Romance in soccer is a core tenet of the fan experience, an inescapable instrument in building that sense of belonging that defines what it means to support a club. But an increasingly commercial approach to attracting fans in the world’s most global sport leaves questions about what’s acceptable in modern fandom and whether any of the major outfits deserve our fealty.
RasenBallsport Leipzig are at the centre of this debate ahead of their maiden appearance in the UEFA Champions League semi-finals, where they'll face Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday. Formed as recently as 2009 and firmly on their way to establishing a foothold as one of the major forces in Europe, discussion has crescendoed regarding Leipzig’s fast-tracked climb to rub shoulders with the elite.
The club is owned by energy-drink company Red Bull, and already had ample detractors in its native Germany. In a country that prides itself on being fans-first, the artificial nature of Leipzig’s creation simply doesn’t sit right. This was highlighted when German magazine 11Freunde announced it would not cover the club’s progress to their first European semi, via Felix Tamsut of DW Sports:
A 2-1 conquering of Atletico Madrid in the last round underlined Leipzig’s suitability at this level as far as on-field matters are concerned. Under guidance from the recently departed Ralf Rangnick and a succession of inspired managerial appointments, Die Roten Bullen have developed into an engine capable of consistently improving the team beyond the merits of any one player.
Their pattern of bargain transfer business has built numerous players into far more valuable assets and funded more likeminded acquisitions, all while promoting a style of play that’s difficult not to admire. It's a strategy that should engender plaudits from journalists and fans alike.
Why, then, do RB Leipzig continue to draw negative press as a team not deserving of our support, and when is the right time to admit we’re just a little bit in awe?
Fighting on two fronts
The outcry against Leipzig’s model is a lot more one-sided in Germany, where their side-skirting of the Bundesliga’s 50+1 rule—a mechanism designed to ensure a club’s members retain majority voting rights—has drawn criticism since their inception.
The Independent’s Miguel Delaney explained membership at Leipzig will set a fan back €1,000—10 times the cost charged by most other Bundesliga clubs—and only 19 people can vote in who becomes chairman. Such matters may be seen as acceptable in any of Europe’s other top divisions but are considered antithetical to the social sanctity enshrined in German soccer:
Those looking from the outside may not be alert to the perceived skulduggery undertaken to reach this point. After all, what are the marketing machinations of one energy drink company compared to the register of other European teams bankrolled by similar corporate entities, Russian oligarchs or foreign states?
In each of those cases, supporters tend to look the other way where the conflict between club loyalty and devotion to those leading is concerned. Justification often arrives in the form of cognitive dissonance—that club supporters don’t need to love whoever’s signing the cheques. It's about the crest, the city, the players and the manager. Love for those elements supersedes feelings of discomfort with the puppet-masters.
James Benge of Football.London recently touched upon the growing willingness to set aside such grievances in favor of prioritising our feelings for what we see on the pitch in Leipzig’s case:
In that vein, it’s important that potential investors—not monetary investors, but neutral fans giving their emotion to “the new kid on the block”—know where their deposits are going. Red Bull co-founder and managing director, Dietrich Mateschitz, has earned scorn internationally, as well as from Leipzig’s own supporter associations, for his right-leaning views, per Tamsut. This presents arguably the greatest point of concern for those outside Germany perusing the team as their Bundesliga outfit of choice, with questionable links to rising far-right support in the country.
Like any club, however, it’s difficult to ascertain how direct a hand Mateschitz has in steering the club and its motives, while the quality of their soccer is clear for all to see. Like German juggernaut Bayern Munich—winner of the past eight consecutive Bundesliga crowns—Leipzig’s executive members might be pilloried were their personal views made public, but those fans who remain will resolve their support as lying with the institution above all else.
Out with the old, in with the (almost) new
Leipzig’s lack of history is another consistent sticking point for many who would dismiss their rise in recent years. It’s the same jibe rival fans might sling at followers of teams like Manchester City or Paris Saint-Germain, who are owned by sovereign funds operated by Abu Dhabi and Qatar, respectively. Those insults would likely never come had either of those teams failed to improve as a result of their modern takeovers, but investment from said state powers has seen both City and PSG become irrepressible forces domestically (a dominant one in the latter’s case).
Red Bull had to take a different route in Leipzig, first by purchasing the playing rights of SSV Markranstadt (then in Germany’s fifth division) and using that ticket to gain entry to Germany’s highest tier.
Tyler Adams and Dani Olmo’s winning goals against Atletico were further evidence the club’s model is still running smoothly. Both players—each of whom arrived at the Red Bull Arena in the past year-and-a-half—look ready to keep boosting the price-tags on their heads, asserting Leipzig are still among the leaders in recruitment:
Red Bull—valued at $11.1 billion, according to Forbes—owns sister clubs in Austria (Red Bull Salzburg) and the United States (New York Red Bulls), making use of their network to further the interests of its growing soccer arm.
Control of clubs who have become title contenders in each of their sectors could be considered unfair, but it’s more difficult to distribute disdain when no rules have been broken.
Parallels could be drawn with the Pozzo family—owners of Watford, Granada and Udinese in England, Spain and Italy, respectively—and the operation they run, albeit not with the same efficacy Red Bull has managed in such a short period of time.
That speed is sure to account for some of the aggravation many fans have felt watching Leipzig excel. The frustration of watching another team accomplish in a decade what some have not managed in a century of trying, and not only that, but doing so when their primary goal was simply to raise the profile of a canned beverage.
Leipzig’s roots are steeped in controversy given their admittance into German football came via such obscure means. The villain tag attached to their name may even attract a certain sort of fan all the more; being disliked is a light cross for some to bear in exchange for success.
That will be the determining factor for many supporters who consider hopping aboard the Red Bull bus, which is on course to challenge for its first Bundesliga crown and beyond. All it took was some elbow grease, company structure the likes of which have rarely been witnessed in soccer and the support of a billion-dollar conglomerate.
For that reason, the question has never been if it’s safe to like Leipzig, but whether the club should have been permitted its spot at the German soccer table in the first place.
The reality now is that Red Bull are here, and here to stay. One may not want to support a pervasive world brand, but for those choosing between the top twenty clubs in the world, you're damned if you back any one of them. Supporting Red Bull could well leave a bad taste in your mouth, but there’s little denying Leipzig’s newfound status as a titan of the footballing industry.