LEIPZIG, Germany – Love or hate, it seems there’s nothing in between.
Leipzig’s rapid ascent through the ranks of German soccer is stoking heated debate on the roles of tradition, pride and commercialism in the nation’s favorite sport.
Founded in 2009, Leipzig leads the Bundesliga by three points from powerhouse Bayern Munich after a record 13-game unbeaten start including eight wins from its last eight games.
Success is bringing increased attention — and wrath. Leipzig’s team bus has been pelted with stones, had paint thrown at it by masked assailants, its players have been mocked and taunted, and a severed bull’s head was thrown during a cup match against Saxony rival Dynamo Dresden earlier this season.
Fans of rival clubs object to the club’s steep investment-enabled rise thanks to energy drinks manufacturer Red Bull and its co-founder Dietrich Mateschitz. The 72-year-old Austrian billionaire made it all possible by buying a local fifth-tier team, SSV Markranstaedt, rebranding it with the company’s livery under a new name, and financing its steady promotion through the lower leagues.
Not even Mateschitz could have believed, however, that seven years later Leipzig would already be leading Germany’s top flight. Nobody at the club imagined such a remarkable start to the season after finishing runner-up in the second division last season.
“Absolutely not. Because we were coming from the second league it’s also surprising for us,” Leipzig coach Ralph Hasenhuettl told press at the team’s ultra-modern training center on Tuesday.
With survival already assured barring a catastrophic collapse, Leipzig can dream of emulating Kaiserslautern’s 1998 feat of winning the Bundesliga as a promoted team.
But sport director Ralf Rangnick is keen to keep expectations in check.
“We have to be careful we don’t get involved in the relegation zone and I’m sure this will not happen this season,” Rangnick said. “Our focus is on the next day, the next training session, the next game that we have to play. All the other things don’t make sense.”
Rangnick added: “We have no pressure at all this season. The only pressure is the pressure we impose on ourselves.”
With Red Bull at the helm, Leipzig spent 50 million euros ($53.8 million) on player transfers last summer — only Bayern and Borussia Dortmund spent more — while it paid out a second-division record 26 million euros the summer before, and 23 million the year before that. Leipzig’s training complex was completed for some 33 million euros in 2015.
Through sponsorship and advertisements, Red Bull’s presence is ubiquitous. The club mascot, a red bull, frequently joins players for goal celebrations.
Some in Germany see the club only as a vehicle to promote Red Bull and consider it an “artificial” club compared the traditional Bundesliga teams.
“Aki Watzke said a couple of weeks ago that we are only performing cans,” Rangnick said, referring to criticism from the Dortmund chief executive. He later added: “The amount of cans we sell is completely unimportant. It’s got nothing to do with what we do.”
Rangnick said it was normal for the club to be facing opposition, and not only because of its financial backing.
“Every club has their own supporters and when a new club like ours comes, they see the club as an opponent, as an enemy. From that very moment they are against that club,” he said. “We’re probably the youngest club in Germany. Of course teams don’t like us.”
Rangnick said young players were key to the club’s success, and he joked that superstars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were “too old” for Leipzig.
There were seven new arrivals last summer, including highly rated 19-year-old Scotland winger Oliver Burke, while only one — 24-year-old Greek defender Kyriakos Papadopoulos — was older than 22. The 21-year-old Guinea midfielder Naby Keita, who arrived from the sister club Red Bull Salzburg, has gone on to become a key player.
“Before we sign a player, we meet with the player, we get a personal impression of the player. For the style of football that we play, we need team players,” said Rangnick, who disapproves of players with attention-seeking tattoos or elaborate hairstyles. “We need players who are not only interested in celebrating by themselves after scoring a goal. At least celebrate with the guy who gave the assist.”
Leipzig’s game is high intensity, restricting opponents’ space and attacking in numbers to win the ball before breaking quickly, often leaving defenders outnumbered and trailing in the wake of speedy forwards Timo Werner, Emil Forsberg and Yussuf Poulsen.
None of them seem affected by the amount of vitriol directed at the club.
“It’s not as big as everyone thinks it is. Everybody thinks it’s a big situation with us because the media likes to write about it. That’s why everyone thinks it’s a big deal. For us players it’s not. We don’t feel it that much,” Danish forward Poulsen told news agencies.
“Of course there may be protests sometimes but if Schalke goes to Dortmund there may be some banners in the stands and maybe angry fans shouting at the bus and everything. It’s part of the game. I don’t think it’s so much worse for us than any other away team,” the 22-year-old added.
While opponents love to hate, locals have embraced the club and many see in it a welcome boost for football in the former East Germany, where traditional clubs like Hallescher FC and Magdeburg fared poorly following reunification.
Leipzig is the first side based on former East German territory to play in the Bundesliga since Energie Cottbus’ relegation in 2009.
“In Leipzig we have a founding city of the German football federation and we have the tradition with VfB (Leipzig) as the first German champions (in 1903),” Saxony football federation president Hermann Winkler said.
“RB has put this all together with money and outstanding youth development as well as great concept. All Saxon teams will benefit from that in the future,” Winkler said.
Local supporters are proving enthusiastic. Up to 3,000 were expected to meet players at a club-organized Christmas market beside the training complex on Wednesday.
Leipzig’s 43,000-capacity stadium, formerly the Zentralstadion, rebranded the Red Bull Arena in 2010 after it had been modernized for the 2006 World Cup, remains the largest stadium in the former East Germany and it’s regularly sold-out for home games.
“The attendance figures for RB show Leipzig wants to see football,” former East Germany striker Joachim Streich said, while his international teammate, goalkeeper Juergen Croy said, “It’s wonderful for football in the east and a signal for other clubs.”
Another former East German international, defender Klaus Urbanczyk, said, “Of course not everyone has to approve what happens in the neighborhood. But there shouldn’t be as much hate as the Leipzigers have had to put up with.”
Leipzig’s youth leaves the club vulnerable to accusations of a lack of history or tradition but Rangnick says it’s part of football life.
“Everybody gets older, every hour, every day. We get older and we are writing our own story right now and that story will automatically — in 10, 20, 30 years — turn into history. We cannot blame ourselves for only being seven years old,” Rangnick said.
Leipzig next plays Hasenhuettl’s former side Ingolstadt and then Hertha Berlin before a potential top-of-the-table clash at Dortmund going into the Christmas break.
“If you ask me now if I want to win the title I would say yes, but whether it’s realistic is another story,” Rangnick said. “I don’t think it’s realistic this season but I also don’t want to say that it’s completely impossible.”
And what an ending that would be. The Bundesliga season ends on May 20 — on Mateschitz’ 73rd birthday.
“In a normal world Bayern Munich will win the title. But in an un-normal world then someone else can win the title and if someone else can win the title, we wouldn’t say no,” Rangnick said.