The English Media Still Misunderstands the RB Leipzig Debate

Yesterday morning, before Manchester City played Lyon in the Champions League quarter final, Daniel Taylor, one of England’s best football journalists, wrote a piece for The Athletic about three teams – Manchester City, PSG, and RB Leipzig. This column was entitled, “Moaning about Man City, PSG and Leipzig is mostly just jealousy”.

At that point, Taylor (and many others) seemingly assumed that City would join the other two in the Champions League semi-final. The majority of the article was about City, a club Taylor covered for many years, and validly defended them from the accusations that they lack history. But as well as defending City, he also defended Leipzig. One paragraph read as follows:

“Now we are told Leipzig are such football pariahs the German football magazine 11Freunde intends to ignore their semi-final against PSG. “RB Leipzig isn’t a football club, but an imitation,” the magazine says. “It’s a marketing project, established solely for strengthening the Red Bull brand. It never intended on just playing football.” In football, it appears to be a sin to be successful when you don’t have any “real’ history.”

Those few lines on their own sum up just how much the entire English football media misunderstands the whole debate and controversy about RB Leipzig.

The frequent comparison to City and PSG in the first place is disingenuous. Those two were well-known, previously successful clubs who were taken to new heights by the billions of wealthy investors (investors who are closely linked to alleged human rights violations, it should be said, although that is beyond the point of this article). The histories of PSG, City and RB Leipzig are not the same, and their aims, on-field and off-field, are not the same.Traditionally-minded German fans may not like football clubs suddenly becoming rich and spending billions of pounds, but the existence of City and PSG is not an affront to their culture – like any German traditional club, they were set up to play football and benefit the community.

That is vastly different to a multi-billion dollar corporation using loopholes in the beloved 50+1 rule forming their own team in order to advertise a drink. They are two very different debates.

The Athletic’s article, and many others before it, asserts that it is only now that Leipzig will be seen as pariahs, and only now that they are successful, and threatening the likes of FC Bayern, that they are ‘sinning’. In reality, German fans have spoken out against Red Bull’s investment in football long before the company crossed the border from their native Austria. In 2006, shortly after Red Bull took over SV Austria Salzburg, 1. FC Köln fans boycotted a pre-season match against the Austrian team, and St. Pauli held banners protesting against Salzburg’s new ownership. Were they just jealous of all the Austrian titles that the new Red Bull Salzburg would win? No – it is the existence of Red Bull Salzburg and RB Leipzig, not the results, that fan scenes consider the sin, and the hatred would be just as strong if they were still in the lower leagues.

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The idea that other fans are simply jealous falls further apart when you consider that it could have been St. Pauli in the situation that RB Leipzig found themselves in today. When RB Leipzig was eventually set up in 2009, they bought out the license of 5th-tier side SSV Markranstädt, taking their place in the football pyramid. But Markranstädt was not their first choice. Red Bull first approached FC Sachsen Leipzig, then St. Pauli, then 1860 München, then Fortuna Düsseldorf, but were met with resistance from the fans and board of each club. None of those clubs have been successful in the years since. Yet they will all play in their club’s own colours, with their club’s badge, with their club’s name. It is still their club, and to them, that matters more than Champions League football. They knew what they could have won, but they didn’t want it. Now, instead of being called principled, or traditionalists, they are labelled envious.

Not all English fans think the same way as those fans. There have been persistent rumours of Red Bull getting involved with an English team, most frequently Leeds and Newcastle, who have both been underperforming clubs with unpopular owners for most of the last decade. The idea of Red Bull Newcastle or Red Bull Leeds sounds terrible to a traditionalist; Leeds and Newcastle, two historic clubs with some of the most celebrated fanbases in the English game, changing their identity? Many Newcastle fans seem to like the idea, however. 

It’s difficult to imagine Kaiserslautern or 1860 fans feeling the same way, no matter how many seasons they spend in the 3. Liga. There is a difference in mindset. The English fans and English media largely treat Leipzig as a normal football club, and it is galling seeing organisations like the BBC tweet about RB Leipzig’s fairytale story, when they usually try to resist promoting any private companies where possible.

Foreign fans and media often assert that Leipzig’s success is great for German football, and it is easy to understand why. For many, they have the best chance of ending Bayern’s monopoly on the Bundesliga, which is surely a good thing, and those German fans who speak out against Leipzig are often accused of trying to protect Bayern’s dominance, because every German fan is secretly a Bayern fan, or something like that.

That accusation has been levelled at 11Freunde too. The Daily Mail wrote an article about 11Freunde’s stance, which attracted 228 comments; the top comment said the magazine’s dislike of Leipzig was “pure jealousy”, while others complained of Bayern’s dominance. “Yet they are happy with Bayern making it a one-team-league 95% of the time”, said one of the other top comments.

But 11Freunde is a magazine not just about football, but about football culture (it even says so on the cover). The people who run it are not just football writers, but football fans. Editor Philipp Köster for example, is an Arminia Bielefeld fan. He probably doesn’t want Bayern to win the league 95% of the time, but it wouldn’t affect Arminia and their fan culture if they did. The existence of RB Leipzig does, and the more prominent they are, the more likely it becomes that more corporations take the place of traditional clubs.

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You might not have a problem with that. You might think that the benefits of RB Leipzig’s existence outweigh the perceived negatives, and that’s an understandable view – maybe you think it’s good for the neglected former East Germany, maybe you would rather a drinks company won trophies than a club backed by human rights abusing foreign governments, maybe you think it’s good for the ‘international relevance’ of German football. 

You don’t have to dislike RB Leipzig. You don’t have to boycott them, and you can support them if you want. There will be plenty of people in Germany celebrating their achievements, and not all of them will be from Leipzig. But before you write articles calling critics jealous or telling them how happy they should be about Leipzig’s existence and success, maybe you should take the time to understand why fans are unhappy.

Too much of the English speaking football media is ignoring that.

About Louis Ostrowski 15 Articles
Louis is from England but has become a VfL Osnabrück fan, and is usually found tweeting about football kits or the 2. Bundesliga at @ostrl.

1 Comment

  1. Speaking from the English side of the pond. I’d simply state the differences between English and German fanbases are principles. English fanbases individually have principles in how there specific club, players or boardroom members should operate but that isn’t consistent and matched across other clubs and further down the pyramid. On the other hand German fanbases have a large amount of collective endeavour and will collaborate openly to uphold principles surrounding community, fan culture and ethics in Football.

    English football fans complain regularly about not getting fair treatment about number of issue surrounding going to football games like travel, cost and availability. Yet can’t seem to drop arguing over who’s winger is better or the latest VAR decision to actually come together and make positive changes. That’s one thing I really admire about German fan culture.

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