Protests & Progress: The Continued Rise of RB Leipzig
In September 2014, I wrote a blog about how RB Leipzig were sending shockwaves through German football as they reached the 2. Bundesliga. The team have since continued with their rapid rise, climbing into second place in the Bundesliga, only behind Bayern Munich on goal difference. Yet their ascent of German football has brought negative attention for both the club and the business model, highlighted by their recent number 1 ranking on a list of the most unlikeable professional clubs in Germany. Much of the animosity stems from the current culture and structure of German football, where fans are members and no one owner can dictate the future of a club. The Red Bull ownership model has challenged this tradition, allowing the Austrian energy drinks company to fund their rise to the top tier of German football. Opposition fans have found a variety of methods to display their resentment, including Union Berlin fans dressing in black, Dortmund fans boycotting the match, and Dynamo Dresden fans going even further, throwing a severed bull’s head from the stands. Much of the anger directed their way can be put down to their nouveau riche status and the particularly rapid ascent of the club. However, even their own stablemate, Red Bull Salzburg, has started to feel the effects of Leipzig’s success, as players, coaches and even kit have swapped Salzburg for Leipzig, whilst future investment is may also be directed into East Germany.

Out of the controversy, there have been glimmers of positivity towards the club, likely due to the emergence of a club from the former East Germany to rival the likes of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. In fact, they are the first East German club to reach the Bundesliga since 2009 and there is hope that their ascent will, in due course, lead to the development of more East German players – Toni Kroos was the only member of ‘Die Mannschaft’ in 2014 that won the World Cup.

The club has won plenty of admirers amongst footballing purists, as they play an exciting, swashbuckling brand of football, with the introduction of plenty of young, homegrown talent – the club have a policy of only signing players under the age of 24. The club has national team players at every age level and investment in their academy is aimed at creating a sustainable platform so that outward investment in players is minimal. Their progress has been overseen by Ralf Rangnick, who is respected throughout German football and has been previously touted for the England job.

Off the pitch, they are starting to gain respect too, with a number of independent fan groups including Rasenballisten - who are trying to create an identity with loyal, passionate support: “The Rasenballisten stand for football, Leipzig and fan culture, not for sponsors!” Beyond the fan groups, the club received a lot of credit for its support during the 2015 refugee crisis, supplying 60 containers from its training centre as emergency accommodation, a donation of €50,000, with the players even donating clothing to the cause. The success of the team has also led to an improved economic outlook for the city and local area, with €35m invested into the RB Leipzig academy facilities, a regularly sold out sports venue and thousands of jobs created within the local community. The Leipzig Chamber of Industry and Commerce estimated that, in 2014, the club generated €50m for the city and surrounding areas, a figure that will now surely rise following their promotion to the top division.

The controversy remains however, and it’s a journey that has caused a good deal of reflection within football communities in Germany. One self-proclaimed ‘football philosopher’, Wolfram Eilenberger, has argued that fans are venting their frustrations over their own club’s failures: “He who hates Red Bull (Leipzig) hates himself”. There will be many neutrals who would like to see Bayern’s dominance dismantled and it is interesting to see Bayern President-in-waiting Uli Hoeness state that “if it works, it is good for all football, not just for the East”. Whilst not all are enamoured by RB Leipzig’s success, there is much to admire about the progress of the club. Red Bull’s support of football clubs in Austria (est. 2005), Brazil (2007), Germany (2009), Ghana (2008) and USA (2006) points to solidarity and continued investment, which is not to be taken for granted...and something which many football fans would welcome at their club.

Whichever side of the divide you stand, it seems likely that given the financial support and sustainable model overseen by Rangnick, RB Leipzig will be a regular name in the Bundesliga for years to come.