March 23, 2017

Kicking the Can down the Road on the “RB Leipzig Question”

I’ll state my main claim for this article right away: until now, we Bundesliga folks have been avoiding a confrontation with what I’ll call the “RB Leipzig Question.” Basically, this avoidance is a form of kicking the can down the road; putting off the issue of RB Leipzig’s presence in the Bundesliga and an ultimate confrontation about what it means and what, if anything, we should do about it.

Believe me, it’s not out of laziness or apathy that we’ve been kicking this can down the road. On the contrary, there’s been loads of kvetching, hand-wringing, and puzzling about what RB Leipzig means for German Fußball. Most of us seem deeply ambivalent — in a totally uncertain and even anxious way — about the “RB Leipzig Question.” We just don’t know what to do with it. Our response follows a classic formula:

On the one hand, we acknowledge and praise the attractive football played by RB Leipzig’s talented young squad, which drove it to the table top during the Hinrunde. RBL is an enjoyable side to watch, hands down. One of Germany’s most enjoyable. Plus, the players are likable, seemingly diligent, and humble.

On the other hand, we wearily nod about the ugliness of Red Bull’s logo being plastered all over the Bundesliga, and mockery the club’s existence has made of the 50+1 Rule and, by extension, the culture and values of German Fußball itself.

So Ambivalence.

I’ve encountered these two strands of the issue punctuate almost podcast episode heard or article I’ve read when the topic of RB Leipzig comes up. We kick the can, putting off answers or hoping they’ll appear on the horizon eventually — a method that applies to many things in life, it turns out. Perhaps, some of us think that an answer to this issue doesn’t exist and that the issue itself will simply dissolve over time, as RB Leipzig ushers in a new footballing paradigm in Germany.

However, not everyone is ambivalent or kicking this can down the road. Nope, many Bundesliga ultras, especially of Traditionsvereine, have been confronting the question head-on this season with vicious banners, vicious chants, bus-blocking, bus vandalism, and the occasional boycott. (Just google “anti rb leipzig” among other keywords.) As you probably already know, one particularly vicious confrontation with the “RB Leipzig Question” occurred on Matchday 19 when die Rotenbullen paid a visit to Borussia Dortmund’s Westfaldenstadion and its famed Yellow Wall.

Jump to a couple weeks later, BVB is being punished for the plethora of banners, many offensive and violent in message, on display in the Yellow Wall during the match. Additionally, there were reports of RBL supporters being verbally abused, spat on, and having cups, etc. thrown on them during the match (some of whom were women and children). Moreover, some RBL supporters were attacked outside the Westfalenstadion Park before the match began. Certain BVB ultras and even “ordinary fans” have been blamed for the RBL-directed violence.

So this upcoming Matchday 21, Dortmund will play its home match against VfL Wolfsburg in front of an empty Yellow Wall as well as pay a 100,000 € fine. Die leere Wand. It will be weird, uncanny, and a little sad. But also totally justified. According to the algorithms of public speech, BVB condemned the violence and apologized on behalf of its supporters. Chairman Hans-Joachim Watzke personally offered sympathy to the affected RB Leipzig supporters. Quickly, everyone rushed to condemn the violence, call out elements of German footballing culture, ban the hooligans, and call for the majority of BVB supporters to take back their club from the hooligans.

Look, in principle I don’t disagree with these “takes” or condemnations about what happened in Dortmund. There is something behind-the-neck chilling about the clips of BVB-on-RBL fan violence I saw, a feeling akin to what I felt from reading passages of Among the Thugs. What happened is worthy of condemnation. The hooligans involved should be banned, etc. However, and unfortunately, the violence in Dortmund can distract us from the larger question of what RB Leipzig means for German football both now and in the future. Violent actions can do this, as philosopher Slavoj Žižek argues in his work of the same name. That is, a violent outburst — “subjective violence” in Žižek’s scheme, which is really the symptom of a larger structural issue, or “structural violence” in Žižek’s coinage — dominates our attention and fears, while the underlying “bigger” thing goes unchecked. For example, during riots it’s easy to blame the rioters, rather than the conditions/ideologies catalyzing the riot. I think a similar dynamic is at work when we focus on the eye-catching violent events / banners / protests surrounding RB Leipzig’s reception in the Bundesliga. In Žižekian language, the “subjective violence” in Dortmund overshadows the “structural violence” that is occurring within Germany football, which finds itself being torn apart, thanks to a cross-pressuring applied by various forces, such as money, markets, community, economics, development, tradition, success, media, and grassroots energy.

This season, each time the “RB Leipzig Question” comes up, we slide away from it by fixating on the latest ultra-produced violence directed toward RB Leipzig. Meanwhile, the question lingers on. This evasion of the bigger issue is what our condemnations of the violence get wrong. Again, I too condemn the violence in Dortmund, and elsewhere, yet I also acknowledge that the RBL-targeted violence is motivated by protecting a precious cultural good in Germany. A cultural good, I imagine, that is also quite precious to your average Bundesliga fan, even if that average fan would never act violently toward RB Leipzig. In other words, RB Leipzig’s presence in the Bundesliga is a big freaking deal, raising profound questions about what German football will become. Furthermore, the identity of football in Germany is a big deal, given the Bundesliga’s enviable position, among Europe’s other big leagues, with its communal environs, supporter-friendly pricing, supporter-club leadership (i.e. the 50+1 Rule), high Matchday attendance, crackling atmospheres, and infusion of footballing youth. So yeah, there are reasons why ultras might violently. Of course, these reasons don’t justify the violent end, but we can’t keep ignoring the motivating reasons. Thus, not only can we condemn the violent outbursts, but also we need to allow the reasons motivating the violence to be discussed, aired out, and deeply engaged. By continuing to let the “RB Leipzig” question linger on, I’d argue, we acquiesce to both the symbolism and the economic forces that RB Leipzig brings into the Bundesliga.

Are we okay with this?

Are you?

Kicking the can down the road is an accommodation to the status quo, while merely condemning RBL-directed violence is reductive and impoverishes the kinds of cultural, social, and political conversations that are possible about football. We need to be honest with ourselves if kicking the can down the road is the only thing we are willing/capable of doing with the “RB Leipzig Question” right now. Let’s at least start here. Acknowledging this position can clarify what’s becoming the ambivalent “default position” on this issue, while simultaneously making room for the (probably?) analytically discrete perspective offered by the protesting ultras in the conservation. So let’s clarify the subject positions.

Next, I’ll try to unpack a bit what’s happened this season. Frankly, I expected more “mainstream” protest (from mainstream media commentators, Tweeters, writers, etc.) about RB Leipzig this season, especially when RasenBallsport Leipzig summited the Bundesliga table. Surely, it was all “too much, too fast,” I thought. But I should’ve known better. Pretty football is fatally attractive, like the mysterious “The Entertainment” in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. For many of us, it’s the raison d’être we watch the sport. I get it, under Ralph Hasenhüttl and Ralf Rangnick, the RB Leipzig playing style is wonderful and the club seems like one of Europe’s most well-run outfits. Admirable, indeed. However, we seem so overpowered by the nice football this season that we’ve forgotten that only two or so years ago we were nauseatingly anxious about the rising threat of a RBL-ization of German football. Yet here it is. Lemme take a wild guess: you’re not as nauseatingly anxious now that the threat is here and playing nice football. Right?

Again, are you okay with this?

Look, I don’t have any answers to this “RB Leipzig Question.” However, as an American, I’m far more familiar (comfortable even?) with sports being treated as an economic growth sector and clubs as franchises that can pack up the circus and move to another city, no eyes blinked. Call me a tad cynical, but as an American I’ve also learned that with the advent of professionalization a century and a half or so, sports are always already implicated in business, capitalism, and the larger economic order. All are tainted with this original sin. Does this entanglement mean that us Americans, for example, have a less meaningful relationship to sport? Perhaps. I’m willing to concede this point, but also raise the point that even in a final pocket of resistance like the German Bundesliga, the original sin has arrived, cross-pressuring the hell out of the league. (I will say more about this phenomenon in future articles.)

Let me put it this way: there is no moral high ground to stand on for any set of Bundesliga supporters, especially not attached to BVB, who are a publicly traded company in Germany. Mammon is everywhere, and this is okay if you’re honest about it as a Bundesliga supporter. No “professional” club stands outside this framework. For this reason, I’m always skeptical of the efficacy of something the “Against Modern Football” movement within a big, well-monied professional league. If you really wanted to take “against modern football,” you should probably invest your energy in supporting a tiny semi-pro side at best. At least the movement’s ethos gestures toward supporting such a sporting structure.

Instead, the “RB Leipzig Question” seems to be about something else entirely. I’ve learned that in German football means and ends are clearly distinguished. And great stakes are attached to either entity, especially when the Bundesliga is involved. Here’s an example. Despite existing since 1899, TSG Hoffenheim will forever always be a Plastik club and Bayer-owned Leverkusen never will be. Why? In the case of the former, vast sums of Dieter Hopp’s money were pumped into the club, triggering a stunningly fast rise from Germany’s 8th division to the cusp of European football. This cash infusion violated the traditional means to achieve Bundesliga promotion, a seemingly unforgivable sin in Germany. As Hopp himself ruefully observed, his club will probably always remain a Plastik club, even as it acquires actual first division success and tradition. In the case of Bayer Leverkusen, however, Plastik club doesn’t apply, since, although the club is owned by a corporation and was granted an exemption to the 50+1 rule, it acquired Bundesliga status and success through the traditional channels of hard work over decades of play, rather than a sudden cash injection.

As you may have guessed, even though RB Leipzig is technically in compliance with the 50+1 rule — hell, it even dropped RedBull from the club name, only to replace it with the RasenBallsport mockery —  yet in spirit it’s an offender, thanks to the corrupted means of Red Bull money and corporate imprimatur. A sin that also indelibly marks Hoffenheim, albeit without the ubiquitous and boldly colored Red Bull branding (Hopp’s SAP corporation just doesn’t carry the same brand weight).

So our conversation on the “RB Leipzig Question” should focus precisely on this notion of ill-gotten means. The other stuff is peripheral at worst, or at best derivative of this more fundamental notion. For example, we need to clarify “what are the acceptable means of success in German football?” And “are these means open to revision or reinterpretation?” The next set of questions might run something like this “is it possible that Germany’s supporter culture and leadership can coexist with corporate money and presence?” Or “are Bundesliga fans okay with a financially less powerful league than, say, the Premier League?” (e.g. a league in which the best talent is always being sold upstream to Europe’s very biggest clubs.) And if not, “are Bundesliga fans willing to accept the cross-pressured trade-offs in striving for the world’s best league?”

I don’t think we can have it all, folks.

But we can have something.

It’s just a question of what you, me, and we all want with the Bundesliga. Tackling the “RB Leipzig Question” is the most effective route to this urgent issue. By ignoring the question, we acquiesce to indifferent forces, whose lines of movement run along market shares, demographics, TV contracts, revenue streams, and commodified experiences. Perhaps this is the path we really want. I don’t know. Do you?

 

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and coaching the U6s are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, and his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

3 Comments

  1. Leipzig have broken tons of rules, if not in law than in spirit. And they continue to do so while grinning all the way and calling everyone else losers for not doing so.

    The violence against Leipzig’s supporters is unjustified, as was the disgusting banner mocking Ralf Rangnick for his Depression. Everything else is more than fair game. Red Bull has utterly destroyed Austrian football and they plan to turn German football on its head.
    The Bundesliga will never be able to compete with the Premier League in terms of “watchability” for casual soccer watchers. Giving up it’s unique fan support for the faint promise of Premier League money is insane.

  2. We aren’t okay with a financially less powerful league than the premier league and I believe that it possible that Germany’s supporter culture and leadership can coexist with corporate money and presence, but I feel like the reason we kick the can down the road is because no one seems to know what to do (i don’t). Do we stop Leipzig?(they haven’t broken the rules), they also are bringing a good team to eastern Germany (which is great).
    Additionally, I do not believe that we should clarify: “what the acceptable means of success in German football are”, because this seems to be a matter of opinion, I for instance, do not consider Hoffenheim a plastic club; but then I only really started following the bundesliga in 2009 (I was 12 then).
    Maybe if Leipzig stay in the BL long enough, some of us may forget to hate them.

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