Fairy tales in football are usually met with adoration from football fans from all over the world. Leicester winning the Premier League just seven years after winning League One was perhaps the greatest upset in Premier League history, given their relatively small budget when compared to the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea. In Germany another team, Red Bull Leipzig, has rapidly climbed the divisions and become a surprise contender for the title. Unlike Leicester, RB Leipzig’s rapid ascent has been met with anguish in Germany. To understand why, it is necessary to dive into the club’s relatively brief history to understand their unique ownership structure and club culture.
Red Bull Leipzig was founded when fifth-division club SSV Markranstädt, based in Saxony, was taken over by Austrian energy drink manufacturer Red Bull in 2009. The company bought the club’s licence, changed its name, crest and kit, and promised a transfer budget of around €100 million.
Red Bull Leipzig gained much notoriety as they were accused of disregarding German football’s “50+1” rule, which is the idea that fans and members hold the controlling stake in clubs. Although they technically signed up to the convention, RB Leipzig’s membership costs are astronomical. A non-voting membership card is €800, more than ten times what it costs at Bayern Munich. While Ruhr heavyweights Dortmund and Schalke each have more than 140,000 voting members, RB Leipzig has only 17, most of whom are employees of Red Bull.
With this enormous financial backing from Red Bull, RB Leipzig would go on to rapidly climb the German football leagues. They gained promotion to the 2. Bundesliga in 2014 and were subsequently required by the German Football League (DFL) to redesign its crest in order to gain a license as it looked too similar to the corporate logo of Red Bull. The DFL also stated that the club had to change the structure of its organisational bodies and it had to lower the membership fees.
Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz was vociferously opposed to these requirements in the media. He called them a “decapitation request” and was firmly opposed to another season in the 3. Liga. The owner threatened to end his project in Leipzig if the license was not given. After two appeals and much debate within the German football community, a compromise was reached between the DFB and RB Leipzig. This settlement termed that the club had to redesign its crest and ensure that club management was independent of Red Bull. German football fans outside of Saxony were outraged, as they felt that the corporate influence of Red Bull allowed for the club to circumvent the rules.
Despite this controversy, RB Leipzig experienced more success on the pitch after a busy summer transfer window. The club spent around 12 million Euros on new players during the summer of 2014 as they spent more than half of all clubs in the first division. After a strong fifth-place finish at the end of the 2014-2015 season, the club would continue to heavily invest in new players. The signing of Davie Selke from Werder Bremen for €8 million made him the most expensive player ever in the history of the 2. Bundesliga. RB Leipzig ended up spending €18.6 million on new players during the summer of 2015, more than all other clubs in the 2. Bundesliga put together. As a result of this investment, the club would go on to finish runners-up in the 2015-2016 season and gain promotion to the Bundesliga.
RB Leipzig has been an unqualified success so far this season. At the time of writing, they sit in 3rd place and are unbeaten. They are the first newcomers in one of Europe’s top-five leagues to remain unbeaten in their 1st 7 matches since Millwall in 1988/89. Much of this success is down to the club’s €100 million transfer budget. They spent shrewdly during the summer, primarily on younger players. 19-year-old Scottish sensation Oliver Burke was snapped up on a €15m deal from Nottingham Forest, along with the mercurial Timo Werner.
With this youthful approach, the club has been able to deploy an attractive, passing brand of football on attack and a high-press system on defence. This approach has worked wonders for RB Leipzig, as they have become a very difficult team to play. While some credit has to go to manager Ralph Hasenhüttl, sporting director Ralf Rangnick also deserves much of the praise. Having previously led provincial Hoffenheim into the Bundesliga as a manager and serving as manager for Leipzig last year, Rangnick has been instrumental in this season’s success. He is the brainchild behind the club’s shrewd transfer dealings and their effective style of play. In an interview with 11Freunde magazine, he outlined his vision. “It is all about giving young, talented sportsmen the chance to develop. Fans come to the stadium because they want to follow a club and watch good football.”
Red Bull Leipzig has gained increasing levels of support as they have climbed the divisions. In 2009-2010 they averaged 2,150 supporters at home. So far this season they have averaged 40,279 in the swanky Red Bull Arena. As the only Bundesliga team in the former Eastern Germany and the first since Energie Cottbus’ relegation in 2009, Leipzig has a relatively large catchment area that will only increase as the club continues to be successful.
Leipzig has faced serious criticism from many quarters since their founding in 2009. Many in Germany are opposed to the manner in which they treat members and make it nearly impossible for new voting members to join. They argue that RB Leipzig’s close alliance with such a large corporation and lack of history distances themselves from the community and has enabled them to cheat the system. Opposition fans have made their feelings clear when they have played RB Leipzig. Last season, supporters of Dynamo Dresden threw a severed bull’s head onto the side of the pitch. RB Leipzig’s game with Cologne had to kick off 15 minutes late after Cologne supporters blocked the arrival of RB Leipzig’s team coach.
Despite this seemingly overwhelmingly negative presentation of RB Leipzig, the club does have its merits. They play the way most like to see football played, with fast, passing football combined by a dynamic pressing style. The club invests heavily in youth both through its transfer dealings and youth academy. RB Leipzig has spent more than €65 million on its training centre and a boarding school with rooms for 50 student-players, making it larger than any other such setup in the Bundesliga. The youth academy was awarded the highest rating and the title “Excellent” by the German Football Association (DFB) in 2015, placing it among the highest rated youth academies in Germany. Off the pitch, RB Leipzig behaved admirably during the refugee crisis in 2015. The club sold 60 containers from its training centre to the city to serve as emergency accommodation for asylum seekers. Staff and players also collected and donated sporting equipment and clothes to refugees during this difficult time.
Whether or not you approve of RB Leipzig’s approach to football, one thing is certain: they have made big waves in German football in their short history.