Tradition, commerce and Lokomotive Leipzig’s ongoing fight for financial survival

1. FC Lokomotive Leipzig visit city rivals RB Leipzig in the Regionalliga Nordost on Wednesday, where tradition meets commerce in as head-on a confrontation as football can offer. As the Red Bull project continues to gather pace, Lok. Leipzig’s fight for its future continues in the shadow of the drinks can.

This article is a translation. The original piece is written by 11 Freunde’s John Hennig. 11 Freunde have kindly permitted the Bundesliga Fanatic to publish their article in translation. The original can be found here.

It’s class war once more in Leipzig this week. The pre-match build-up before a meeting between RB Leipzig and Lokomotive Leipzig usually centres upon the absolute contrast between the two sides, both financially and historically. This time it’s a little different, for Lok. Leipzig are preoccupied with their own fortunes, with the club fighting for their own financial future once again.

All about a can

During the first half of the season, Lok. Leipzig aimed a small jibe at their disliked, newly-rich city rivals. At the press conference after the local derby, which RB won 3-1, Lokomotive’s coach Marco Rose presented a small drinks can. It wasn’t Red Bull, but a different Austrian energy drink – Rox, which is also Lok. Leipzig’s new sponsor, albeit in a different financial dimension to its rival. Fast-forward six months and this little marketing gag is meaningless, for nobody at Lok Leipzig is feeling in a position of power over their competitor.

Once again, Lok. Leipzig needs money urgently. Ten years ago the club, German football’s first champions, went bankrupt as VfB Leipzig and were dissolved. A swift rise through the leagues was to follow, as optimism and euphoria grew from the traditional club’s performances in the lower echelons. Figures of the club’s unique history, even the older generation, organised friendlies to raise money, including a certain Lothar Matthäus. Meanwhile, VfB’s successors have been promoted back into the Regionalliga. But during this season’s winter break, the message that nobody in Probstheida, the club’s home in south-east Leipzig, had wanted to hear had seeped through. The threat of bankruptcy looms over the club again.

“1974 versus Ipswich in the Zentralstadion”

“The fans don’t want to be a part of that”, René Gruschka says, remembering the financial collapse of ten years ago. Gruschka has been going to Lok. matches since the age of seven, and tells his story of “1974 vs Ipswich in the Zentralstadion”. That evening, he was sat alone in the club shop, a functional low-rise on the site of the vintage, but bordering on run-down, Bruno-Plache-Stadion, packaging kits. The 46-year-old doesn’t have an official role at the club, and normally commentates on matches for the fan radio station “Lokruf”. Supporting his club counts as overtime, as he coordinates, together with Stephan Guth, the fans’ own financial rescue mission. From organising a unique kit sponsorship fundraiser, in which fans have donated money to have “1. FC Lok. – Ich steh drauf” (1. FC Lok – I love it), and even their own names, printed on the shirt; to donation tickets, clothing, flags and special sales of the Rox-range – anything that could possibly raise money has been tried.

“We’ve also taken over the search for a sponsor, but nobody’s there for the marketing”, says Gruschka of the difficult situation at the traditional club. The board has been understaffed for a year too. After the CFO Katrin Palhorn left two years ago, budget planning was converted from a one of saving to one of spending. Another financer only stayed a short while, and the bigger picture was lost sight of. “She wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but she was just like a financer should be. She only spent what was available, and she could have told you, to the cent, how much money the club had at any one time”, a club insider, who chose to withhold his name, said. That the situation is now different, he blames the current board for.

Likewise, the fans are bitterly disappointed with the current executive board. They don’t feel informed and want more transparency. “You have to be very careful as a football club when revealing your numbers to the public,” was club President Michael Notzon’s defence. “I think that’s dangerous”. He says he has nothing to hide, but he fears that the figures could send a false message to potential patrons, helpers and investors. “Perhaps they don’t give anything because they think it won’t help. Or maybe because they don’t think it’s necessary”, says Notzon and stresses: “We are far from safe”.

He bought 60 “donation tickets” but isn’t going to the match

Lok. fans, spearheaded by the work of Gruschka raised more than 100,000€ for the club during February alone. The club can operate on around 2 million euros. Gruschka pauses as he explains how quickly the fans’ rescue operation got going. “We met totally spontaneously in a sports hall and had counted 50 people. By the end 250 people had come, including the team coach Marco Rose. Since then we have catalogued each and every suggestion made”.

At the meeting in January it was also agreed not to boycott the away match at class enemy RB Leipzig. “Marco Rose asked us to continue to support the players, as they have waived a portion of their salaries”. Instead, the fans decided to buy 5€ “donation tickets” in addition to the match ticket for the derby. Some fans bought several. “I did it to ease my conscience, as I’m going to miss the match”, explained Matthias Löffler, who ordered 60. “And I’ve also just made sure my name, my parents’ and my sister’s names are going to be on the home jersey for the next two years”. This cost him 150€ for each name. Many of the 1800 members have done the same, but nobody knows yet if all this will help.

Udo Kieswetter, 53, has been going to the matches of VfB and Lok. Leipzig since 1969. He’s seen everything, from the UEFA Cup semi-final to the fall into the minor leagues. He says that, in contrast to the situation 10 years ago, the co-operative spirit has been so great because the situation is not hopeless. “We needed to raise millions then, the fans simply couldn’t do it”. The circumstances were different then too. The resourceful fans had already founded 1. FC Lok while VfB Leipzig were being dissolved. “So there was an alternative then. This time there isn’t”, Kieswetter remembers.

In the meantime, support is gathering pace. Help has already been offered from as far wide as Braunschweig, Offenbach and Dresden, with friendly matches against opponents from the top tiers raising additional funds. Lothar Matthäus too has signed shirts, which have gone to auction. “Last week we even had a scarf-wearing Chemie fan suddenly appear at our branch to donate 50€”, Gruschka recalls. Chemie Leipzig, Lokomotive’s fiercest rivals, shares with its adversary the latent threat of financial ruin.

“Insolvency is always a threat here”

“Actually I think I’d have to say that insolvency is always a threat here”, Notzon says with an almost fatalistic tone. Since its re-establishment the club has always had its belt tightened. “At least we haven’t accrued any debt”, he adds. However, fewer spectators have attended during the current season than anticipated. Notzon said he was “disappointed” with attendance figures at the games against FC Magdeburg and Carl Zeiss Jena, the traditional and historical derbies which were held, for security reasons, in RB Leipzig’s  spacious Red Bull Arena. The fourth-tier attendance record in the derby against RB was also of little value to the club.

In addition, Notzon increased the deal with the club’s main sponsor, of which he was the boss, in the previous two years from 100,000€ to 300,000€, and couldn’t this season because he had sold his shares. This has led to complaints from fans who see the plan as too risky, knowing that liquidity problems had arisen in the previous year too. “In February 2012 salaries were not paid for a short time, and money was still owed in the summer”, the club insider reveals. Despite this, fans like Gruschka, Kieswetter and Löffler remain combative. “We can still save the club”, they say. What they do not say, however, but can be heard in whispers, is that it can only be achieved with a new board.

The stadium naming rights issue

The lawyer Friedbert Striewe handled VfB Leipzig’s liquidation ten years ago. An item still to be settled is the rent for the club’s stadium in Probstheida. The site will cost the club a lot of money. “The stadium’s heating bill alone could pay for three players”, the club insider explains, and for this reason Notzon would prefer to purchase permanent leasehold rights from Striewe. A little awkward, then, that Notzon has totally alienated Striewe, seen as a “friend of the club”. Having not followed through on a possible purchase date, he then proceeded to negotiate the sale of the stadium’s naming rights, without informing Striewe. Rox would probably have been interested in such a deal too. Striewe added that Notzon justified himself to a journalist with the dubious metaphor: “If you rent a pub, you should name her as you please”.

In February, the board went before the District Court in Leipzig and were made to sign a declaration, admitting their failure to seal any naming rights to the stadium. A potential source of money for Lok. Leipzig has been lost as a result.

Indeed, until the club’s financial future is certain, all hopes seem to rest on René Gruschka, who continues to work tirelessly to raise funds for his football club. “All this shows that the club is still alive. But this generosity won’t last forever”, Gruschka warns. The fight goes on, but one day Lok Leipzig might ultimately find themselves clinging to a drinks can too.

Header courtesy of fm2012.net

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Jonathan Lines

Jonathan is a teacher and football writer based in the UK. He writes mostly about German football, with a particular interest in clubs from eastern Germany, past and present. Follow him on twitter @JDL_1989

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