Ali previews the most contentious side ever to play in the Bundesliga: RB Leipzig
It is no understatement to say that RB Leipzig are one of the most hated club in modern football, at least to German fans. Sure, you might hate Chelsea or Manchester United for always winning, or you might hate Manchester City or Real Madrid for buying the best players, or you might even hate your local rival because, well, who doesn't. But then no team has faced such universal condemnation and hatred as the team from Leipzig do in their current form. So, who are they? Why does everyone hate them? And should we really try and be more positive?
The 50+1 rule is a sacred part of German football and is intended to keep control of a club within reach of the supporters. It has helped keep clubs financially stable and led to the almost profitable running of some clubs within the Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga. In 2009 Red Bull decided they wanted a club in Germany run on similar lines to those in Salzburg and New York: a marketing scheme for the energy drinks company that also provided a sporting opportunity to a city without a major football (sorry New York, SOCCER) team. Red Bull initially showed interest in FC Sachsen Leipzig; after running into protests and legal trouble with the DFB and DFL, the plan was scrapped and they searched for other targets. Saint Pauli, 1860 Munich and Fortuna Düsseldorf all came under the microscope, each time with the same consequences: mass fan protest, almost ending in riots on some occasions, and legal trouble with the organisational bodies. Red Bull would need another plan if they were to take on the establishment.
After years of unsuccessfully entering at a higher level due to DFB fears they would commercialise whichever club they took over: kit colour changes, badge changes and an unfair injection of transfer funds were all touted as reasons to veto any purchase by Red Bull of a team under DFL or DFB jurisdiction. Red Bull therefore sought out a fifth division side, no longer bound by the constraints of DFB licencing and open to investment from a huge global company. Thus, SSV Markanstädt became RB Leipzig, via multiple name considerations which were considered illegal were the club to progress into DFB territory (which they surely would). The reason for the hate, then, is the unscrupulous way that Red Bull cheated the system to find a way in, combined with the clear bending of almost every DFB rule in order to gain a competitive advantage. They have been clever: all rules are followed, but they are bent just as far as they can be. Corporate sponsorship has entered German football via the back door and all hell has broken loose.
In the seven years since they were founded, RB Leipzig have made huge strides towards their goal of becoming a world player. Red Bull have other concerns, as mentioned above, but none have quite the ability to draw in the world audience like a side in the Bundesliga. After seven years of regular promotions they find themselves there, alongside 1899 Hoffenheim (SAP), FC Ingolstadt (Audi), Bayer Leverkusen (Bayer Pharmaceuticals) and VfL Wolfsburg (Volkswagen) as sides with corporate backing. Leverkusen and Wolfsburg have special exemptions thanks to their roots as works teams (Leverkusen's nickname is Werkself, literally Works 11), but the others have arguably paved the way for RB Leipzig by showing just what they can get away with. Leipzig have taken it far beyond what others have attempted though, so the hatred coming from the terraces will be unlike anything heard before. The atmosphere at the Düsseldorf - Leipzig clash in the 2. Bundesliga last year was nothing short of incredible; whistling for the entire time Leipzig had the ball. Whilst Fortuna fans may have more beef with Red Bull than those at Schalke or Dortmund, you can guarantee the attempt to take over other Traditionsvereine will not sit well.
So that's the negatives: the club is founded on money and power wrangling and is run rather sketchily along DFB and DFL lines, never quite illegal enough to lose the licence but always close enough to push right to the limit. So do they deserve any credit for anything? Well, actually, maybe. They may have been unsporting in their monetary demolition of the lower leagues, but a team passing through has less of an impact than we would probably like to admit. So now we have a well funded team coming into the Bundesliga to provide yet more competition in a league that is already one of the most unpredictable in Europe. Yes, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund will almost certainly be fighting for the title again, but below that anything could happen. Teams are forever strengthening and those that do so unsuccessfully find themselves relegated (hello, VfB Stuttgart). It means the top two divisions of German football are closer together than in any other country; there is almost nowhere else where you can easily imagine a team going from second division bottom half to Europa League in a few seasons, but in Germany it happens regularly. RB Leipzig are just the latest to bridge the gap and, with solid investment and brave play, they could push on for Europe this year.
Here's the bit that is specific to RB Leipzig though, and which I think deserves admiration and respect. They have developed a squad based entirely on young talent. Their transfer policy involves a rule that says nobody over 27 is to be signed. This obviously has its opponents too: many poorer clubs have lost their best young talent to the east German side, but the money they receive is far bigger than if the player had run his contract down and left for the Bundesliga as a free agent. Leipzig don't have time to waste, so don't wait for contracts to run down. Their young side were incredible to watch last year; in the game against Fortuna they dominated the ball and were very comfortable 3-1 winners. Whether the youngsters can cope with the pressure of the Bundesliga is another thing, but the club are promoting and fostering young talent, something which will only help the established clubs. As discussed with Wolfsburg earlier in our series, there are plenty of reasons to play for a Traditionsverein still, and it could be that Leipzig are putting plenty of young German stars on the pitch regularly and therefore in the shop window. Hoffenheim have found that they have a high turnover of players, simply due to the fact that their stars still want to play for the biggest clubs.
Ethical? No. Successful. Hell yes. Whether RB Leipzig are still a story in a few years will remain to be seen. Hoffenheim are still unpopular, but familiarity has lessened the hatred and it has become clear they can't really compete at the highest level every year, much like all the other clubs below the big two. Leipzig are a different entity to Hoffenheim though; despite the money issues, in Hoffenheim it was the case of a businessman investing in his local club, rather than a corporate takeover.
There is no denying RB Leipzig goes against everything the Bundesliga stands for and no one will be crying if they drop straight back down to the second division come May, but the star talent they are fostering and the youth policy they are advancing may just work. Maybe all the clubs can learn something from Leipzig's youth policy, but you can bet your house they would never admit it.
Key Player: Youssuf Poulson
I really rate the young Danish striker, but there are plenty of young stars in this team. Poulson formed a good partnership with former Werder Bremen starlet Davie Selke and the two will be crucial if RB are going to push on this season.
Surprise Player: Rani Khedira
Only a surprise in the sense that everyone knows his brother, but the younger Khedira could be a player to watch in the midfield of RB and the expectations thanks to his name will mean he is keen to show he doesn't live under Sami's shadow.
Ali's Prediction: 15th
Falk's Prediction: 8th
This is where it all begins. Our resident analysts study the unrecognised players and examine the matches that are of interest across Europe.