RB Leipzig's Controversial Rise and What It Really Means to Be a Club

RB Leipzig's mere existence and origin story have been fodder for criticism and angst, and as the club challenges for a Bundesliga title, its meteoric rise sparks some important questions.
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LEIPZIG, Germany – About three miles southeast of the center of Leipzig stands the Volkerschlachtdenkmal, a 300-foot high monument commemorating the defeat of Napoleon by a coalition of European powers in 1813. It is a deeply eerie place, in part because of the knowledge that 127,000 soldiers died there and in part because of its awesome scale, which itself hints at two other details: it was constructed in a spirit of nationalistic German militarism on the eve of the First World War, and it was so beloved by Hitler that he held a number of key meetings within its granite walls. But walk another 20 minutes south, past the graveyard, and you come to another monument to the past, subtler and less bombastic, and all the more affecting in its way for still being in use.

When it opened in 1922, the Bruno-Plache-Stadion was the largest owned stadium by a club in Germany, with a capacity of more than 40,000. These days, although it could theoretically hold 15,600, das Bruno has a safety certificate for just 7,000. It is reached down a quiet suburban road that passes through a handful of ramshackle houses that peter out to leave on one side allotments and on the other waste land that is heaped with junk. In front of the gate is a large muddy puddle several inches deep and on the lintel has been daubed the slogan, “Lang leben die Ultras.”

Long live the ultras.

The Bruno-Plache-Stadion in Leipzig

Apart from the ultras – and a wooden stand that is one of the oldest still in use in Europe – there isn’t much left at Lokomotive Leipzig. It won the German national championship three times before the First World War, was three times runner-up in the East German Oberliga and won the East German Cup four times. In 1987, Lok reached the final of the Cup-Winners Cup, only to lose in the final to an Ajax side managed by Johan Cruyff and featuring the young Marco van Basten, Dennis Bergkamp and Frank Rijkaard.

Lok wasn’t even the most successful Leipzig club in the days before German reunification in 1990, at least in league terms. Chemie Leipzig is based in the northeastern suburb of Leutzsch and twice won the Oberliga. Both clubs were once capable of attracting crowds of over 100,000 when matches were played at the Zentralstadion, both clubs suffered severe economic difficulties after reunification and the withdrawal of state support, both saw crowds dwindle, both went into liquidation and both were resurrected by supporters groups.

The Zentralstadion was closed in 1994, although it still exists in a fashion, its shell surrounding the Red Bull Arena. That's where Rasen Ballsport Leipzig now plays, a palimpsest offering a perfect image of how one history is built over the top of another. RB Leipzig was only founded in 2009, but until last week it stood atop the Bundesliga. It will reclaim the top spot on Sunday if it beats the leader and perennial champion, Bayern Munich. The following week RB Leipzig will play Tottenham in its first Champions League knockout game. Lok and Chemie, meanwhile, struggle along in the Regionalliga Nordost, the amateur fourth tier of German football.

Chemie wears the green and white of the state of Saxony. 

Lok wears the blue and yellow of the city of Leipzig. 

RB wears the red and white of Austrian energy drink Red Bull.

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RB Leipzig fans raise their scarves at Red Bull Arena

Red Bull had already taken over Salzburg when it began looking to expand into Germany. It initially approached Chemie, but the club refused to be bought and so Red Bull took over the playing license of the local fifth-tier side SSV Makranstädt. The club's rise since has been remarkable, but it has also raised serious questions about what a club is and what it should be.

Germany operates the “50+1” rule, which, as a measure to prevent the sort of takeovers common in the Premier League, states that members must hold a majority of voting rights within a club. Only when an investor has been involved with a club for more than 20 years can it seek an exemption, such as those at Leverkusen and Wolfsburg, clubs that grew from what were essentially the works sides of the Bayer pharmaceuticals company and Volkswagen. 

RB Leipzig (Rasen Ballsport–ball sport played on grass–is a naked means of circumventing legislation against clubs being named after corporations) obeys the letter of that regulation but not the spirit: it has just 17 members, the majority of whom are Red Bull executives or employees. The result has been regular boycotts and protests staged by other German clubs as Leipzig rose through the divisions.

Bayern Munich fans criticize the existence of RB Leipzig

And to an extent that is both understandable and laudable. There is something attractive about the German notion of a club as, well, a club: a group of members who represent a particular area. But it is a notion that runs into certain practical problems. First of all, it has left one giant, Bayern, that dwarfs all others. Bayern’s revenue is double than that of the next wealthiest club, Borussia Dortmund, and with the capacity of clubs to attract outside investment limited, it becomes essentially unchallengeable.

But more pertinent is the issue of the East, as what had been state-run bodies suddenly had to adapt to new rules. Every eastern club failed in the years after reunification. Many became rallying points for extreme politics. Lokomotive became a club of the far-right. At one game their ultras unveiled a banner that read, “We are Lokists, murderers and fascists.” Little wonder many of the fans who hadn’t already drifted away stopped going.

Both Chemie and Lok have since made concerted efforts to expel the extremists, but problems remain. Besides which, the damage was done. Once the link between traditional fans and club had been broken, it was never going to be easily repaired, not with Red Bull offering a safe, sanitized experience on the doorstep and playing great football. As numerous fans point out, it’s not as though either Lok or Chemie are traditional clubs anyway. Both were created by the Communist state, Chemie in 1963 and Lok in 1966, from the foundations of other clubs or former iterations. 

Legally, after a technical merger with the long-dead club in 2018, Lok is the successor to VfB Leipzig, which won the first national German championship in 1903, but the actual VfB was dissolved in the aftermath of the Second World War. One entity is written over another as each age yields to the next. Red Bull is simply the incarnation for football’s hyper-capitalist present.

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RB Leipzig is challenging for the Bundesliga title

This Leipzig is slick and good to watch. Julian Nagelsmann, the coach, is, at 32, regarded as one of the most promising coaches in Europe, a hard-presser of the modern German school. His predecessor was Ralf Rangnick, who helped establish that school at a time when pressing was deeply unfashionable in Germany in the 1990s. Rangnick is now head of sport and development at Red Bull, and he has set out clear principles to establish a Red Bull style for all five of the company’s teams: Leipzig, Salzburg, New York Red Bulls, Austrian second-division side Liefering and Brazilian side Red Bull Bragantino.

It can be summed up in three points, as Rangnick explained: “One, add maximum possibility to the team and act, don’t react. So you need to dictate the game with and without the ball, not through individuals. Two, use numerical superiority and let the ball run directly whenever possible, with no unnecessary individual action and with no fouls. Three, use transitions, switch quickly. Try to win back the ball within five seconds with aggressive pressing. After winning the ball back, play quickly straight away, play direct and vertically towards the opponent’s goal, surprise the disorganized opponent to get into the penalty area and shoot within ten seconds of winning the ball back.” 

That represents a brisk summation of modern football, and one of the reasons Leipzig’s forthcoming series against Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham feels like a meeting of the present and the past.

Yet Rangnick has certain traditional values. Leipzig has started poorly after the winter break, losing to Eintracht Frankfurt in both the league and cup, and scraping a 2-2 draw at home to Borussia Monchengladbach after being 2-0 down at halftime. Nagelsmann was publicly critical of his players from a tactical point of view, then Rangnick laid into them for having flown in a celebrity hairdresser at great expense.

Fans seem broadly to be on Rangnick’s side. Fan after fan spoke of how Red Bull’s investment is necessary for a city of Leipzig’s stature (it has a population of 600,000) to compete, and there seems to be an expectation that in time the club will slip away again, but they also made the familiar arguments about players earning far too much and becoming detached from reality.

All of which really is testament to how far RB Leipzig has come in the last decade. It’s hard to imagine there’s ever been much call for celebrity hairdressers at das Bruno.