Red Bull Leipzig is NOT a fairy tale
A goal is scored and miles away, at someone’s house, a group of men go wild celebrating; a normal weekend in most households around the world. Only it wasn’t. This house belonged to Jamie Vardy and he was having a party.
When Eden Hazard picked the ball up on the left wing against Tottenham last season no one could have foreseen what would happen just moments later. The Belgian skipped past two defenders, played a one-two with Diego Costa and then stroked the ball into the top-right corner.
The Belgian’s goal sent shockwaves throughout English football that were felt especially in Vardy’s home, where Leicester City players were celebrating the fact that, against all odds (5,000–1 to be exact) they had won the Premier League title.
All this happened barely 20 months after the side had played their first Premier League game. Their two best players, Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez cost a combined €1.5 million. N’Golo Kanté, Wes Morgan, Robert Huth and Kasper Schmeichel were either unknowns, deemed as past it or not good enough for other Premier League sides.
The fact that Leicester won the title was a miracle — proof that anything can still happen in football and the best advertisement for the Premier League. It was a fairy tale.
What is not a fairy tale is RasenBallsport Leipzig’s Bundesliga campaign so far. Football fans love to draw comparisons and, after Leicester’s title, are hungry for more fairy tales. However this Leipzig side cannot, and must not, be considered one. Their ascent to the top of German football has been cold and calculated.
To understand why Leipzig’s march to the top of the Bundesliga is not a fairy tale one must first understand football in Germany and how it is run. The way the game is played, how fans behave and way leagues are structured develop differently in each country and takes on a unique cultural identity.
Germany’s football identity is the 50+1 rule. It states that a club must hold a majority of its own voting rights. Designed to ensure the club’s members (the fans) retain control, it also serves to protect German clubs from the influence of external investors.
To outsiders it may seem excessively idealistic, especially considering the current financial climate in football, but it has worked and it is deep point of pride for German football.
There are, of course, loopholes. If a person or a company has substantially funded a club for a continuous period of 20 years, it is possible for that party to own a controlling stake in the company. Bayer and Volkswagen benefit from this rule as Bayer Leverkusen and VfL Wolfsburg were historically set up as sports clubs for the companies’ employees.
What Leipzig have done is exploit new loopholes and, while not directly breaking any regulations, have brought how German football clubs are run into disrepute.
Leipzig are owned and controlled by Red Bull, the Austrian energy drink company. The company made their first attempt to take over a club in 2006, when they were close to agreeing a deal with FC Sachsen Leipzig. That deal was subsequently vetoed by the German Football Association (DFB) due to fears that the company would hold too much influence. Fans protested the takeover for months until Red Bull officially abandoned their plans.
Next up was cult club FC St. Pauli in Hamburg. Red Bull approached the club to discuss a sponsor deal but when it became clear that the company wanted far more control than conventional sponsors, St. Pauli ended negotiations.
The company tried again with TSV 1860 München but were turned away once more. And then again by Fortuna Düsseldorf. Everywhere they went, Red Bull were met with fan protests and, in the case of Fortuna, another DFB Veto loomed.
Finally the company made its way back to Leipzig where they decided to found their own club. However, this meant that they would have had to start in the Kreisklasse, the 12th tier of German football, and work their way up. This didn’t suit Red Bull and so they found a club in the Oberliga, the fifth tier, and bought their playing right for what is believed to be 350,000 euros.
After failing to convince four existing clubs to enter into a partnership with them and a DFB Veto for going against the cultural identity of German football, Red Bull decided to take a shortcut and buy into the fifth tier, skipping more than half of the football pyramid. European football is set up as a meritocracy, where you have to earn your place among the best. Red Bull bought it.
It is important to note that the Oberliga is not subject to the DFB licensing system meaning this shortcut was the first step to getting around the 50+1 rule.
When Red Bull finally founded RB Leipzig all seven founding members of the club were either agents or employees of the company. This membership structure set the tone for how the club would be controlled and starkly contrasted that of other Bundesliga clubs.
Borussia Dortmund have around 140,000 members where an adult pays 62 euros a year and has an equal say in any issue put forth by the club. Membership in Leipzig costs 1000 a year and doesn’t include voting rights.
The club have continuously attempted to undermine the 50+1 rule and only bent under pressure from the DFL ahead of the 14/15 2. Bundesliga season by opening membership up to more people. The club now has 17 members.
Another issue with RB Leipzig is not just the identity of the inner workings of the club, but also the identity the club attempts to project outward. To avoid problems with the DFB later on, RB Leipzig was called RasenBallsport, a word that did not exist in the German language prior to the club’s existence. The initials RB allowed the club to circumvent the licensing laws and make sure the corporate identity would still be recognized.
Similarly, Leipzig attempted to ingrain the corporate identity into the club’s badge. All crests proposed at the club’s founding were rejected by the Saxony Football Association due to their likeness to the corporate logo. When a crest was finally approved it was only used from 2010 until 2014, when the DFL again rejected the crest ahead of the 14/15 2. Bundesliga season.
Perhaps the biggest point of contention when discussing the RB Leipzig project is the team’s financial power. Ahead of this Bundesliga season only two clubs in Germany had outspent Leipzig in the last three years: Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. This was before Leipzig had played a single game in the 1. Bundesliga, having previously spent a year in the third league and two years in the second.
In three seasons the club had spent 100 million euros, half of which was spent when they got promoted to the Bundesliga in 2016. In 2015/16 the club spent 26.10 million euros, almost 30% more than Dortmund spent that year. Dortmund were fighting for the Bundesliga title while Leipzig were still in the second league.
The influx of money in football is not a new thing, even in Germany where transfer prices are still somewhat reasonable and most teams prefer to promote from the academy. But Leipzig’s spending is unprecedented and has almost instantaneously left most of their competition in the dust.
Leipzig have another unfair advantage in that their investors control five other teams around the world from which the German club can pick and choose the best players. Red Bull Salzburg have fallen victim to this in recent years with 10 players leaving for Leipzig in the last three seasons, most notably Naby Keita and Bernardo this past summer.
Circumventing the transfer market in this way is reminiscent of insider trading on Wall Street and has given Leipzig the ability to secure talent at a lower cost, while never having to fear competition for their transfer targets.
Salzburg’s fans recently wrote an open letter to Red Bull complaining about their best players leaving to Leipzig and described themselves as the laughing stock of Austrian football. This is simply a case of Red Bull identifying a bigger return on investment in Germany and transferring their best assets to the “money-maker”.
Salzburg had hit their ceiling and the fun new project in Leipzig was just taking off. Sure, things have worked out very well with the club sitting in second, just five points off leaders Bayern Munich, and the spoils of European football within reach.
But what happens when things don’t work out? So far all transfers have hit the ground running. What happens when expensive signings underperform?
What if Red Bull buys a team in England, where the money is much more lucrative than in Germany? There have been rumours of this in recent months and, if Red Bull find themselves with teams in two of Europe’s top leagues, how will they invest? Surely the team with a bigger return on investment (England) will be preferred and RB Leipzig will turn into RB Salzburg — a feeder club.
However, it must be said that there is a lot of good that has come out of Leipzig’s rise to the top. Youth has been given a chance, with the majority of new signings being under the age of 24; the state of the art training and youth facilities that have been built; the style of play has captivated neutrals and excited Leipzig fans; and, probably most important of all, it has put Eastern German football back on the map after so many years absent from the top leagues.
No one is arguing that the brand of football they play, or the fact that eastern Germany looks to have a good football team again is bad for the game or bad for German football as a whole. The argument is that the way the club is run, the shady transfer dealings and the exclusionary nature of the membership structure goes against the core values of German football and set a dangerous precedent that could see the end of the 50+1 rule and the relative financial stability that German clubs enjoy.