Apparently, it only takes eight years to get from a Sunday league to this.
Their website leaves no doubt about what’s going on. In it’s top-left corner, the words ‘Die Roten Bullen’; inside the letter ‘U’, a club crest that basically copies the worldwide-known trademark. The nickname and the badge both remain in the visitors’ sight, regardless of the direction he takes during the trip down this particular www address. Those who enter the ‘About Us’ footnote, can read that the club was born on 19th May 2009. From then on, it’s story is described in literally five sentences – one less than the number of trophies, which are being proudly presented below the few words of explanation. The rest of the site looks as modern as it gets: a minimalistic control panel leads to neatly edited, big graphics and pleasantly animated multimedia. For the moment, everything is in German. It might not be for long, though: the international ambitions are certainly there.
At the same time, their opponents continue to protest. Fans of local rivals from Dynamo Dresden have gone as far as to throw disfigured, severed bull head into the pitch, earning their club a £54.000 fine during the cup match in August. “Not everyone can be a plastic club – fuck off” – sarcastically said one of the banners unveiled by Hoffenheim supporters, who have a story of supernova rise themselves. One of the Berlin newspapers refused to print their actual name in the league table, choosing to nickname them ‘Can-Sellers’ instead. In January, an online poll of 2560 Bundesliga fans labelled them as a #2 most hated football side in Germany. In terms of despicability, only Bayern Munich have finished higher – and in the modern age, Bayern Munich are boasting a twisted, 30-year long record of success, scandals, shady victories, hijacked transfer deals and plastic fanboyism.
RB Leipzig clearly should not be possible. Not just sportingly, not even culturally. Legally too. Built on the license of a semi-professional, fifth-tier side called SSV Markranstädt, it’s already circumnavigated the constrains of German law that forbids large companies to buy directly into the existing pro teams. A ‘RasenBallsport’ rebranding, clearly aimed only to smuggle the ‘RB’ abbreviation into their name, also bypassed the rule that such manoeuver cannot go through until the corporate sponsor is involved with it’s team for more than 20 years. To make the mockery even worse, Leipzig owners have completely marginalized the deciding power of fans who are paying members. Not only the RBL membership is absurdly expensive (£870 a year, seventeen times more than Dortmund’s), it doesn’t give it’s holder the real voting privileges that are currently being restricted to a tiny, 17-men council.
Of course, the authoritarian power has it’s benefits too. Over the last eight years, big money hidden behind the back of chairman Oliver Mintzlaff has bought no less than 95 footballers, allowing the club to afford the negative sheet balance all through that time. Summer 2016 has set another record, when 13 new transfers have inflated RBL’s expenditures above £50 million mark. For a freshly promoted side, that was something unheard of; for a side, which simultaneously didn’t bother to make a penny from selling players and turned in a bare, £50 million balance deficit while Bayern and Dortmund registered half of that negative quota combined – Leipzig have gone insane. To this day, the club is struggling to meet it’s spending powers with the revenue in a way that would fulfil the requirements of Financial Fair Play Regulations. Still: that’s a problem most of other clubs would be pleased to have.
Another factor is RBL’s leading role in revitalizing football in East Germany. Since the Berlin Wall fell, the Bundesliga has been like locked-up bunker for the teams from DDR. During the 90’s, Dynamo Dresden and Hansa Rostock used to be the only teams capable of staying clear out of top-flight relegation for years; later, they’ve been briefly joined by rather exotic guests in form of Energie Cottbus. In each case, it didn’t end well: after a decade of relative stability, Rostock have been relegated in 2005, made a one-year comeback and eventually went down again, this time to the third tier. Dresden, in steady declined since mid 90-s, have already been waiting there. As of Cottbus: the debt-plagued, tiny and unlucky team from Brandenburg has recently found itself a tier lower than it’s Eastern colleagues, finishing second in the Regionalliga Nordost, just six points above… Leipzig’s reserve squad.
Alas: the novelty factor of this strange footballing project doesn’t really allow it to run without getting exposed to the sternest of criticisms. After all, it is not a decent, established sporting brand taken to the new heights by a billionaire (like Chelsea); it is not an average team temporarily lifted by a one-season whim of an Asian businessman (like Malaga); it is not even a permanently underachieving club with a sudden financial boost stemming from political games played behind closed doors (like PSG). No. Apart from the stadium (the largest one in DDR, modernized for 2006 World Cup by the state) and a convenient location (a million-citizen big, football-starved city), this club has been build from scratch by one company. Which, by the way, also runs two F1 teams, one NASCAR team, one ice hockey team, four other football franchises and actively sponsors at least two dozens of other sporting competitions.
RB Arena. In 2006, Maxi Rodríguez scored his winning belter against Mexico here.
Some of the most vocal critics of it have been putting all their hopes in Bundesliga’s ability to verify the newcomers’ ambitions. After all, the highly-competitive top-flight has been merciless even to the big sides like Stuttgart, HSV or, most recently, Wolfsburg. Not this time. With a horde of new players on the pitch and a new manager, Ralph Hasenhüttl on the bench, The Bulls have kicked off the new league season with ten wins and three draws, staying unbeaten until December and registering a 29-11 goal difference. Despite an annoying habit of conceding goals inside first 15 minutes (which happened against Augsburg, Freiburg and Leverkusen), the team displayed quite sensational firepower and even managed to climb to the top of the table by the end of November. If it wasn’t for a sudden drop in performances after Christmas, ‘Can-Sellers’ would’ve been a threat to Bayern until the very end of 2016/17 season.
But even without replicating Kaiserslautern’s 1998 triumph, they’ve still finished higher than Dortmund. They’ve still qualified for the Champions League. They still have a theoretical chance of running into their… sister club RB Salzburg, who’ll soon be entering the UCL qualification rounds. Therefore, there’s still a chance that one of those teams will be disqualified from the most prestigious continental competition. The legal basis exists and it’s clear: according to Article 5.01 of ‘Regulations of the UEFA Champions League 2015-18 Cycle’ states: ‘no club participating in a UEFA competition may, directly or indirectly have any power whatsoever in management, administration and/or sporting performance of any other club participating in a UEFA competition’. Leipzig, who’ve been effectively a parent club for Salzburg since 2011 and signed 11 players from there in the past three seasons alone, surely fall into that category.
Should they evade the seemingly inevitable ban, there will also be the issue of summer departures. Swedish creator and assist king Emil Forsberg has been on Liverpool’s radar for many months, but most recent reports have linked him with Arsenal and Juventus too. He could be joined at Anfield by his superb teammate, Naby Keita. The 22-years old midfielder from Guinea has already been compared to the likes of N’Golo Kanté and Idrissa Gueye but it would reportedly take a record-breaking £50 million bid for Reds to hire him. Another RBL superstar, 21-years old goal poacher Timo Werner has already ruled out departure in March, when Bayern were reportedly considering a move for him. That didn’t stop The Bulls’ top scorer from bagging a brace against Bavarians two weeks ago; and even though his current team lost that match in a dramatic fashion, his ridiculous potential has been definitely confirmed.
Baring disqualifications and departures, Leipzig are likely to field their championed 4-2-2-2 formation again and persist with the style of relentlessly pressing teams put in front of them. Both forwards and attacking midfielders are going to have defensive responsibilities, pushing them into forcing either errors or long balls from the opposition’s defenders. The policy of buying young, athletically gifted players allows them to adapt the energy-draining strategy like this and even mix it with blistering counterattacks based on Keita’s physical prowess. The mastermind behind all that, sporting director Ralf Rangnick, has been enduring the comparisons to Jürgen Klopp for years; even now, once he stepped down from his managerial position and left it to a more conservative boss, his influences remain. “My teams are playing directly to the front; lateral and back passes are rather not so much in demand” – he said in 2013, while he was laying the foundations for current success.
Today, his club’s future seems bright. With four football academies working full-time on three continents, with the unquestionable status of #1 team in the franchise and the persistent support from a company that comes dangerously close to selling one can of their product per every single inhabitant of this planet – things can only get better and better. Five years ago, it was a matter of convincing players that the club will continue it’s march forward; this summer, it will be a matter of picking the most suitable lads from a large pool of candidates interested in wearing the white and red colours. Galatasaray’s Bruma, Ajax’s Amin Younes and Werder Bremen’s Serge Gnabry are the leading names in the rumour mill at the moment; yet it does not stop there: “I almost believe that our real crime is not that we are playing football, but that we are successful.” – says the owner, Dietrich Mateschitz, and does have a point. If empty, silent AS Monaco stadium can host UCL semifinalists, what stops Leipzig?
[Disclaimer: this text did not involve a single product placement, nor intended to feature one.]