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There are times in a football season when the actual football on the pitch is overshadowed by events off it, some desirably so, mostly undesirable. The Borussia Dortmund vs. RB Leipzig game was one such affair.
The Westfalenstadion (now the Signal Iduna Park) is an imposing structure, and at its peak decibel levels resembles a gladiatorial ring, with the supporters baying for blood. The intensity that one of the most vociferous stadiums in the world transmits can be intimidating. On the morning of the Dortmund/Leipzig clash, there was a strange negativity to it. The Dortmund supporters had come out with their banners that varied in size, some speaking louder than others. All of them taking aim at the nouveau riche of German football. By the end of the match that Dortmund won by a single goal, those protests would turn out to be among the more benign images of the day.
Fans engaged in a verbal tussle during the matches is nothing new, it’s the same in England, Spain, France or Italy. However, even before the match began, there were the ‘ultras’ as they are called, fervent and emotional supporters, who were claiming football as their own. Their own, not RB Leipzig’s. They peppered that sentiment by abusing the Leipzig fans entering the stadiums. It did not matter if they were children. Leipzig fans were at the receiving end of soda cans, stones, and some even had beverages thrown at them. Reports would come out later that almost 28 people had been arrested following the incidents of violence. What happens to the violence outside the stadium remains mysterious, Dortmund may not have jurisdiction to look into those incidents.
Why is this vitriol aimed at RB Leipzig at all?
To have an idea of that it’s essential to take a peek into the 50+1 rule in the regulations of the Deutsche Fußball-Liga. Broadly speaking, it keeps the supporters of the club active and in touch with what the club does or seeks to do. In a simplified form, it says that 50% plus one vote must be controlled by the ‘members of the club.’ Clubs are treated more like formally constituted associations, where the members then elect the officials. The 50+1 rule gives the members a controlling stake in the club. There are exceptions, however the majority of the clubs are organised in this manner. It helps keep the ticket prices low and the Bundesliga, therefore, boasts of one of the lowest season ticket prices one can lay their hands on.
Leipzig has worked around this rule. They priced out supporters who were ready to pay a membership fee, and instead asked them to join a less impactful ‘supporters’ club’ not the club itself. That also meant no voting rights. This ensured that the actual members would be the RB management, a death knell to the ‘soul of German football’ as they called it, of a club first and foremost belonging to its fan base. DFB themselves don’t seem as intent on putting this under scrutiny as much as the rest of German football does.
RB Leipzig, however, doesn’t just spell money. It’s smart investment and planning coupled with a coach who seems destined for bigger things, and a very astute scouting system. Their season so far is littered with positives, chipping away at the talk of being a money club with each passing match. They beat Dortmund at their home stadium in September 2016. Since then, they went 13 matches undefeated, and are the only newly promoted team in Bundesliga to have achieved this feat.
They have played attractive football, investing in youth. Most of the players are under the age of 24 and no one epitomises the sheer energy and will running through the squad more than the 19-year-old Scottish winger, Oliver Burke, who was previously plying his trade with Nottingham Forest.
Leipzig (a city of similar stature to Dortmund) spent several decades on its knees thanks to a wretched and oppressive political system; years spent in ignominy while the clubs from the Western part of Germany came to form most of the Bundesliga. By the time a unified Germany won their World Cup in 2014, only one player, Toni Kroos, could claim East German roots. This kind of sporting dominance is reflective of the unsaid hierarchy that exists in German football: The West has always been the side with the most might.
Meanwhile, Dortmund enjoyed the benign economic conditions in which a football team capable of competing at the highest level of European competition could emerge ‘organically.’ Not just Dortmund, Munich, Bonn, and other western cities came to enjoy the benefits of this capital influx. They welcomed capital with open arms, businesses were encouraged to invest. The success of the clubs then came to be built on the fact that the supporters came from economically stronger backgrounds, could afford memberships, scarves, and memorabilia, thereby putting money back into the clubs. It’s all driven by money.
Red Bull money is the springboard for football in Leipzig to catch up. It’s fair that investment is made available to them, wherever that may come from. Private money after all isn’t new to modern football. The RB Leipzig support base seems to indicate that the locals are glad for this sudden upsurge of their team on the German football map. They are getting a rare view from their perch that few teams from the Eastern Germany would have thought they’d get.
Maybe there is a majority interest in keeping football grounded to the community. Maybe there is a majority opposition to seeing football morphed into corporate marketing, to the point where one is not easily discernible from the other. This warrants a question aimed at most of those who see RB Leipzig’s rise with hatred and skepticism. Is German football really that untainted that Leipzig is the first blot? The same league has Bayer Leverkusen and VfL Wolfsburg. Both of them are owned by entities that have their own share in history making, when it comes to dodgy practices and actions which could be deemed questionable from an ethics standpoint. The entire ‘preserving traditionalism’ talk then comes across as hogwash. A kind of manufactured ideology, capable of attracting and made only for the naïve.
It is quite understandable that the traditional fan base of German football has certain angst when it comes to the sudden and meteoric rise of Leipzig, but is violence in a football stadium the answer to that? I don’t think so. It just seems to be shenanigans from self-styled ‘real football fans’. Passionate fans are the hallmark of a legendary stadium such as the Westfalenstadion but often there is a small minority that descends into violence. Fans of Dortmund who form the majestic yellow in their stadium need to ensure that they don’t come to be defined by that small minority.
RB Leipzig is really upsetting the apple cart in Germany. Despite the 1-0 defeat to Dortmund, they are perched in second place in the Bundesliga. More likely than not, they will go on to earn themselves a Champions League place, too, at the season’s conclusion. Dortmund and Munich have a new force to contend with in the top echelons of German football and just for that sake, it is refreshing to see this emergence of Leipzig. After all, Red Bull was supposed to give wings. And it has.