Newbie that riled up Bundesliga

RB Leipzig players celebrating with their fans after beating Mainz in the Bundesliga last month. Their next league match will be a top-of-the-table clash against mighty Bayern Munich tonight.
RB Leipzig players celebrating with their fans after beating Mainz in the Bundesliga last month. Their next league match will be a top-of-the-table clash against mighty Bayern Munich tonight.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

League-leading RB Leipzig have been accused of being a 'marketing branch'

BERLIN • Less than halfway into their debut season in the top tier of German football, RB Leipzig have provided something that had been sorely missing - a real challenge to the suffocating dominance of Bayern Munich.

The east German club are level with Bayern, the four-time defending champions, at the top of the standings.

A remarkable start included zero defeats in their first 13 games, 10 of them victories.

After defeating Hertha Berlin 2-0 on Saturday, Leipzig will face their biggest challenge of the season tonight, when they take on Bayern for the first time in the Bundesliga.

The match-up is not exactly David versus Goliath, though. In fact, it is possible to see it as a symbol of what is wrong with the modern game.

Leipzig's contentiousness begins with their name. The club were founded in 2009 when the Austrian energy-drink manufacturer Red Bull bought a fifth-division club.

Barred by German rules that forbid naming teams after corporate sponsors, the prefix "RB" was chosen. That is short for RasenBallsport ("Lawn Ball"), but no one mistakes the connection.

It is not the club's only circumvention of regulations. Bundesliga rules also stipulate that clubs' majority voting rights be controlled by dues-paying members, essentially putting fan associations in control and limiting the power of a few wealthy owners.

Leipzig skirted the rule by making their membership dues far costlier than other teams', effectively limiting membership to a handful of fans, most of them with ties to the Red Bull corporation.

The club have also spent heavily on player acquisition in rising from the fifth tier to the top flight in just seven seasons.

Some, such as those in Borussia Dortmund supporters' group Sudtribune Dortmund, consider it a case of a wealthy business exploiting the game for marketing purposes.

The group released a statement denouncing the club's arrival in the Bundesliga, saying: "The project of the promoted club from Leipzig runs counter to all that connects us to football.

"It's a scandal that a marketing branch of an Austrian drinks manufacturer has been able to obtain a place in Germany's top league. It contradicts all sporting and emotional values."

That has led to some Leipzig matches being boycotted and a severed bull's head was even thrown onto the playing area during a German Cup match against Dynamo Dresden in August.

Leipzig's sporting director, Ralf Rangnick, believes much of the hostility to the club comes from their status as Germany's youngest.

"All clubs have their own supporters, and when a new club like ours comes along, they see us as a threat, as an enemy," he said.

And it is not as if other Bundesliga clubs are not reliant on corporate money and influence.

Schalke have a major sponsorship deal with Russian company Gazprom, while Bayern count many German corporate giants among their backers.

For all of Red Bull's investment, Leipzig have not bought any big-name foreign stars and focused primarily on talented young German and European players.

Ralph Hasenhuttl's side have played impressive, attacking football, in front of crowds averaging 41,000 at - naturally - the Red Bull Arena.

In that context, RB Leipzig could be seen as the saviour of east German football, providing some much-needed pride to an area that has had to cope with the trials of economic and social change.

WASHINGTON POST, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 21, 2016, with the headline 'Newbie that riled up Bundesliga'. Print Edition | Subscribe