September 26, 2017

Union Falls to RB Leipzig on Protest-Filled Sunday

Getting off the Hauptbahnof at Leipzig under the shadows of night, you would never guess the city was once part of East Germany. The station is massive, the biggest in the world based on floor space, while its S-Bahn system, built less than two years ago, is immaculate.

Swarve shops line the city centre streets, and there is little sign of the communist regime that used to encapsulate the population. The architecture is striking, and the dull grey buildings that are synonymous with the Soviet Union are nowhere to be seen.

It’s a similar story with the city’s main football complex, Zentralstadion, or as it’s now known, Red Bull Arena. Built for Germany’s World Cup in 2006, the Zentralstadion was constructed within the older version of the stadium, which held 100,000. It is one of the most eye-catching and impressive grounds in the country, located on a hill and then dipping down into an amphitheatre-like setting.

RB Leipzig’s impressive home ground

RB Leipzig, the newest club in Germany’s second division, hosted their northerly neighbours from the capital, Union Berlin. The Union fans are known for their bitter objection to everything Red Bull and its shiny football team, and on Sunday protest was in the air.

But before the 3:30 p.m. kick-off, there was a celebration to carry out.

Alfred-Kunze Sportpark was home to a football spectacle Sunday

Five kilometres west, of all directions, the landscape of Leipzig completely alters. It is in that direction that the Alfred-Kunze Sportpark can be found. Beautiful buildings stand strong but empty around the ground, their windows smashed and their once proud walls splashed with graffiti. This is where the East Germany stereotype still runs strong.

It is the home of BSG Chemie Leipzig, intermittently known as FC Sachsen Leipzig, a club with a complicated history full of mergers, collapses, and financial ruin. The club are struggling to keep afloat, and Union fans decided that they would go one step beyond their protest against RB Leipzig from last year, they would go one step further.

An old boys match was organised at Alfred-Kunze Sportpark as a way to acknowledge Leipzig’s football history. Close to 4000 fans made an early morning trip from Berlin to see the game, which kicked off at 11 a.m. Two 30-minute halves of uninspiring football followed, leading to the game finishing scoreless . . . though the football was never the real point.

The real action was in the stands, where Union’s supporters took their post behind one of the goals, while Chemie themselves had a strong following on the opposite side, and a smattering of supporters stood in the main stand. Pyro was everywhere, green and red smoke filling the pre-game air at the tiny ground and continuing throughout the match. Both sets of supporters were in strong voice and equally appreciative of each other’s chants.

What Chemie lacks in sponsor money, they have in strong supply in support

Union fans held a banner reading: “Gestern, heute, morgen: Zeichen setzen für den Fußball, den wir lieben!” translating roughly into: “Yesterday, today, tomorrow: standing up for the football we love”.

Meanwhile, Chemie fans erected their own banner with the message: “Haltet die BSG in herein dass is neimals untergeht” or “Honour the BSG so it never goes under”. It was tradition at its best, with Chemie fans decked out in green-and-white merch that had faded with time.

When the final whistle sounded, Union fans applauded the two sides and then streamed out of the ground to march towards their next destination: Red Bull Arena. An original plan to stand outside the stadium during the first half of the match between Union and RB Leipzig was abandoned, and instead a silent protest was held inside the ground for the entire first half.

It was tough viewing for the Union supporters, standing in silence, as Leipzig quickly raced towards a two-goal lead within the first seven minutes. Dominik Kaiser converted a penalty for the first goal, and Joshua Kimmich grabbed the second.

Union fought back with a goal just a minute after the Kimmich score, in the form of Steven Skrzybski slotting home in front of the away fans, but Leipzig quickly regained their two-goal buffer when some slack defending saw Georg Teigl add a third.

Union’s top goal-scorer Sebastian Polter grabbed his ninth goal before halftime after a neat one-two with Christopher Quiring, who had come on for an injured Sören Brandy, reducing the deficit to just one and giving Union hope of an unlikely comeback.

While Union fans were largely silent during the first stanza, Leipzig fans chanted non-stop and with gusto. While it felt manufactured at times, there is no denying the club does possess some passionate supporters.

Though when a chant like “Stand up, if you love RB” is required to get two-thirds of a stadium in Germany on their feet, you realise that something is still missing. It will take more than successive promotions and large investment for this club to find its place in German football.

Union supporters finally let loose as the two sides reemerged from the dressing sheds. Though the ground announcer did his best to drown out the noise with some nondescript pop tune, the travellers were unperturbed and continued to match the majority Leipzig crowd vocally for the remainder of the match.

Protest banners were unfurled at different stages of the second half. “RB: ein verein für versager. RB: ein verein für mit läufer. RB: ein verein für huren söhne,” translating into “RB: a club for failure; a club for hangers on; a club for whoring sons”.

On the pitch, however, there was not much action for Norbert Düwel’s side. They were happy to afford Leipzig the bulk of possession, content to try and grab an equaliser on the counter. While there were a few promising forays forward, it was a strange tactic considering the deficit, and Leipzig comfortably controlled the rest of the match.

The score ended 3-2 There was to be no repeat of the heroic Union comeback as in the previous fixture in Berlin, where they overcame an early goal to win 3-1.

Despite the loss, which kept Union in 10th, the protest in the stands could only be deemed a symbolic success, while the 4,285 that turned up to Chemie’s home ground contributed vital funds for the club’s future. It’s doubtful such protests will have any influence on the DFB when it comes to Leipzig’s inevitable promotion to the Bundesliga, but for clubs like Union it’s a necessary battle they’ll keep on fighting.

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