A threat to German football? Or a threat to West German footballing dominance? Milo Constable offers a new angle on the club fans love to hate.

The fixtures between RB Leipzig and Borussia Dortmund last season inaugurated a new rivalry in German football. Things began badly when Dortmund’s management refused to sanction a half-half ‘friendship’ scarf intended to mark the clubs’ first Bundesliga meeting in the Saxon capital. Relations only worsened in the return fixture. Dortmund fans in the die gelbe Mauer displayed several banners insulting RBL, including one that read “Bullen schlachten!” (slaughter the bulls!). Some fans took this injunction literally, attacking the visiting Leipzig supporters outside the stadium.

But why all this hate? In the virulently anti-commercial environment of German football, Leipzig are corporate interlopers. They are owned by the major multinational energy drink company Red Bull.  Worse still, the club shows apparent contempt for German football’s most sacred principle: the 50+1 rule. This much-vaunted tenet of German footballing regulation stipulates that the fans’ associations must own at least 50% plus one share of the football company. The rule is designed to ensure that supporters have a voice in how their club is run.

Leipzig adhere to the word of the 50+1 rule, but not the spirit. With membership subs costing over a grand per season, most RB fans can’t afford to join their club’s fan association. Even if they were to stump up this fee, they wouldn’t be guaranteed acceptance as a voting member by the club’s board of directors. Indeed, at the last count there were just 17 in the official fan association. The result? Control stays firmly in the hands of the club’s owners, Red Bull. In Dortmund, membership is priced at €62/season and the club boasts over 150,000 members. With 284,401 members, Bayern’s figures are even more impressive. The West German clubs can plausibly claim to be the teams of working people. RB Leipzig, by contrast, are ‘nothing more than clever business people’, at least according to a recent comment-piece published in the Tagesspiegel.

‘Ein Verein für Mitläufer’. A banner displayed by Union Berlin fans meaning, ‘A club for Mitläufer’, a term In Germany which refers to people who are thought to be Nazi sympathisers. Image by strassenstriche.net via Flickr [https://tinyurl.com/yac8bqx4]

Yet there might be another, less high-minded reason why so many German clubs and fans resent RBL’s success. Leipzig’s ownership structure is not the only thing that makes them unusual: their status as a successful side from the East also makes them a rarity. Might it be the case that the bad feeling against the Bundesliga’s new upstarts is rooted in something deeper than ownership models? Does the case of RBL unmask old divisions between East and West, divisions that Germany has supposedly overcome?

At first glance this seems unlikely. Germany has been a united country for over 25 years. The united Germany won the World Cup in 2014, with a team that included seven players born after the fall of the Berlin Wall – though the fact that all seven of these players were born in the old West is often overlooked by commentators keen to emphasise togetherness.

Evidence from outside of football , however, suggests that the country is still firmly divided on East-West lines. A 2015 progress report on reunification produced by the Berlin Institut für Bevölkerung und Entwicklung, showed that West Germans still have better job prospects, earn more, and enjoy a better standard of living than their eastern compatriots. The future, seemingly, does not offer much hope of improvement either: crippling internal migration, often the result of misguided West German investment into the East, has seen massive depopulation of the former East Germany. One town in Saxony, Görlitz, is so desperate for families to move to the area, that it is offering free accommodation to any who answer its call for repopulation.

The division in German society maps onto its footballing landscape. Following reunification, only two East German teams (Hansa Rostock and Dynamo Dresden) were incorporated into the Bundesliga. Lokomotive, the club that had represented Leipzig for the majority of East Germany’s forty-year existence, started life in the united Germany as members of the second division. Despite a brief foray into the Bundesliga big-time, the club, renamed VfB Leipzig, were unable to cope with the transition from a football system that was heavily subsidised by the government, to one that required business know-how, private investment and the cultivation of sponsor relations. After finishing bottom in their debut Bundesliga season in 1994, they have continued to slide down the leagues. They now play in the fourth tier.

By the start of the twenty-first century, a feeling of hopelessness pervaded East German football. Leipzig was a case in point: a city with a population similar in size to Glasgow was without a serious football team. Until Red Bull came along.

Founded in 2009, RBL were promoted four times in seven years,  a feat achieved through a mixture of financial investment and savvy management. When RB Leipzig were promoted in 2016, they were the first team from the former East Germany to play in the Bundesliga for 8 seasons.

RB Leipzing fans on a march. Image by Strassentriche via Flickr [https://tinyurl.com/y8q7548d]

Leipzig is now one of the premium destinations for the world’s brightest talents. Home-grown players such as Timo Werner and Lukas Klostermann are among the most sought after youngsters in European football, whilst the club’s scouting network has unearthed hidden gems such as Naby Keita and Emil Forsberg. Leipzig, it would seem,  present the most viable long-term challenge to Bayern’s stranglehold on the German game.

Anger at RBL’s rise might well be justified. Yet the irony, rarely, if ever acknowledged by the German football hierarchy, is that Leipzig’s success is a result of good capitalist practice, the epitome of the system West Germany introduced into the East in 1990. Surely any West German that believes in free market capitalism, should be applauding the Leipzigers for fully embracing – and benefitting from – investment made possible only by a market economy?

Yet the irony, rarely, if ever acknowledged by the German football hierarchy, is that Leipzig’s success is a result of good capitalist practice, the epitome of the system West Germany introduced into the East in 1990.

Leipzig, are despised, but partly, I would wager, because they remind West German fans of some of the more uncomfortable realities of their own privilege. Fan ownership and anti-commercialisation are admirable principles, but they require considerable prosperity and investment to work. These ideals have done little to help the prospects of sides (and fans) based in the former East. Leipzig are disrupting the footballing status quo, and they are doing this through free market and even, one might be tempted to add, West German methods. Their continued success, however, would mark a power shift to the East. Finally, something for fans in that part of the country to cheer about.


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