Sell out, don't sell out, sell out, don't sell out..........
Leipzig known as the Heldenstadt, the city of heroes. A place where citizens made a significant contribution to the fall of the Iron Curtain and the reunification of Germany. This was the 1989 “peaceful revolution”, when visitors to Monday evening prayers at the Nikolaikirche demonstrated against the communist regime and defied the orders of the regime. Since reunification, the city, largely spared from Allied bombing campaign which decimated nearby Dresden, has enjoyed something of a renaissance – taking back its cultural and musical significance in the Bundesrepublik.
In contrast to the city's rapid progression in social and structural terms, recent footballing history has been nothing to shout about at all. The story is similar almost everywhere in the former East Germany. For Lokomotive Leipzig, one-time UEFA Cup finalists and perennial European banana skins, the transfer into a unified German league was difficult and, after one sole season in the top flight, the club went bankrupt in the early 2000s. In their place, a new team was formed and made their way up from the thirteenth tier to the fifth. Things are worse at city rivals Sachsen Leipzig. After two decades flitting between the third, fourth and fifth tiers, they also went bankrupt at the end of last season.
Against this backdrop of underinvestment, financial mismanagement and problems with hooliganism (Lokomotive Leipzig have the most Kategorie C hooligans – classed as football supporters with an extreme likelihood to cause violence – in the entire country), a new kid has appeared on the block: the Austrian energy drink manufacturer Red Bull. In 2009, the Austrian company took over a team called SSV Makranstädt based just outside of Leipzig, renaming it RasenBallsport Leipzig, or RB Leipzig.
Red Bull's objectives were clear: Bundesliga football in eight years. As Die Welt put it, Leipzig had been “woken from its footballing dormancy”. The foundations are definitely in place; Leipzig has potential. It's a city of half a million people, somewhere between Glasgow and Liverpool, and already has a ready-made 45,000-seater stadium built for the 2006 World Cup. Red Bull executives claimed that “the whole of eastern Germany would be behind a Bundesliga RB Leipzig side”. It would be naïve to think that RB had not reckoned with any opposition, especially as a previous attempt to take over the aforementioned Sachsen Leipzig had failed in 2008 because of the level of opposition. Sure enough, as soon as the plans were announced, fan groups and ultra groups from around the country (including those from Borussia Dortmund and Eintracht Frankfurt) publicly registered their displeasure. They believe that commerce has no place in football and that the sport belongs to us, the fans. But what about the people of Leipzig itself? Would the club be accepted amongst the traditional clubs of Lokomotive and Sachsen?
The Leipziger Volkszeitung carried out a survey asking people whether they thought Red Bull's investment was positive or negative and, surprisingly, around 75% of those asked welcomed it. It seemed that people had grown weary of the constant problems with hooliganism which are part and parcel of the game here, along with the questionable political views of some supporters. Many English visitors who come to watch football here have the same opinion: it's like the 1980s in Britain. In this respect, the views of supporters of RB Leipzig are understandable, but what about the rich tradition of the two traditional Leipzig clubs? The famous European nights in the 1980s? BSG Chemie Leipzig's famous Oberliga title in 1964 as complete underdogs?
This overall acceptance of the RB Leipzig project can be traced back to what are, in my opinion, three distinct types of football fan in Germany: ultras, 'regular' traditional football supporters and what are known in German as “Arena-Fans”. It is the latter which have particularly embraced RB Leipzig. These fans watch the Bundesliga simulcast week after week and typically support teams such as Dortmund, Bayern or Schalke. They want to see a good level of football in comfortable surroundings without any hint of trouble: a world apart from what many other football fans consider a true footballing experience. And it is exactly this that is served up at RB Leipzig. Indeed, their attendances have provided indisputable proof of the team's popularity. Despite the relatively poor fare on offer in the Regionalliga Nord, facing such sides as Eintracht Braunschweig's reserve team and TSV Havelse, attendances at the Zentralstadion have been relatively good. RB regularly attracted between 3,000 and 7,000, with 2010/11 season highs of 11,000 and 13,000 against Chemnitzer FC and 1. FC Magdeburg respectively, although these numbers were certainly boosted by the amount of travelling support.
It remains to be seen if RB Leipzig can attract more and more fans as they progress up the leagues. Indeed, it seems that RB Leipzig fans want success as soon as possible, and any sign of failure is immediately criticised. Last season, to the delight of most traditional fans in the east of Germany, RB Leipzig were beaten to the Regionalliga Nord title, and promotion to the nation-wide 3.Liga, by the considerably less-well-off Chemnitzer FC. A catastrophic 1:5 home defeat at the hands of Holstein Kiel was greeted with boos from the fans, and this result was probably the one which cost manager Tomas Oral his job. The RB Leipzig board have seemingly decided that one faltering season is enough, and proceeded in appointing former Rapid Wien manager Peter Pacult at the helm for the upcoming season. There was even brief talk of Felix Magath taking over; such is the financial clout of the club.
Opposition to the project has not yielded, in fact, if anything, it has become more and more vocal. Following serious trouble at RB Leipzig's first ever league game, away at Carl-Zeiss Jena's reserve side in August 2009, where the RB Leipzig players had to flee the pitch straight onto the coach for fear of being attacked in the dressing rooms, all RB Leipzig games were categorised as “Sicherheitsspiele” (the equivalent of category A games in the UK) by the German police. RB fans also regularly require protection when travelling to and from games.
There are two distinct argument purported by fans in Germany. The first of these is that Red Bull can do what they like, as long as it has no repercussions on my club or how I support my team, much like AFC Wimbledon's view of MK Dons. There is no true 'hatred', rather simply an attitude of non-acceptance. They are simply not acknowledged. Last season, 1.FC Union Berlin arranged a friendly match with RB Leipzig in the winter break but, such was the opposition from the fans, the match was cancelled and the chief executive had to make a grovelling apology. The fans view was that RB Leipzig is simply not a club in the same way Union Berlin is, and therefore should only be acknowledged if it has to be – such as in the event of a league or cup meeting between the two.
The other view represents more direct opposition to the club. It applies perhaps more to those who have suffered directly as a result of the investment, in other words supporters of other teams in Leipzig who will have to compete with RB Leipzig support in the future. These fans are vehemently against the involvement of commerce in football. They believe that the only purpose of the club is to sell more cans of energy drinks, and that it doesn't have anything to do with real football. This argument is even more apparent in Germany than in the UK, as more value is placed on tradition and history here than in, for example, England.
It remains to be seen how quickly RB Leipzig will make it to the promised land, and whether Red Bull will see their sponsorship through to the end. After all, despite recent success in Formula 1, Red Bull sport projects have, to a large extent, been a failure, most notably Red Bull Salzburg's consistent failure to reach the holy grail – the Champions League Group Stage. The Regionalliga Nord is a tough league to get out of and it will become even tougher once the Regionalligas are reorganised before the start of the 2012/13 season (there will no longer be any direct promotion, rather a playoff round with the other 6 Regionalliga champions). If RB Leipzig stutter again this season, patience may well start to wear thin. Promotion is a must.
You can read more from David at his excellent blog.