Red Bull allows Leipzig's Bundesliga dream to take flight
LEIPZIG, Germany -- When the final whistle goes, up on the main stands of RB Leipzig's Zentralstadion, a middle-aged couple stand quietly watching the celebrations down on the pitch. Next to them, people take pictures of one another to preserve the memory of the moment.
While a few Borussia Dortmund fans make their way down the stairs toward the exits in stunned silence in the away section, the couple, proudly wearing their Leipzig shirts, look away from the pitch and smile at each other for a second. The home players finish their lap of honour, and a tear rolls down the man's cheek. It is their moment, and they are completely lost in it.
Minutes earlier, their dream had become reality.
Oliver Burke picked up the ball. The 19-year-old Scotland international, making his Bundesliga debut after his surprise move from Nottingham Forest on Aug. 28, had been on the pitch for less than 20 minutes when he entered Dortmund's box on the right, looked up and, with a neat little pass, beat Marcel Schmelzer, Marc Bartra and Sebastian Rode. The ball found Naby Keita, and the stadium erupted.
Eighty-nine minutes into their first ever home match in the German top flight, RB Leipzig had taken a 1-0 lead over Borussia Dortmund. On the pitch, coach Ralph Hasenhuttl ran toward his players to join in the celebrations, while the 40,000-strong crowd produced an unbelievable roar from the stands.
When referee Wolfgang Stark blew his whistle a few minutes later, the stadium announcer roared: "Bundesliga, we are here!" The couple got up and walked a few metres to gain a better view from the upper tier.
Down in the catacombs of the stadium after the match, the young Leipzig players grin, telling reporters they have "just beaten one of the best sides in Europe" as they are pressed to explain what has just happened. Burke, the €17 million man, does the rounds, with the journalists eager to hear him tell the story of his assist. Next to him, fellow summer signing Keita says: "I've made the difference today." Leipzig coach Hasenhuttl tells his news conference: "There's nothing nicer than this." They are all smiles.
Leipzig have had a short but controversial existence since being founded by Austrian company Red Bull in 2009, and their rise to the Bundesliga has only intensified the noise.
Even before the league season was underway, Dynamo Dresden had registered their distaste for their local rivals during a DFB Pokal clash when they threw a severed cow's head from the stands. Before Saturday's home Bundesliga debut, BVB fans had announced that they would protest against the newly promoted club by not attending the match, opting instead to watch the reserves back home in Dortmund.
In the absence of sporting news, the buildup to the match was overshadowed by yet another discussion on how money is influencing football, on how Red Bull bought its way into the Bundesliga, and what that means for other clubs and fans.
"How RB Leipzig became the most hated club in German football," The Guardian headlined a story on the team's rise from the fifth tier to the top flight in only seven years, while the New York Times suggested that the club's money-fuelled fairytale would most likely be tolerated far better outside Germany.
Amid the major changes in the sport -- where money talks the loudest, and super clubs rather than governing bodies call the shots -- RB Leipzig have been singled out as the ultimate proof that modern football has become disconnected from local supporters, that it is a franchise system attached to the big brands rather than the cities.
It's a late kickoff, and I arrive early to see Leipzig waking up to top-tier football. Outside the main station, Germany's biggest tabloid, Bild, dedicates the entirety of its 18-page special edition to the new Bundesliga club. Up at Augustusplatz, in front of the opera house, where everyone's preparing for the annual opera ball, Red Bull has plastered a wall with yellow cans. As the cans are handed out to those passing by -- many of whom wearing BVB jerseys -- the writing is on the wall: "Leipzig is red and white!" it reads. And it makes for a good photo on the club's social media networks.
"We are halfway there. We've nearly given away all cans. The win is ours," the lady handing out the cans tells me, as an old woman walks by and, in the local tongue, shouts: "Hope BVB beats you. You arrogant t--ts." Football is the talk of the town, and not everyone's getting behind the new project. Another Leipzig local, wearing the colours of second-division side Erzgebirge Aue, tells me: "I've bought three season tickets. It's Bundesliga after all. But I'll be rooting for the opponents every time."
There are other fans. RB fans.
I am here to meet a few of them at the Pils Pub, where a few folks from the fan club #taLEntefrei ("#ungifted") meet ahead of the match. They are an official fan club. Leipzig are a club without any members. Officially there are 17 people with voting rights, but all are attached to the Red Bull company in one way or another. A non-voting membership is costly and gets you nothing. The membership system is one of the loopholes to work around the 50+1 rule, which says that over 50 percent of the club has to be owned by its members. That's the case here. It's owned by the members, regardless of their ties with the sponsor.
An official fan club is the nearest you get to the brand and it helps when applying for tickets. The fan clubs also hope that they might eventually be able to put forward a representative to become a member with voting rights. That would make it 18. Borussia Dortmund, by contrast, have over 100,000 members with voting rights. Bayern Munich are rapidly approaching the 300,000 mark.
Some 18 months before, I visited the Pils Pub and the landlord complained about the lack of commitment from Red Bull. It's different now. The employees wear their RB Leipzig shirts, signed by all players, and outside a big crowd gathers in full anticipation of the club's first ever Bundesliga home match.
On the other side of the road, the Wannseefront, a right-wing Hertha Berlin hooligan group, has gathered. While the Borussia diehards stayed behind in Dortmund, several people strongly resembling the Borussenfront, Dortmund's old right-wing hooligans, chat to their Hertha counterparts. They are closely monitored by the police, and everything stays quiet.
"Hoffenheim was my first ever Bundesliga match," Andreas Janik tells me. He's approaching his 30s, and has been a fan of RB since 2013. "I was not following football at that point, but it felt right." Another fan, Frank Bedau, opens his wallet and pulls out his fan card. The Leipzig local is a member of the Ostborussen, Borussia Dortmund's biggest fan club in the old East Germany. Yet his side today will be RB, the club he has been following from a closer distance.
"The protests in Dortmund are exhausting," the pair say, and Janik adds: "I can understand them, but they miss the point."
During the mid-noughties, Red Bull was looking for a place to install a club in Germany. Hamburg's cult club FC St. Pauli was an option, and so were Fortuna Dusseldorf and Rostock up at the Baltic coast. In the end, it opted for Leipzig, one of the few boomtowns in the east. It was a city without top-flight football since 1994, a city where the two old local sides, Chemie and Lok, ruined their traditions, not only financially but through a descent into violence. "You couldn't really attend a match," Bedau says. "It's different now. RB are filling the gap."
RB Leipzig combined money with knowledge, and worked their way up the hierarchy. This season alone, their net spend stands at €50m. They chose the right city, and Red Bull is now flooding it with its marketing.
Yet, while most in Leipzig are willing to accept it, outside of the city limits it has sparked huge controversy and could ultimately lead to the fall of the 50+1 rule. German football is in danger of losing one of its unique selling points. The Bundesliga now looks beyond national borders, and cash injections from around the globe are welcomed. Dortmund have sold shares to Evonik, Puma and to Signal Iduna; Bayern to Adidas, Audi and Telekom.
The difference is that giants like Dortmund and Bayern would continue to exist without their shareholders, whereas Leipzig is dependent on Red Bull. "Red Bull's investment is also sustainable," Janik says, and he tells me about other sponsors, like Porsche, which invests in the youth academy to establish its brand in Leipzig, where it opened a plant in 2002. "But it's all Red Bull, really," Janik adds.
It's time to leave the bar and head to the stadium, where Dortmund, after a summer of upheaval, are unable to find their feet against an aggressive Leipzig side, who start with 10 players from the team that won promotion. But it's only after coach Hasenhuttl introduces Arsenal target Keita and the debutant Burke from the bench that someone is able to break the deadlock.
The Scotland international receives a pass, takes on four Dortmund players, and passes to Keita, who slots the ball in from short distance. The noise in the stadium, which has been loud throughout the match, becomes deafening.
The moment underlines the new reality: RB Leipzig are here to stay. They have already changed German football off the field, and their rise is only likely to continue.
Back in Dortmund, around 900 fans sit in the Rote Erde, Borussia's old stadium, and follow the 1-0 defeat on the radio.
Stephan Uersfeld is the Germany correspondent for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @uersfeld.