Why the Bundesliga should learn to love RB Leipzig

RB Leipzig
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The Red Bull-owned club were met with ugly protests at Borussia Dortmund but they are finally giving a genuine football city the team it deserves


In fairness to Borussia Dortmund, their response to the violence that overshadowed their 1-0 victory over RB Leipzig was swift.

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The actions of a minority of so-called supporters outside of Signal Iduna Park, where visiting fans were pelted by bottles, stones and other projectiles, were quickly condemned by all connected with the club.

And after the famous Sudtribune had unveiled numerous banners ranging from merely anti-Red Bull to outright vile (the worst made a horrific reference to the illness that had previously forced Leipzig sporting director Ralf Rangnick to step down as coach of Schalke) a few days earlier, a much more positive message was sent before the DFB-Pokal tie against Hertha Berlin. In a video message on the big screen, Marcel Schmelzer described the players as “horrified” by what had happened and the banners this time were dominated by anti-violence mottos.

Borussia Dortmund RB Leipzig

The irony was that the visit of a team regarded as illegitimate by many Dortmund fans - and that feeling goes beyond the hooligan minority, with chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke even branding them a club that plays to sell soft drinks - generated one of the best atmospheres at their home stadium all season, with 8,000 Leipzig followers playing no small part. And when the atmosphere is good Dortmund tend to play well, as evidenced by the 2-2 draw with Real Madrid, the crazy 8-4 victory over Legia Warsaw and the 1-0 win against Bayern Munich this season.

Dortmund won this game, too, courtesy of a Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang goal, but it increasingly looks as if Leipzig are winning the war. They remain eight points ahead of Dortmund going into this weekend’s Bundesliga fixtures, with Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side taking on Borussia Monchengladbach on Sunday after Thomas Tuchel’s men host Wolfsburg the day before.

While they were greeted with hatred in Dortmund, Leipzig’s identification of young players and attractive style of football is earning them more and more admirers both in Germany and abroad. “The conditions in Leipzig are already ripe for the Champions League,” Michael Ballack told Sport Bild recently. “I didn't think it would happen so fast.” As for the protests? “I think that is a debate caused by envy,” Ballack added.

Ralf Rangnick RB Leipzig

As has been well documented, Leipzig are the black sheep of German football because of their ownership by Red Bull and their perceived flouting of the DFL’s 50+1 ownership rule. That regulation dictates that a club’s members must retain a majority of its overall voting rights, but Leipzig have kept power in corporate hands by creating a structure in which their voting membership comprises solely of a small number of Red Bull employees.

But while the 50+1 rule helps to ensure fans are not taken advantage of when it comes to issues such as ticket prices, its downside is that it makes outside investment in clubs more difficult and therefore protects the status of the established powers of German football. This is rarely mentioned - lower-league supporters, after all, are likely hardly to protest that their club cannot be taken over by a corporation - but it is a particularly pertinent problem in what was formerly East Germany.

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Leipzig is Germany’s 10th most populous city today, and regarded as one of its most vibrant and creative. It also has an illustrious football history as the location for the founding of the DFB in 1900 and the home of Germany's first national champions, VFB Leipzig, in 1903. But the heavy bombing it suffered during World War II was compounded by the slower growth and development under the Soviet regime in the East compared to the Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) that was simultaneously occurring in the West, and the football clubs in the former republic have felt the effects. VFB, for example, are now Lokomotive Leipzig and play in the fourth tier.

Ralph Hasenhuttl RB Leipzig

That the ‘miracle’ created the conditions for highly successful, modern football clubs partially as a result of the private investment that came into cities like Dortmund, meanwhile, is apparently lost on the fans now protesting RB Leipzig’s rise.

Leipzig are the only team from what was East Germany to be competing in the Bundesliga this season, and during the 2015-16 campaign there was no representation at all. That is not due to a lack of enthusiasm; Dynamo Dresden, playing in the 2. Bundesliga this season, are averaging crowds of nearly 29,000, while Leipzig welcome 41,000-plus fans previously starved of top-level football to a regularly sold-out Red Bull Arena. Alone, though, the crowds are not enough. Nothing was done within German football to give the region’s clubs the leg up they needed, so it is hardly surprising that a company such as Red Bull saw the potential and stepped in.

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On the pitch, it would be difficult for even their most fervent critics to deny that the project Leipzig have created is an impressive one. Rangnick is one of the sharpest minds in German football and Hasenhuttl masterminded Ingolstadt’s rise from the bottom of the second division to Bundesliga survival before moving to Saxony. They are hardly spending like Roman Abramovich at Chelsea, either; all five of the players they have signed for more than €5 million this season are aged 21 or under, with Guinean midfielder Naby Keita the jewel.

Naby Keita RB Leipzig

If it was not for Leipzig, Bayern’s closest rivals for the championship this year would be Eintracht Frankfurt, who are 14 points adrift of the leaders and survived a relegation play-off last season. Bayern are on course for their fifth title in a row and no one looks close to threatening their dominance any time soon - except Leipzig.

While scattered protests will continue, soon - and it will not be soon enough - scenes like those witnessed in Dortmund earlier this month will be a thing of the past. Leipzig are here to stay, and that they have had to shake up the German football establishment to such an extent to get a seat at the table at the top of the Bundesliga says more about the limitations of the system than anything else.