Football clubs shared similar aspirations as ordinary citizens when the Berlin wall fell in November 1989. New world, new possibilities, and western products were the same as capitalistic TV deals, new multi-million sponsors, and duels with Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.
Hope often falls short of reality, though.
Most factories in East Germany shut down and the Eastern economy crashed, bringing its football clubs with it. Not a single team from the last DDR-Oberliga (the top-flight East German division) in 1990/1991 are in the Bundesliga today. They’re fallen giants that have become unknown dinosaurs to younger audiences. Former European contenders Hansa Rostock, Dynamo Dresden, and FC Magdeburg are all in the 3. Liga while clubs like Berliner FC Dynamo and FC Sachsen Leipzig are in the fourth division.
The reunification process failed these clubs. Western clubs snatched the best players from the East while the previous communist-ruled clubs were unable to succeed in a capitalistic, and for them, an alien market. As football made the transition from a million-euro business to a billion-euro mega-business, it became clear that the previous Western German clubs were the winners of reunifying the two football leagues.
It’s somewhat of a shame that tomorrow can be the first step in something truly historic. If RB Leipzig wins against Bayern Munich, the former East could very well see their first winner in the new reunified Bundesliga. Looking at it from a distance, it should be viewed as something beautiful. The poorer part of Germany has finally turned the trend of bankrupt clubs with the success of one of their own. It can be an Eastern club, not Bayer-owned Leverkusen, not Volkswagen-owned Wolfsburg, or fan faithful Dortmund, that challenges Bayern Munich for the first time in nine years. But it will never be viewed in those eyes due to two words: Red Bull.
If you understand the basics of German football culture, it will come as no surprise that very few Germans were open to the idea of Red Bull boss Dietrich Mateschitz buying a football club in Germany. Here came an Austrian billionaire who wanted to disrupt the very fabric of what German football fans care about most: no single person or company should own more than a club’s share – football should always be dictated by the fans. Technically, RB Leipzig still abides by the 50+1 rule, they just don’t let anyone outside of the club employers become a member.
Public outcry didn’t face Mateschitz who saw an opportunity when he acquired the rights of fifth-division side SSV Markranstadt. By 2016 when Leipzig first entered the Bundesliga, the 10th biggest city in Germany had been without a top-tier side for 22 years and there had been no side from the former East in the Bundesliga since Energie Cottbus was relegated in 2009.
Benefitting the eastern part of Germany is the only admirable thing about a club that has the same logo as an energy drink. Before corona, nearly every home game was sold out, and while the hate for RB Leipzig was evident in other parts of the country, the club never got much backlash within the city itself. RB Leipzig had to start from the bottom, and everything started with Ralf Rangnick. Unlike Manchester City and Paris St. Germain, Leipzig has always focused on buying talents rather than superstars. Rangnick was the main architect and was also the person who decided on the RB Leipzig style of play. All of this combined with a genius young coach, Julian Nagelsmann’s side has become one of the best in Germany, and it has all happened extremely quickly.
Yet, the Red Bull name spoils what could have been a beautiful conclusion. RB Leipzig is an advert for Red Bull every time they kick the ball. While it can offer the former East some much-needed success, RB Leipzig’s come-up story represents everything wrong in today’s modern football.
Football has become a business where only the rich survives. At least I can take a little comfort in knowing the broader benefits of the energy drink club.