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Germany’s Most Hated Soccer Team’s Rise to the Top

By Divij Jain ’21

RB Leipzig's Marcel Sabitzer in the Champions League (Photo Credit: Bundesliga)
RB Leipzig's Marcel Sabitzer in the Champions League (Photo Credit: Bundesliga)

On August 13, RB Leipzig beat Atlético Madrid 2-1 to reach the semifinals of the Champions League in only their second-ever Champions League campaign.

How did an eleven-year-old team reach the final four of European soccer’s most revered competition?

In 2009, energy drink company Red Bull purchased non-league club SSV Markranstädt, based outside of Leipzig, Germany. The club was renamed RasenBallsport Leipzig e.V. (RasenBallsport translated literally is “lawn ball sport”), or RB Leipzig for short. Since the Deutscher Fußball-Bund (DFB) has regulations against including brand names in soccer team names, the club adapted the name “RasenBallsport” to circumvent these regulations while maintaining the company’s initials. RB Leipzig became Red Bull’s third major venture in soccer, in addition to Austria’s RB Salzburg and the New York Red Bulls.

From its inception, RB Leipzig quickly rose through the tiers of German soccer before being promoted to the Bundesliga in 2016, followed by an impressive second place finish in the team’s inaugural season. Despite the fairytale nature of the team’s rapid ascent, RB Leipzig is universally hated among German soccer fans—so much so that Dynamo Dresden fans threw a severed bull's head onto the pitch in 2016.

RB Leipzig’s success in its early years can be largely attributed to the advantage it had compared to teams of the same level: being owned by a multibillion dollar corporation. Through the relatively (compared to purchases by teams at the same level) expensive purchases of players like Joshua Kimmich, Diego Demme, and Yussuf Poulsen, RB Leipzig were able to brush aside lower-level competition.

Criticism of RB Leipzig extends beyond its ability to pay more for players than their rivals. Red Bull co-founder and 49% owner Dietrich Mateschitz, who also owns RB Leipzig, has come under criticism for his political views including stating his opposition to the German government welcoming refugees in a 2017 interview with Kleine Zeitung. Shortly afterwards, the Austrian billionaire found himself on the receiving end of a critical banner displayed by Schalke 04 fans at a match.

The criticism of RB Leipzig most important to traditional German soccer fans is its circumvention of the “50+1” rule. Germany’s 50+1 rule states that a club must hold a majority of its own voting rights in order to prevent large investors from taking over clubs. This rule is unique to Germany and its soccer culture. Ordinary fans have the ability to buy shares in their favorite team for, typically, €50 to €100 (approximately $60 to $120). While RB Leipzig technically follows the rule, shares cost hundreds or thousands of euros, and many are owned by high-ranking Red Bull employees.

While RB Leipzig’s actions off the pitch have received widespread criticism, RB Leipzig are a well-coached side with incredible scouting networks and an admirable emphasis on improving youth players.

RB Leipzig are coached by 33-year-old Julian Nagelsmann. Nagelsmann is the youngest manager in Bundesliga history and recently became the youngest manager to coach a team in a Champions League semifinal.

RB Leipzig’s starting line-up in the Champions League quarterfinal against Atlético Madrid cost a combined €75 million (approximately $88 million). Considering that their semifinal opponents, Paris Saint-Germain, have two players who alone cost a combined €367 million (approximately $432 million), the fact the RB Leipzig reached the semifinals speaks volumes about the team’s ability to scout talented players for low prices.

As for the team’s emphasis on youth talent, just take the words of eighteen-year-old Lazar Samadžic who joined RB Leipzig from Hertha Berlin on September 8: “RB Leipzig is a great club for young, hungry players. The team has been playing attractive and attacking football for many years now, and I think I will fit in well.”

RB Leipzig will never fit the traditional mold of a German team. Fans considering supporting RB Leipzig will always have to face an important decision: can I support a team that opposes hundreds of years of tradition? Does the team’s background overshadow its attractive style of play and remarkable achievements on the pitch?

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