It sounds like something only film writers could come up with: a team playing in the fifth division rises up the leagues and challenges the status quo in their quest for the ultimate glory.
But this is actually real life.
10 years previous, RB Leipzig played their first ever league game: a 1-1 draw against Carl Zeiss Jenna’s second team in Germany’s fifth division, the Oberliga. Since then, they have accumulated four promotions, two league titles, were runners up of the DFB Pokal and are now on the verge of reaching the last eight of the UEFA Champions League after a 1-0 win against Tottenham Hotspur.
Their rise has come at such an astronomical rate that their reserve team won the fifth division just five years after the first team. However, just like any great film, there’s bound to be obstacles and a climax.
A Unique Club
Seven years since they started, they finally reached the promised land of Germany’s top tier. Now into their fourth season in the Bundesliga, they have been praised for their development of both young players and coaches. Ralph Hassenhutl, their previous coach is now in the Premier League at Southampton, while current coach Julian Nagelsmann is viewed as one of the brightest – and youngest at just 32-years old – in the world.
Their policy of signing players is also unique in comparison to other clubs in Europe. Unlike most of Europe’s biggest and best, they rarely sign players for huge sums of money. They almost exclusively sign players aged 23 or younger, giving them an unrivalled squad in the Bundesliga with the youngest average age of any squad in the league.
Players sign at a young age, are developed and then leave to the historic elites of Europe. Timo Werner and Naby Keita have become household names at RB Leipzig. The latter signing for Liverpool in 2018 for £52.75 million, netting RB Leipzig a healthy profit of around £25 million.
Even with such a brilliant underdog story, they are universally hated in Germany. Why? It starts with their investors, which are the energy drink conglomerate, Red Bull.
Now, just to be clear, investments from giant corporations aren’t new in German Football. Audi is backing Bayern Munich, Volkswagen is bankrolling Wolfsburg and then there is the Bayer chemical company’s workers team, Bayer Leverkusen.
The main difference with RB Leipzig is how Red Bull’s stamp is all over the team. Their oversized logo is emblazoned across the team’s kit, and interestingly, the club’s logo is incredibly reminiscent of the brand’s logo. Plus, the team’s name begins with RB, Rasen Ballsport (which literally translates to lawn ball sports, mind you) and even more interesting is how rules in German football forbid the inclusion of sponsors in team names.
The team’s formation has also courted controversy. Red Bull purchased the small club, SSV Markanstadt, accumulating their licence to play professional football and their players in order to field a team.
They then swiftly moved the team to the Saxon city of Leipzig. While not uncommon to many, German football fans were outraged at a new club suddenly being able to compete with historic clubs who have been established since the beginning of football in the country.
What has also annoyed most traditional clubs and fans is the way that Red Bull has circumvented German football’s ownership rules – particularly the ‘50+1’ rule. A rule that has received much praise from fans across the world, this essentially means that 51% of club’s share must be owned by the club and its members (usually it’s fans) so as to stop external investors taking full control the club.
However, as of 2016, RB Leipzig has had 17 full members, with €800 annual fee – in comparison, other German clubs only usually charge an annual fee of around €30-60. Not surprisingly, these 17 members are made up of Red Bull employees and client of the drinks company.
Breaking The Monopoly?
Traditionalists will continue to protest and not recognise RB Leipzig as a legitimate club. We may still see scenes similar to what Borussia Dortmund did in their fixtures against the club in the 2016/17 season – supporter groups boycotted their away fixture, and in the home fixture altered their scorecard so as not to show the RB Leipzig logo.
And yet, RB Leipzig appears to be the biggest threat to breaking Bayern Munich’s monopoly over the Bundesliga and could be a serious threat to Europe’s top sides in the latter stages of the Champions League. Red Bull will continue to invest, the club will continue to charge towards success, whether the elite clubs in Germany and Europe like it or not.