During Pep Guardiola’s three year stay at Bayern Munich, the Bundesliga title was won, defended and retained as they flexed their footballing and financial muscle over the rest of Germany’s top flight. Borussia Dortmund, Borussia Monchengladbach and Wolfsburg all took turns in their attempts to dethrone the Bavarians, but eventually fell short after failing to compete with the quality and depth in Bayern’s ranks. But as Guardiola left for pastures new, a new set of challengers with a unique story would be the next outfit to tackle the high and mighty – RasenBallsport Leipzig.
Off the field, RB Leipzig are arguably the most hated side in the country. German football prides itself on history, achievement and the strong relationship between a club and its fans. But it’s difficult to meet that criteria when you were bought in 2009 by one of the world’s most successful drinks manufacturers and given considerable economic backing to climb from the fifth division to the first in just seven seasons. Their questionable loopholing of the league’s 50+1 rule has also earned them a few enemies along the way.
That hatred was on show last season, when RB Leipzig supporters were spat on and pelted with cans and stones by Borussia Dortmund fans. Police filed 28 charges for offences including assault, dangerous bodily injury, damage to property and theft. Four officers and even a police dog were injured in the attacks, leaving Dortmund embarrassed by their own supporters. “Borussia Dortmund deeply regrets that there have been riots on the way of the fans coming from Leipzig,” they said in a statement. “BVB strongly condemns this violence. We wish the injured fans from Leipzig on this way a good improvement.”
The violence was shocking, but this wouldn’t have been anything new for RB Leipzig, who have faced plenty of insults since they were taken over by Red Bull eight years ago. One newspaper, the Berliner Kurier, replaced their name with the word Dosenverkauf (can-sellers) when printing the Bundesliga table, and banners reading “slaughter the bulls” have been unfurled at various grounds when Leipzig come to visit. Dynamo Dresden fans took that idea too literally last season, when they threw a severed cow’s head towards the pitch from the stands during a cup match.
However, if you look at Leipzig’s project solely on a sporting level, you’ll find it’s one of the most exciting in world football. Ralf Rangnick, director of all things RB, is extremely forward thinking and it’s no surprise that the FA approached him about the England job last summer. Having enjoyed managerial success at Hoffenheim and Schalke, his modern and progressive playing style, combined with a strict under-24 transfer policy have really revolutionised the club. The appointment of former Ingolstadt manager Ralph Hasenhüttl, nicknamed ‘the Alpine Klopp’, has also paid dividends with the 49-year-old sharing philosophies and ideals that are slowly becoming synonymous with their brand.
Naby Keita, Timo Werner and Emil Forsberg are undoubtedly their star players, contributing to over 50 goals and 30 assists last season, were signed for a combined £21million. They are likely to leave for five times that figure in today’s market. Marcel Sabitzer, Jean-Kevin Augustin, Lukas Klostermann and Dayot Upamecano have also impressed and will continue to be scouted by Europe’s elite. Much like Monaco, Leipzig are intelligent in their scouting, strong in negotiation and incredibly aware of their environment, which has offered a strong foundation behind the scenes to allow their rapid rise on the pitch to flourish.
While most have been relentless in their criticism, others see the club as a beacon of hope for the decaying plight of East German football. Since Energie Cottbus were relegated way back in 2009, there have been no teams in the Bundesliga from the east, in stark contrast to five regulars from the west. A worrying trend for a region boasting a population exceeding 16 million. Now with a vibrant mixture of youth, attractive football and success, the joy of Leipzig fans knows no bounds. Though they aren’t winning many friends outside, they hardly care whether they are hated or not.
A mere look at the facilities that have been set up at the club’s training base should be enough to convince that this has always been seen as a long-term project, a deliberate attempt to unearth the East’s unused potential. Just as they have become accustomed to the opprobrium, it looks like the rest of Germany will have to accept that their shiny new Bundesliga status was only the beginning.