be held up as a symbol of all that threatens German football, a portent of doom for clubs run by fans, for fans.
RB Leipzig – no-one likes them, they don’t care.