The Promise Of RB Leipzig
4:41 PM EDT on May 24, 2022
On Saturday, RB Leipzig won their first trophy in club history, beating Freiburg to win the German Cup. It was a thrilling match—RB Leipzig, down a goal and a man in the second half, came back to tie before eventually winning on penalties—that doubled as a collective defeat: RB Leipzig, a club founded just over a decade ago by the Red Bull energy drink corporation as a marketing ploy, a club widely reviled in Germany for flouting the country's ownership rules which are designed to ensure soccer clubs belong primarily to those who support it and for subverting German soccer culture's deeply held notions of community and democratic management, had won.
The idea that professional sports franchises can and should exist for reasons that extend beyond the financial concerns of those who own the teams is practically incomprehensible to the average American sports fan. But in Germany, this is core not only to what it means to be a German soccer supporter, but to the structure of the sport. In the 1990s, German soccer's governing body (the Deutscher Fussball-Bund or DFB) introduced what's known as the "50-plus-1" rule, aimed to ensure that at least 50 percent plus one of all voting shares are held by supporters of the club. The idea is that this ensures that rich owners can't, as they do in most other countries, buy up clubs and treat them as their own personal playthings. It's a pro-social way of thinking about sports that recognizes where and how notions of collectivism and cooperation are built.
As the Athletic's Bundesliga correspondent Raphael Honigstein wrote in an explainer last year, this model, versions of which exists to varying degrees of success at clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid, isn't perfect. Though the model, which allows members to vote on who will run the club and therefore allows them to exercise some control over the direction of their team, goes a long way towards ensuring clubs are led locally and held accountable to fans (the diametric opposite of Premier League clubs and basically every American sports team ever), the lack of outside investment can lead to the calcification of competitive advantages, like the one enjoyed by Bayern Munich. But, Honigstein said, "The overwhelming majority of supporters wouldn’t trade a shot at glory for being owned by an oligarch or investor in any case." And though there are some agitating to open up the league's ownership rules, he wrote, all in all, "Fears over the corrosive effects of selling out to the highest bidder trump all other concerns, and '50+1' is seen as a useful insurance against unfettered excess, despite all its drawbacks."
RB Leipzig, however, circumvented this rule by issuing shares of the team, buying up 49 percent of them, and then pricing the rest prohibitively, while also unilaterally deciding who could and could not become an investor. The result is a club owned and managed by a small group of people from one corporation, who are not structurally accountable to anyone but themselves. And so, ever since the club was founded, German fans have protested RB Leipzig and boycotted matches at their stadium. In 2014, Union Berlin staged a silent protest for the first 15 minutes of the match. Several clubs have refused to use RB Leipzig's crest (an altered version of the Red Bull logo) in promotional materials or when the club plays at their stadiums. In one memorable 2016 instance, Dresden supporters threw a severed bull's head onto the pitch. To most German soccer fans, the existence of RB Leipzig isn't to promote soccer and community for democratically organized members. To them, the team's purpose is to sell more cans of Red Bull, further enriching the billionaire who owns the team, while wresting away any opportunity for fans to organize, build community, and meaningfully engage with the institution into which their support breathes life.
Meanwhile, Leipzig defenders point to the following as redemptive factors: The club's progressive and intelligent management, which is based upon finding and developing young talent, creative recruitment, and playing an exciting style of soccer; the revitalizing effect it has had on soccer in the former East Germany; and the idea of changing the culture of the club from within (though not within within). In 2020, the New York Times wrote about these ideas and highlighted one such effort by Leipzig supporters—who, again, have no structural path for influencing the club because the few people with voting shares are from Red Bull—to make their voices heard. The Times wrote about a banner that was unfurled at a match against Schalke in 2017:
"[Billionaire Red Bull and RB Leipzig founder Dietrich] Mateschitz had recently criticized the German government’s decision to open its borders to refugees from the war in Syria, and a television network owned by Red Bull had earned a reputation as a platform for populist figures in both Germany and Austria. 'The patron of the most authoritarian club calls himself a pluralist,' the banner read. 'What a joke.'
"What made the demonstration noteworthy was not the presence of the banner — over the decade in which it has risen from German soccer’s regionalized fifth tier to the semifinals of the Champions League, the club has inspired far worse — but its location. It was not brandished by the home supporters. It was, instead, the work of RB Leipzig’s own ultras.
The story leaves room for the possibility that what happens on the field, the beautiful game itself, and those who truly care about it can transcend the ugly capitalist reality that's at the heart of almost all big soccer clubs. To "look inside the artificial and find the authentic," as the Times wrote. It's an optimistic bent to an ultimately bleak position, one that takes it as a given that resisting the artificial itself is surely a losing cause.
But it's not only those who truly care about soccer who have a claim to RB Leipzig. One public figure, as international German broadcaster Deutsche Welle pointed out, staked out a specific position on the club's win:
Tino Chrupalla, a politician from the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, [...] took to Twitter to congratulate RB in a very particular way:
"Handball not punished, penalty not given," he tweeted, referring to Roland Sallai's unintentional use of his hand in the build-up to Freiburg's opener and Dani Olmo's extra-time penalty claim. "But Saxon fortitude and Austrian entrepreneurial spirit won out against political correctness."
This, then, is where principles matter. Red Bull as a corporation is so far doing right by RB Leipzig as a soccer club. But there is a reason a far-right politician is championing the team, and it has nothing to do with "political correctness" and everything to do with sports-washing the domination of people by capital. Red Bull undermined the basic structure of German soccer and succeeded; at this point, it would be more surprising if other corporations didn't follow suit.