Usually a league that provides its fair share of surprises, the German Bundesliga has been turned on its head through nine rounds this season. The likes of Bayer Leverkusen, Wolfsburg and Borussia Mönchengladbach – all Champions League teams at some point or another this calendar year – sit in the lower half of the table. Contrast that with Hoffenheim who just barely escaped relegation last season and are third this campaign under the tutelage of 29-year-old manager, Julian Nagelsmann. They are one of three undefeated teams left in the league,
Four-time defending league champs, Bayern Munich, are predictably top of the lot, also unbeaten. The other unblemished side remaining, however, has shocked the footballing world with its rapid adaptation to life in Germany’s top division in its maiden season there. With seven wins and two draws from nine games, just two points behind Bayern, lie RB Leipzig, an East German club only founded in May 2009 with relative no names. Leipzig are holding their own among the big boys and then some, with victories over Wolfsburg and Bundesliga contenders, Borussia Dortmund to boot.
But this is not your typical Cinderella who made it to her proverbial ball and had as much fun as possible until the clock struck midnight. Unlike the famed fairy tale where she meets with her Prince Charming, this Cinderella hooked up with a sugar daddy – in this case, multi-billion dollar energy drink hub, Red Bull, – and her time among the country’s elite may be for a while yet.
Leipzig is a city with a largely unheralded footballing history. Aside from the city being the birthplace of the German FA and playing host at the 2006 World Cup via the now Red Bull Arena, the most they had to boast club-wise was FC Lokomotiv Leipzig. They won the first ever German league title in 1903 and made an appearance in the 1986/97 UEFA Cup Winner’s Cup, but have slid down the lower divisions since its only Bundesliga appearance in the 1993/94 season.
The city was home to now defunct FC Sachsen Leipzig, formed in 1990 and largely playing in Germany’s Regionalliga Nordost, its fourth tier, while battling a host of financial problems. In 2006, Red Bull attempted to rescue the club from folding, but pulled out amidst protests and derision from fans of the team and across Germany.
Three years later, Red Bull’s pursuit to own a club in the East German city came to fruition when Red Bull bought the license of SSV Markranstädt, a fifth-tier club based in nearby Saxony, for a reported €350,000. After stadium rights and other financial kinks were worked out, RasenBallsport Leipzig was born for in Germany, teams aren’t allowed to use their sponsor in the team name. They began play in the Oberliga for the 2009/10 campaign. RB Leipzig joined Major League Soccer Club, New York Red Bulls, and Austrian club, Red Bull Salsburg as teams owned by the company.
The team won promotion to the Regionalliga Nordost in its second season and by the end of the 2012/13 season, achieved third tier status. During that season, RB Leipzig hired former Schalke manager, Ralf Rangnick as its sporting director and, under his guidance, established a wide-ranging scouting network that unearthed promising talent such as Danish forward, Youssuf Poulsen, and wing back/midfielder, Joshua Kimmich who spent two seasons at the club before going to Bayern, where he’s morphed into one of the world’s most prolific young players.
Leipzig were granted a licence to play in the 2. Bundesliga upon promotion to that league to the dismay of fans. Fan groups sharing discontent towards their inclusion started the campaign Nein zu RB (No to RB) to criticise the club and have directed chants at fans of the new moneybags during matches, calling them ‘swine.’ RB fans cheekily respond to those chants in self-deprecating fashion, ‘Wir sind Schweine! (We are Swine!).’”
Unlike most traditionalist German clubs who tend to abide by the country’s 50+1 rule, which gives team members, the fans, a fair balance of power when it comes to electing the team’s board, RB Leipzig operates a strictly commercial model. They charge €800, more than 10 times what Bayern charges in membership fees and have the fewest voting eligible members of any Bundesliga side. Essentially, the lack of fan power and unlimited spending cap they have make RB Leipzig the scourge of German football for most local football lovers.
Nonetheless, RB Leipzig have continued its rapid ascension up the German footballing ladder and are not just aiming to stay in the Bundesliga but to win it in the near future according to Red Bull’s co-owner, Dietrich Mateschitz. Unlike most super-rich clubs who spend countless amounts on established stars, RB Leipzig are reaping the benefits of their aggressive, youth-focused transfer policy. Rangnick succeeded with a similar policy at Hoffenheim, managing the club to two promotions and had them as high as top of the Bundesliga halfway through the 2008/09 season while developing the likes of Vedad Ibisevic – who led the league with 18 goals at the halfway mark before a knee injury ended his season – Demba Ba and Luiz Gustavo.
RB Leipzig is led up top by Forsberg, who co-leads the team with three goals along with 20-year-old ex-Stuttgart forward and record signing, Timo Werner, as well as 21-year-old Guinean central midfielder, Naby Keita, who scored their game-winner against Dortmund and is averaging 2.6 interceptions per game so far (via WhoScored). Additionally, they have promising players such as former Werder Bremen striker, Davie Selke (aged 21), Scottish midfield prodigy, Oliver Burke (aged 19) who’s been compared to a young Gareth Bale, German U-21 defender, Lukas Klostermann and midfielder, Rani Khedira, the younger brother of Juventus midfielder, Sami Khedira. All these youngsters are under the tutelage of Austrian coach, Ralph Hasenhüttl, who helped another club making its Bundesliga debut, FC Ingolstadt to a respectable 11th place finish last campaign.
Largely relying on a disciplined counterattacking setup with the second best defense – six goals allowed – as well as the fourth most goals (17) and key passes (98) through nine rounds, RB Leipzig may realise their dreams of domestic and European success sooner than most thought. Their chances of pulling of a feat akin to the 1997/98 Kaiserslautern side, the only newly-promoted club to win a Bundesliga title, are relatively slim, but the foundation they have set up makes their plight to achieve such success in the near future somewhat plausible.
They may have overtaken Bayern Munich as Germany’s most divisive club, but RB Leipzig are flourishing in spite of the criticism and may have only began changing the landscape of German football. Like its famous advertisements remind us, ‘Red Bull gives you wings’ and with the help of this energy drink-making juggernaut, RB Leipzig has soared through the local setup and won’t stop until it’s perched at the top.