In Defence of Red Bull: The Leipzig Football Project

The cover of the March 2014 of 11Freunde, one of Germanys most widely read football magazines, was covered in red and announced in big white letters : “Der Grosse Red Bull BLUFF” (The big Red Bull Bluff). The cover also included the commonly known Red Bull logo with the slogan added on: “100% plastic.”

11Freunde "Der Grosse Red Bull Bluff" cover
11Freunde’s dig at Leipzig’s Red Bull identity.

It was just the latest article in a campaign by 11Freunde to denounce the evil doings of the Austrian company. But surprisingly, this time there was a backlash, and in this month’s issue, 11Freunde printed in the “Gästeblock” column responses by readers that in many ways defended the investments by Red Bull in the football infrastructure of Leipzig.

One reader responded to the article by writing: “RB Leipzig is fundamental to improve the living quality of the city of Leipzig! Leipzig has a population of 500,000 people and deserves professional football.” Furthermore, he stated that RB Leipzig unlike the other two clubs is a family-friendly project unlike the other two Leipzig clubs (Lokomotiv and SG Sachsen Leipzig), which are both on the verge of bankruptcy: “I can’t visit home games of FC Lok with my son, what happens in the stands there is in many ways degrading, and many of the ultras have even created a dangerous atmosphere.” He finishes “the only thing is your polemic article.”

Leipzig: a football wasteland

Indeed, the city of Leipzig has been without professional football since the relegation of VfB Leipzig (which was known as Lokomotiv Leipzig in the GDR and has since returned to this name) in 1998 from the 2. Bundesliga to the Regionalliga. Leipzig’s other team, Chemie, briefly competed in the Germany’s third tier as Sachsen Leipzig after the fall of the wall, and like Lokomotiv plays in Germany’s lower tiers far away from professional football.

The fan scene of both clubs has also been saturated with violent types, which in many cases have deep-rooted connections to Germany’s right wing parties such as the NPD. Violence between the two clubs has also been an issue and alienated the club from many mainstream fans such as the above-mentioned writer to 11Freunde.

The argument that Red Bull’s engagement in Leipzig will lead to destruction is also weak. For example, what is the difference between Red Bull and Bayer Leverkusen (Bayer AG), VfL Wolfsburg (Volkswagen)? On the other hand, TSG 1899 Hoffenheim is another story, since although Dietmar Hopp officially only holds 49% of the shares, it is effectively owned and dependent on him as the main benefactor.

The Bundesliga: commerce is everywhere

In Munich, 1860 has sold 49% of its shares to the Jordanian investor Hassan Ismaik, and Bayern Munich has recently completed a deal in which it sold about 8% of its shares to the insurance company Allianz. Germany’s largest club also has similar deals with Audi, and Adidas, and altogether the club has sold about 25% of its shares to major corporations, who have become a major influence in the decision making process of the club, especially now that the long-standing club leader Uli Hoeness is off to jail.

In the very west of the country, Schalke 04 has signed a major sponsorship deal with Gazprom, and the company is the major reason that the club can now competes year in and year out for a Champions League spot in the Bundesliga. But of course Gazprom’s investment does not come without the company’s influence and Russian state actors wanting a say in the club’s policies, as even Putin himself has tried to intervene in the daily running of the club.

With all these examples, it seems unlikely that the 50+1 rule would survive when put under scrutiny in front of a European court, and perhaps it shouldn’t. The current system protects the major clubs in Germany and has created a status quo in which the rich become richer and smaller clubs and cities without Bundesliga football cannot break the strangle hold by the big clubs.

The 50+1 rule: a white elephant

As recently as 2011, the DFL softened the 50+1 rule, when Martin Kind, the long-standing chairman of Hannover 96, threatened the DFL with a court case in front of the European court of justice. He argued that individuals should not be barred from investing in their favourite clubs, and that people who invest should have the right to have a larger role in running a club. Threatened with a court case, the DFL budged and changed the rule so that individuals and companies that have been investing in the club for over 20 years would be allowed to become majority owners. However, this was a typical German compromise that extended the status quo.

Now with the possible ascent of RasenBall Leipzig to the Bundesliga 2, the DFL stands to soften the rule even further. The league has no interest to not give the club a licence to compete in the second tier of the Bundesliga, as the governing body is aware that they would not be able to win a court case against Red Bull and the current ownership structures of the league would completely fall apart.

In any case, it is dangerous to brand mark a club like RB Leipzig as the devil of commerce. Without Red Bull, there would be no Bundesliga football for Leipzig, and indeed the club would stand as a nice counter weight to the existing clubs from the former GDR, which have created bad press through fan violence, corruption and bankruptcies. Those who say that RB Leipzig is a typical commerce club should look at the above mentioned examples. The reality is that modern football is deeply rooted to big business, and Red Bull is no different than Allianz, Audi, Adidas, Gazprom, Bayer, Volkswagen, and Dietmar Hopp.

Header courtesy of 11Freunde.com.

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Manuel Veth is the Editor in Chief of the fascinating Futbolgrad, a football website that covers all the post-Soviet states. You can also follow Manuel on Twitter at @homosovieticus

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