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Opinion: RB Leipzig are top, and that’s not a good thing

December 15, 2019

After Borussia Mönchengladbach lost to Wolfsburg, the Bundesliga has a new leader: RB Leipzig. The team is there on merit, but the rise of the Red Bull franchise deserves scrutiny, not celebration, says DW's Matt Ford.

FC Augsburg - RB Leipzig 2:2
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Hiermayer

"Kein Fußball mit Red Bull!" read the Fortuna Düsseldorf supporters’ banner behind the goal – "no football with Red Bull!" Four years after RB Lepizig’s promotion to the Bundesliga, the protests against the franchise club continue on an almost weekly basis.

Hanging from the stadium roof on Saturday, the scoreboard featured Fortuna Düsseldorf’s logo on one side but merely the word "Leipzig" on the other, as the club also made its official position clear.

Unfortunately, it only took 65 seconds for a "1" to appear next to the away team. After an hour, it was a "2." By the end, it was a "3" as RB Leipzig went top of the Bundesliga overnight. And, after Borussia Mönchengladbach lost in Wolfsburg on Sunday, that’s where they stayed.

First things first: Julian Nagelsmann and his players are there on sporting merit. The 32-year-old inherited one of the most talented squads in the Bundesliga and has wasted no time in stamping his own philosophy on the team. RB Leipzig are currently the best footballing team in Germany and among the best in Europe.

None of that is in question. But no matter how good the players are, no matter how well they play football and no matter what they may or not win, the fundamental issues with "RasenBallsport Leipzig" remain the same as ever.

Matt Ford Kommentarbild
DW's Matt Ford

The same old issues

The club was created in 2009 by an Austrian energy drink manufacturer with the primary purpose of marketing a soft drink and lifestyle brand on the biggest stage of all – professional football. This basic fact will always set RB Leipzig apart from every other football club in Germany, for whom football is a raison d’être, not merely a vehicle.

The location is also arbitrary. Never mind the frequent headlines proclaiming RB Leipzig to be "an asset for the East," — Red Bull aren’t in Leipzig for the benefit of football in the region; they’re there because attempts to establish teams elsewhere failed.

"But they have a great youth policy!" No, that’s another common myth. In fact, not one single player produced by RB Leipzig’s own academy has ever played a single minute of Bundesliga football for the club. Rather, youngsters are farmed from within a unique system of franchise clubs, a competitive advantage not available to their rivals at home or abroad.

Red Bull may have made enough adjustments in structure and personnel to convince UEFA that RB Leipzig and RB Salzburg are “completely separate entities” but a quick glance at the transfer history between the two suggests otherwise. A total of 18 players have moved from Salzburg to Saxony since 2009, including Naby Keita, Dayot Upamecano, Peter Gulacsi and Marcel Sabitzer.

Last week, Nagelsmann met with young RB Salzburg star Erling Haaland. Borussia Dortmund are also reported to be interested in the 19-year-old but it doesn’t take a genius to work out who holds the better cards. To put in bluntly, it’s distortion of the competition.

Still in breach of 50+1

Apropos Dortmund: the Black and Yellows, like almost every other club in Germany, are bound by German football’s 50+1 ownership rule which stipulates that 50% of shares in a football club, plus one share, must belong to the club itself. In other words: to the members, to the fans. But RB Leipzig have been allowed to circumvent it, leaving Red Bull in full control and free to act as they please.

Some of German football’s biggest selling points are a direct result of having member-led clubs bound by 50+1: standing terraces, affordable tickets, a vibrant and active fan culture and clubs which remain deeply embedded in their communities, reflecting society warts and all.

Not so in Leipzig, where fans’ demands for dialogue are ignored, where supporters face draconian punishments for the use of pyrotechnics and where messages against sexism, homophobia and racism are considered too political.

Indeed, when it comes to Red Bull and politics, it’s far more complicated – and so is the situation with RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga.

The team may play exciting football, the coach may be one of Germany’s best and, after going top of the league, RB may even go on to break Bayern Munich’s stranglehold on the division.

But the fundamental problems surrounding the very existence of the club remain the same. RB Leipzig represent the antithesis to all which is admirable about football in Germany, and their rise to the top deserves critical scrutiny, not blind celebration.

DW Matthew Ford Sports
Matt Ford Reporter and editor for DW Sports specializing in European football, fan culture & sports politics.@matt_4d