With each passing day that it spends on top of the Bundesliga table, upstarts RB Leipzig expose in ever greater visceral detail an unmistakeable hypocrisy at the heart of club football in Europe. Here, at the apex of the global footballing pecking order, fans, pundits and perhaps many administrators like to delude themselves that clubs are somehow traditional, altruistic organizations that are wholly dedicated to the cause of noble football. And that teams only dabble in the commercial—shudder—when it is utterly unavoidable.
Thus fans demand cheap tickets but also the best, most expensive footballers. Pundits demand world-class teams that deliver immediately, yet simultaneously moan the fact that clubs don’t do enough to cultivate home-grown talent. And there is a wholesale, nose-in-the-air disdain for commercial matters—oil money, sheikhs, billionaire buyers, investment consortia, stadium branding deals, etc. By and large nobody complains too loudly as long as the status quo is maintained. As long as the traditional teams are largely seen to toe the fine line, without selling out too much, things don’t go far beyond rolling eyes and grumpy commentary. Until, that is, somebody comes along and spoils the party. Recently, two teams have dealt stinging blows to the status quo. Both have done so playing good football, with unspectacular squads, unflashy managers, and under what seems like sensible team ownership. Yet this success has been met with utterly divergent receptions.
When Leicester City won the Premier League, it made the hearts of football fans everywhere flutter with joy. It was a classic underdog story. This was an also-ran team from an also-ran town that comfortably overcame the likes of Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and the two Manchester teams. Football, and the broader sporting world, embraced the Foxes because, deep inside, everyone craved for this kind of success. The kind of success that comes not so much from hard cash but hard work.
Contrast that to the chaos that welcomed RB Leipzig as it won promotion to the Bundesliga this season. The Leipzig story is, and don’t let anyone say otherwise, amazing. Dietrich Mateschitz, the billionaire co-owner of the Red Bull energy drink brand, first began looking around to acquire a German football club a decade ago. Several attempts floundered because of opposition from fans of teams who rejected corporate ownerships, or because of German footballing ownership regulations that prevented clubs from being renamed for commercial reasons. Eventually the club acquired a footballing licence from SSV Markranstädt, a team then in the fifth tier of German football, and not subject to the same regulations as teams in the higher leagues. RB Leipzig was launched into the fifth tier in 2009 with a stated vision of working up through the tiers and into the Bundesliga within 10 years (RB stands not for Red Bull, but for Rasen Ballsport, or lawn sports. Regulations in Germany prevent clubs being named after products). Champions League ambitions would follow shortly thereafter. To the utter awe and complete dismay of the German footballing establishment, RB Leipzig went on to achieve those aims with laser focus. At the time of writing this piece, they sit on top of the Bundesliga, three points ahead of Bayern Munich.
It should be a fairy tale, except that RB Leipzig continues to be widely despised in Germany and elsewhere. In a recent piece, The Guardian’s Barry Glendenning called the club “this garish and rather tacky vehicle for the Red Bull group”. Detractors say that the club makes a mockery of the spirit of rules in Germany that legislate a stake for fans in the ownership of football teams. The “50+1” rule states that a majority of the shares in a club—50% plus one share—must be held by the club and its members and not external entities or investors. The idea is to prevent clubs from turning into assets that trade hands frequently but are, instead, run by management with roots and long-term interests in the betterment of the club.
RB Leipzig got around this rule by making membership in the club so prohibitively expensive that only Red Bull employees can afford it. Thus while Borussia Dortmund has 139,000 members, each of whom pay around €62 (around Rs4,500) a year, RB Leipzig has only 17. Memberships start from €1,000 for a non-voting position. In other words, Red Bull has structured the company in such a way that it will never have substantial community ownership. Thus fans in other clubs see RB Leipzig as a corporate abomination manipulating statutes. And they make this hatred known. During a German Cup match in August, fans of second-tier Dynamo Dresden unfurled a banner that read: “Tradition kann man nicht kaufen (You cannot buy tradition)”. Later, fans hurled a butchered bull’s head from the stands.
This hatred is unfortunate. Because by any account, RB Leipzig is a model for the modern professional football club. The funds invested into the club appear to be well spent. It has a young team and has invested in a world-class training and academy setup. The midfield engine of the team is the Swede Emil Forsberg, formerly of Malmo and GIF Sundsvall. Hardly a household name. And all this in a region of Germany that craves for footballing success. The last time a team from the erstwhile East German region, leave alone Leipzig, topped the Bundesliga was when Hansa Rostock briefly led the table in August 1991, 25 years ago. Rostock now play in the third tier.
Tradition is a peculiar thing to summon in defence of, or opposition to, football clubs. All football clubs must begin somewhere. Today’s giants did not emerge out of the primordial soup along with the first living things. RB Leipzig may well be a deeply commercial construct. But if the outcome of that is a superbly run club with a long-term plan, faith in youngsters, and good football on the pitch, then there are far worse problems to worry about in the world of Europe’s football oligarchies.
RB Leipzig will face genuine challenges as the season progresses. How will it cope if and when the inevitable slide occurs? Will they also hire and fire managers like scores of other outfits run by an assortment of oligarchs? Or, when the successes pile up and players are poached by bigger teams, will Red Bull take the easy way out and shower its team with expensive acquisitions? These are all questions that could be answered by the end of this very season.
There are many reasons to hate a football club in 2016. The fact that they know how to spend good money wisely is not the best one.