RB Leipzig are undoubtedly the most hated side in German football. Under most circumstances, if a team went from semi-professional to the top division in a matter of seasons, this would be treated as a rag-to-riches tale – a shining example of football’s magic.
We’ve seen this recently in England with Luton Town – yet when it comes to RB Leipzig, this is not the case. Instead, their success has been met with anger, protests and, most infamously, the severed head of a bull.
But why? To many fans across the country, they have betrayed the sacred values of German football. More specifically, they’ve breached the unique, but ever so important, 50+1 Rule.
What is the 50+1 Rule?
The 50+1 Rule is an intrinsic part of German football. Effectively, it dictates that the fans must have majority ownership of each and every club in the country. This is achieved through a vast membership scheme whereby any fan can become a member with voting-rights for an annual fee, thus bringing democracy to football. The fans have a say in ticket pricing, in the election of club directors and in the overall running of their club. In essence, the fans come first. This is in operation no matter the size or wealth of the club, and there are very few exceptions.
An example of this rule in practice would be Borussia Dortmund. With the Schwarzgelben, any member aged over 18 gets the right to vote and speak in the club’s general assembly for an annual fee of only 62 euros. In the case of Bayern Munich, the majority shareholder is their supporters’ group which is made up of over 300,000 members who – together – own a whopping 75% of the club’s shares.
This rule is considered sacred by almost every fan in the country, as it makes the fan a fundamental piece of the club rather than simply a customer of it. Therefore, RB Leipzig’s deliberate abuse of this rule has been considered controversial, as this is a side that prioritises money and a greed for success over the fans and German football culture as a whole.
If the fan gets the feeling that he’s no longer regarded as a fan but instead as a customer, we’ll have a problem.Hans-Joachim Watzke, Borussia Dortmund CEO in 2016
RB Leipzig were born in 2009, when Red Bull GmbH purchased the playing rights of fifth-tier outfit SSV Markranstädt after a number of failed takeover attempts, including at St. Pauli and Fortuna Düsseldorf. All of these takeover attempts were met by protest by fans who did not intend to lose the heritage and tradition of their clubs. Protesters even went as far as threatening their eventual takeover of Markranstädt, as fans spread weed killer over the team’s pitch. But within five weeks of negotiations beginning, Red Bull GmbH had obtained the rights to the team.
DFL restrictions prohibit the use of sponsorship in team names and thus Red Bull were faced with their first challenge. However this did not deter them, and they settled on the name RasenBallSport Leipzig – translating into English as Lawn Ball Sport Leipzig. Of course, that hardly rolls off the tongue, and was shortened to RB as a clear nod to their owners, and a sign of their intention to bend – but never break – DFL rules.
The main controversy of Red Bull’s leadership is their restrictive membership and their abuse of the 50+1 restrictions. Unlike Bayern Munich’s 300,000 members, RB Leipzig has less than twenty. Each member is either an employee or associate of the Red Bull brand – and a membership at Leipzig costs over 150% more than that of Borussia Dortmund. Members pay 1000€ per season and still do not receive voting rights. This ensures compliance with the DFL rules though, as fans maintain ownership of the club while Red Bull GmbH remain in control.
This abuse of DFL guidelines has made RB Leipzig the most hated club in Germany. Since 2009, they have faced countless protests – including when fans of Dynamo Dresden threw a severed bull’s head onto the pitch during a cup clash in 2016.
Are there any positives?
Despite the club’s controversies, there are a number of Leipzig sympathisers who accuse other fans of hypocrisy, pointing at other Bundesliga clubs with corporate support and questioning why they don’t receive the same level of scrutiny. Of course, there is also the debate as to whether the 50+1 rule is still important or – as Ralf Rangnick suggested – ‘obsolete’.
The silver lining of the RB way, however, is the resurgence of footballing success in the former East. Before RB Leipzig, the last East German team in the Bundesliga was Energie Cottbus – and they faced relegation before Leipzig’s inception.
Since the fall of the wall, East Germany has been simply incapable of competing with their Western counterparts as they lacked the necessary funds. This even extended to Germany’s national team, as Toni Kroos was the only player in their World Cup winning squad hailing from the former GDR.
It can therefore be argued that this change in the East’s footballing landscape is a long overdue necessity, making up for the previous years of disappointment. Yet a valid counterargument exists in that Union Berlin’s recent successes render this point null – as they have proved that a team from the GDR can reach the top of German football without supposedly betraying historic values.
What comes next?
Despite the controversy and anger surrounding this club, they are now a constant in the Bundesliga who won’t be disappearing any time soon. Since reaching the Bundesliga in 2016, they have only finished outside of the top four once – and they have also won the DFB-Pokal consecutively in the last two seasons. They may be the most hated club in Germany, but they are also one of the best and produce world-class talent to prove it. Christopher Nkunku is the latest poster boy, becoming a joint recipient of the golden boot alongside Werder Bremen’s Niclas Füllkrug.
The club’s next goal is to dethrone Bayern – a task no team has succeeded in since 2012. The question remains, can money alone bring success to RB Leipzig? So far, it sadly seems that the answer is yes.