RB Leipzig: The amazing ascent of Germany’s most hated team

Leipzig's Timo Werner, right. (Martin Meissner/AP)

By Richard Buxton

It was events in Freiburg that prompted Uli Hoeness to finally take note.

“Now we have a new enemy besides Dortmund that we can attack,” Bayern Munich’s president declared to its shareholders last November. That same night, some 300 kilometres west of that meeting at the Audi Dome, their new foe was rapidly advancing.

RB Leipzig’s 4-1 win had not only helped temporarily consolidate their lead atop the Bundesliga to six points but, in Hoeness’s eyes, also upgraded their status from “a dangerous opponent” to the Bavarians into one of its genuine adversaries in just 22 days. Although it was later retracted, that remark reflected RBL’s stratospheric growth.

Last Saturday, Bayern faced the side that had ran them closer than any other team in the German top flight this season and who pose the greatest threat to their sceptre since Borussia Dortmund swept back-to-back Bundesliga titles in 2010-11 and 2011-12. Only a late, second-half comeback, culminating in Arjen Robben’s winning goal deep in stoppage time, restored a sense of the old order. Founded on a policy of vibrant youth and an attractive brand of football, the East German outfit showed again why it has made significant strides since its 2009 inception towards becoming an unprecedented challenger to the country’s most successful club.

“The development of the club, the team and the fans in that period of time have been almost unreal,” Ralph Hasenhuttl, RB Leipzig’s coach, told Sportsnet.

“We knew that with hard work and our emphasis on details we can develop quickly, but that we would be as successful in our first Bundesliga season as we are right now was somewhat surprising to all of us. However, right now we see the bright side of football. There will definitely be times in the future when we struggle and have to go through tougher times.

“But at this moment we do many things right and we are very hungry to write our own history.”

Bayern have their greatest-ever player to thank for the emergence of a club already taking the fight to them within barely a decade of its existence. Originally drawn to Leipzig on the advice of the legendary Franz Beckenbauer, a personal friend, Dietriech Mateschitz began the pathway to the current flagship of Red Bull’s footballing franchise in earnest over a decade ago. The Austrian energy drinks brand already boasted successful teams in Formula 1, as well as European sailing and ice hockey, but football is where it yearned to make its greatest strides.

In 2006, they failed in a proposed takeover of FC Sachsen Leipzig, a financially troubled and later dissolved club playing in the country’s fourth tier, which was vetoed by the German Football Association (DFB). Resistance was forthcoming from the club’s fans also, as well as those elsewhere, when Mateschitz’s focus shifted to clubs in West Germany, with FC St Pauli, 1860 Munich and Fortuna Dusseldorf all turning down approaches in consecutive years.

Eventually, SSV Markranstadt, a fifth-division team in the greater Saxony area, agreed to sell its license, but DFB regulations prevented Red Bull’s branding adorning the Leipzig name. The term RasenBallsport – “lawn ball sport” – helped circumvent the legislation, although commercial hallmarks exist in various forms, notably with aspects of the company’s logo incorporated into the crest alongside its “Red Bulls” nickname.

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Starting in the Oberliga, taking Markranstadt’s place, RBL made tentative strides towards Mateschitz’s aim of reaching the Bundesliga within the next eight years. Promotion in their debut season was followed by a further four in six campaigns. Similarly sizeable progress was seen in their move to the city’s Zentralstadion, which boasts almost eight times the 5,500 capacity of their original Stadion am Bad home. Within 10 months, a 30-year lease of the former 2006 World Cup venue was taken up alongside a naming rights deal to rebrand it the Red Bull Arena.

Although RB Leipzig adhere to the “50+1” ownership model that allows German football supporters to shape their clubs’ direction through official memberships, there is an overriding feeling that RBL are not necessarily assimilated to its ethos, with only 17 registered voting members – many of them either employees of, or affiliated with Red Bull.

“I think there’s a perception that Leipzig have bought their success,” explained Kevin Hatchard, a commentator for the Bundesliga.

“I don’t actually see it that way because I think, certainly, the bulk of the squad that has been so successful [now] was actually already there before this season.

“There’s a lot that fans don’t like; they don’t like the ’50+1′ rule being circumvented, they don’t like the fact that Red Bull use the club for marketing and they don’t like the lack of tradition. German football in general is quite sniffy about clubs that don’t have long traditions and long histories.”

Nick McKenna-Klein, a sports journalist at Deutsche Welle, agrees: “A lot of fans in this country do not like the fact that RB Leipzig are moving away from what is a very German way of running a football team – the ’50+1′ rule.

“You don’t really see it anywhere else any longer; if you look at the UK, for example, with Manchester United being sold to the Glazers and Arsenal being owned by Stan Kroenke.

“Clubs are moving away from the old structure, the old way that clubs used to be run by families and fans, and being bought by rich businessmen. I think fans around the country are worried that Leipzig are changing the footballing landscape but on the other hand there are other teams who are doing exactly the same thing.”

Recent history has shown that a significant number of “Buli” clubs have continued to operate seamlessly hand in hand with big business at their highest levels. Both Wolfsburg’s and Bayer Leverkusen’s respective ownerships are tied to multinational corporations in Volkswagen and Bayer AG; Hoffenheim owe their recent ascent to majority shareholder Dietmar Hopp, the billionaire founder of software firm SAP, as much as their youthful coach Julian Nagelsmann. Bayern’s supervisory board is a corporate dream team with officials from Adidas, Volkswagen, UniCredit and Deutsche Telekom among its representatives. Others, notably Schalke, have well-documented ties with sponsors in directorial roles.

As a club created exclusively through commercialism, however, RB Leipzig remains one that German football traditionalists simply refuse to love. Press coverage has not always been particularly favourable, with some sections of its media echoing rival supporters’ lament. Tabloid newspaper Berliner Kurier, for instance, regularly referred to the club as “Dosenverkauf” – “can sellers” – in its articles.

Goodwill remains in short supply across the terraces, too. At its outset, local opponents used weed killer to burn protest slogans into their Stadion am Bad pitch, and further vandalised Leipzig’s erstwhile venue with paint. Their fast-tracked success still incurs confrontation on a regular basis, with banners declaring “Slaughter the Bulls” a popular mantra at numerous clubs whenever Leipzig are in town. Prolonged periods of in-game silence by fans dressed in black are also not uncommon.

More innovative forms of protest have emerged; Union Berlin’s matchday programme dedicated their usual opposition preview instead to a 700-word essay on the history of bull farming for Leipzig’s 2015 visit. Others have been similarly admonishing, not least in their native East Germany. Fans of Dynamo Dresden, a club with roots in the Cold War era, launched a severed bull’s head during a German Cup first-round win over their near neighbours last August. Six days later, Hoffenheim satirically demanded that RBL returned the status of”’Germany’s most hated club” to them. Cologne’s hardcore supporters took things a step further, a month after, as they forced a delayed kickoff by blockading the road outside the RheinEnergieStadion to their visitors’ approaching team bus.

Borussia Dortmund have been the most vociferous opposition. Fans of Thomas Tuchel’s side voted with their feet in their first away game of the season by boycotting the trip to Leipzig, where their hosts record a first-ever Bundesliga win. The club itself refused to grant their hosts the license to use their emblem for a commemorative “half and half” match day scarf.

But it was February’s corresponding fixture at Signal Iduna Park which proved a watershed moment in the new-found feud. One of the cleaner banners from hundreds unfurled by the Südtribune, famous for its 25,000-strong “Yellow Wall,” declared Dortmund as a club “against those who ruin” football – an antithesis to the RBL operation. Outside the stadium, an uglier flipside emerged as four local police officers and a police dog were injured when bottles and stones rained down on visiting supporters, including children.

“You see that from all kinds of football fans but what really got me that day was the fact that they were hurling the abuse at families with young kids,” said McKenna-Klein, who was at the game.

“I spoke to a couple of families at the time and some of them were as young as five, six. It was their first football game and they were absolutely petrified.

“That has a lot to do with the fact that Leipzig as a club is hated by all of the teams in the league, which is interesting because Dortmund is on the Stock Market so it’s not even a team which doesn’t have some sort of financial backing – it just has more history.

“What fans in this country hate about Leipzig is the fact that it’s eight years old, has no history and is already in the top division.”

Hasenhuttl, no stranger to the Bundesliga as both a player and now in management, takes a more considered outlook to the hostilities his side have frequently encountered.

“In my opinion, the whole topic is made bigger by the media than it really is,” he insisted.

“In Germany, no away team is applauded by the home fans – and if you look at statistics in that respect, you will notice that RB Leipzig is not more confronted with that than all other clubs.But when we are involved it seems there is more attention to it than with other teams in the league.

“In general, we concentrate only on our game and we try to present our fans exciting football. Moreover, recent polls in Germany show that RB Leipzig is accepted among the general football fans. Only very small groups, like the so called ‘ultras’, take a negative stance, but these are minorities.”

For their part, Leipzig have begun to embrace aspects of their infamy – a T-shirt on sale in their official store declares that they “don’t care” and are “heroes of a new era” – but amid the hatred and accusations of artificiality, the club has still managed to demonstrate tangible signs of conscience. In 2015, they donated €50,000 to the city’s local authority in efforts to help with the country’s emerging migrant crisis. A further 60 containers, worth around half a million euros, from its multi-million training facility were also sold to provide accommodation for asylum seekers. They also registered as a patron of the “Willkommen im Fussball” project, which allows refugee children to participate in football.

Another gesture of goodwill saw the club’s staff and players donate equipment and clothes to the initiative which was driven by Ralf Rangnick, whose involvement stemmed from a personal connection due to his parents meeting in a refugee camp in Glachau during the Second World War. The 58-year-old’s appointment as Red Bull sporting director in 2012, also encompassing its Salzburg and New York teams, has been pivotal to Leipzig’s momentum. With spells in charge at Stuttgart, Hannover 96, Schalke and Hoffenheim, Rangnick was also well placed to step into the hot seat to guide the club to Bundesliga promotion last season when the search for a manager returned fruitless.

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“He’s the one who dictates what happens and he’s the one who’s going to make sure that the team is successful,” McKenna-Klein said.

“That’s got a lot to do with his mentality, how he sees the Leipzig project and how it’s supposed to be run. Don’t forget he was also in charge at Hoffenheim when they first came up to the Bundesliga and did exactly the same thing.

“He managed to build up a no-name team that were promoted from the fourth or fifth division at the time to the Bundesliga so he was part of that project. He’s a micro-manager; he has a very good idea what he wants to do and what he needs to be successful and he’s the one who will keep Leipzig successful.”

Evidence of Rangnick’s ideology remain self-evident despite his return to the boardroom; his greatest protégé to date lined up against Leipzig last weekend. Joshua Kimmich started out with RBL before becoming a Germany international and Philipp Lahm’s heir apparent at Bayern. Since then, an aggressive transfer policy that profiles largely untapped potential rather than established names has dovetailed with a fervent pressing game which has seen its players dominate the goal scoring charts both at home and further afield.

Timo Werner, poached from a relegated Stuttgart last summer, is on course to finish the season as the most prolific under-21 player among Europe’s top five league as well as the highest scorer of the Bundesliga’s home-grown player with a current tally of 21, thanks to a brace against Bayern. That has been supplemented by Emil Forsberg leading the way with 17 assists in a contest which has only Manchester City’s Kevin de Bruyne currently trailing him. Naby Keita is another who has attracted admiring glances from the continent’s leading clubs since his 2016 arrival from Leipzig’s current feeder club Red Bull Salzburg.

The supporting cast is equally impressive; winger Youssuf Poulsen has become an established Denmark international since joining Leipzig while Lukas Klostermann and Davie Selke both won silver medals with Germany at last summer’s Olympics in Rio. Oliver Burke’s left-field move from Nottingham Forest in the English Championship stemmed from Rangnick viewing a video compilation made of the 20-year-old by club analysts, and Dayot Upamecano, an 18-year-old defender, is expected to make the step up to the France senior squad in the coming years.

“I think that this is our big advantage over all the other clubs,” admitted midfielder Bernardo.

“We have young players and they didn’t reach their top form [yet] so that’s why I think that in some years we can be a really big team. We have a lot of players that are under 21 with a lot of potential.

“This is a really interesting team and a way to think about it because we are a young team and didn’t reach our top level [yet]. That’s why I think this club can challenge the big clubs in a couple of years.”

Challenging itself poses its own obstacles. Within the club, there is growing confidence that they will not fall afoul of UEFA legislation ahead of a maiden Champions League campaign although it is by no means guaranteed. European football’s governing body stipulates that teams of dual ownership in the same competition must be reduced by their respective league positions. With Salzburg crowned Austrian champions again, that would threaten to see RBL recording a record-high points tally for newly-promoted teams in the Bundesliga count for precious little. Participation in the continent’s elite club competition will provide different roadblocks with a once-weekly fixture list leaving less recovery and preparation time for a tender squad.

“I don’t think this season is just going to be one of those seasons where you go through with great success and then suddenly it will be all gone,” stated Peter Gulacsi, the club’s goalkeeper.

“It’s a well-structured club with great ambitions for the coming years so I really see RB Leipzig playing always for European places and for Champions League qualification as a goal for [each] season and we can establish ourselves in the top half of the table.That’s our ambition, our goal for the coming years and this can bring the other Eastern clubs with us.

“You can already see that Dynamo Dresden in the second [division] are sitting fifth in the table and also as a promoted team so Eastern football is getting stronger and stronger again. I think it’s a great thing for Germany. It will bring more competition and hopefully we can be the flagship for this revolution.”

Only five teams have managed to disrupt Bayern’s dominance of the Bundesliga over the past two decades. The country’s former Soviet heartland entered a wilderness period within barely a fortnight of Leipzig’s founding, back in 2009. FC Energie Cottbus, where the country’s Chancellor Angela Merkel is listed as an honorary member, would be the last to bow out just 12 days after the club was formally registered.

In that historic aspect, Leipzig as a city is defined by far more than the potential stigma attached to its status in Mateschitz’s sporting portfolio. The Monday Demonstrations, a peaceful protest movement which helped accelerate the downfall of the former German Democratic Republic, were founded in the city while it also first published Ferdinand Tönnies’ ground-breaking book “Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft,” which charts the dichotomous relationship between traditional communities and large-scale, industrial society – somewhat ironic given the rise of its newest club. As the birthplace of the DFB and home to its inaugural Bundesliga champions, in 1903, its role in helping German football thrive during its formative years also cannot be ignored in RBL’s success story.

“I think you could already feel it last season, as the promotion got every week closer to us, that the city is really hungry for Bundesliga football [again],” said Gulacsi, who progressed to Leipzig from Red Bull Salzburg following a career which began at Liverpool.

“That started this season and it got bigger and bigger. You can see it in the city when you walk through the streets that young children wearing [Leipzig] scarves and shirts. It’s just become a real football city and on a Saturday or Sunday, whenever we played, the city just stops and it’s all about football.

“I think the whole season, the club gave a great reason for the people just to come together and be proud again to be a Leipziger. Generally I think we have a very family-orientated and really good atmosphere in the stadium. It’s a great opportunity for the people to come and support the club. There is no pressure, there is no real problem in our stadium and that’s just the way it is.

“It makes the whole city proud and you can see when achieve something, in the coming weeks, the people are going round with a smile on their faces. People who have never followed football are trying to start and get involved because it’s a big topic in the city and this is another push for us; another reason to try to be successful.”

For some, RB Leipzig’s accelerated prosperity carries a sickly-sweet aftertaste not too dissimilar to its parent company’s bespoke product. Unpopular yet unbowed, there can be no dispute that the red star rising in the East is already becoming a force of reckoning.