Why RB Leipzig is the most hated team in the Bundesliga

17Jan 2020
The Guardian
Why RB Leipzig is the most hated team in the Bundesliga

The massive financial commitment to everything from saunas to medical care provided a clear advantage. So did the ability to use Red Bull's other clubs -- in Austria and New York, but also South America (Red Bull Brasil) and Africa (Red Bull Ghana) -- as stepping stones, in similar fashion to-

-City Football Group (which includes England's Manchester City, MLS' NYCFC, and five other clubs from Uruguay to India) and a few individual operators. Just as useful has been an autocratic organizational structure that enables decisions to be made far more expediently than at other German clubs.

"You can say, 'I want to have a video wall on the practice pitch,' and you don't have to ask 20 people," says Julian Nagelsmann, who is in his first year as manager of the club. "And there won't have to be a board meeting with 20 people having a discussion, 'Is it good?' 'Will it bring us an advantage in the future?'" For its rivals, Nagelsmann notes, the process is far more complicated. "They talk a long time," he says, shaking his head. "As a result, development may not be so fast. Here you can improve in a very short time. This is great."

It is also, Mintzlaff is quick to point out, the way football clubs operate in most of the rest of the world. He doesn't try to hide the fact that Leipzig's ambitions extend beyond the Bundesliga to the Champions League, which provides the glory and pays the bills. "This is where teams have to make the next step, to really compete against the Italian league, the Premier League," he says. "Our product is good, but other leagues are making progress. And of course, people want to see the best players. And the best players are expensive."

Any club that isn't willing to compete internationally, he infers, shouldn't try to restrain those who are. "We're not complaining about anyone," he says. "We're not complaining that we don't have as much money as Bayern Munich. We have a little more of the American mentality -- let's work harder, let's get it done, let's do it even better."

Each day, managing director Carsten Cramer arrives at an office that fills a corner of Borussia Dortmund's modern, glass-walled office building. The floor is hardwood. There is handsome, white furniture and a mounted video monitor. He could be running an ad agency.

Indeed, Cramer's background is in marketing, and it probably isn't a coincidence that Dortmund has profited handsomely during his tenure, using the presence of American standout Christian Pulisic to extend its reach across the Atlantic and emerge as Germany's most visible club after Bayern Munich. (Its €600m annual income more than doubles that of Leipzig.) Nevertheless, Cramer sees his role as less commercial than evangelical. "We think football belongs to the people," he says. He raises a finger. "It's a different approach."

The connections between German communities and their people have frayed, Cramer believes. Religion has been lost from daily life; so has much of public discourse. Football is all that's left, and overt commercialism poses a mortal threat. "What will happen to the clubs that are connected to Qatari investors after the World Cup in 2022?" he asks. "Is this a way that guarantees stability? Clubs have to be scared year by year that the sheikh or the investor or the owner doesn't pull the money out." He mentions Leicester City, where Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha invested tens of millions of pounds into the club, then died in a helicopter accident in the fall of 2018. "You had to pray that the family would continue to be interested," he said.

Cramer attends games around the world, but he is inevitably disappointed. England has fine stadiums, he admits, "but the atmosphere even at Anfield is not the same as the atmosphere in German stadiums." Perhaps his biggest letdown was Barcelona's Camp Nou, which he describes as "a stadium full of people who were not interested in football, but interested in a celebrity from Argentina." Far too many clubs, he believes, exist as investment vehicles for their owners or to serve a political or social agenda. "I could never work for a club like Paris," he says, alluding to PSG's position as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Qatari government.

No club in the Bundesliga disdains RB Leipzig's success more than Dortmund. Part of that might have to do with the emergence of a new rival not just for Bundesliga success but for Champions League places and international appeal. But the culture clash runs far deeper than that. Dortmund, Germany's Pittsburgh, lost its way after World War II. Its coal and steel industries declined. So did its breweries. Its population fell. Only its football team continued to thrive.

These days, Borussia Dortmund acts as a lighthouse for the people of the Ruhr Valley. "And this lighthouse," Cramer says, "must be protected." He could rip out half the standing places in Signal Iduna Park's famous Yellow Wall of supporters and put in expensive seats. That would increase team profits, but at what cost to the social fabric? It is telling, he says, that no equivalent to the Yellow Wall exists at Red Bull Arena. "Where do the hard-core fans of Leipzig stand? Is it the west? The north? The south? The east? No one knows."

Nearly every game that Leipzig plays these days is a derby of sorts, one based on philosophies rather than geography, but none has overtones more bitter than the games at Dortmund. In February 2017, Leipzig's first visit to Signal Iduna Park, a mass of Dortmund supporters tried to block the visitors' bus in hopes that the game would have to be abandoned. To avoid them, police had directed the driver to an alternate route leading to the far side of the stadium. "I had been to Dortmund many times before with different clubs. I came with the team bus, and I kept saying, 'Where are we going?' We were taking a way to the stadium that I had never seen.

When they discovered that the bus had eluded them, the Dortmund supporters started throwing bottles and cans at any red shirt they could find. The official statement released by the Dortmund police said that "the violence was ... directed against any recognizable Leipzig supporter, regardless of whether they were children, women or families." Six were injured, and 28 Dortmund supporters were arrested. Inside the stadium was safer, but no less intense. "The atmosphere was heated up," says Liverpool's Naby Keita, who was then at Leipzig. "They didn't see Leipzig as a real club. It was a very difficult game for us -- 80,000 people in a sold-out stadium, everyone against us." Dortmund won 1-0.

Aki Watzke, Dortmund's CEO, was quick to condemn the incident, but the club remains unrepentant about its belief that Leipzig shouldn't be allowed to exist in its current form. "The purpose of Leipzig is to sell cans of Red Bull by using a football entity," Cramer says. "Leipzig is a subsidiary of Red Bull. If you ask me why we do not feel comfortable, that's the reason why."

The Bundesliga also denounced the actions of the Dortmund supporters, but it has remained studiously agnostic about the issues that provoked them. RB Leipzig had joined its ranks as a fait accompli, promoted from the second division. And while German football's differentiation in the marketplace is exactly that from-the-heart football experience that contrasts with the sport's colder, more corporate feel in the Premier League, RB Leipzig's success is crucial to the Bundesliga. By giving the east representation among the elite clubs, it allows the league to finally stake a claim as truly national.

Red Bull's ties to America and its worldwide marketing might give it added visibility. And nobody at league headquarters in Frankfurt needs to be reminded that if Bayern Munich manage to defend their championship again this season, one club will have won exactly half the titles since the Bundesliga began in 1963.

"To have more than one big brand, or two if you include Dortmund, is good for the product that is marketed in America and Asia," says Eintracht Frankfurt's Hellmann. "For international marketing and communication, I really do see the point. But don't be fooled, there is collateral damage."

The week after beating Hoffenheim at home, Leipzig visited Dusseldorf for the Bundesliga's weekly Saturday evening game. Fortuna members were ready with banners and songs. Someone had printed up black T-shirts that read Love Football HATE RB, and many of the supporters were wearing them.

In the tunnel before the game, Leipzig's Mintzlaff appeared blasé about the shirts and the other insults. Back in Leipzig, Mintzlaff had characterized Dusseldorf as having "weak management. They put themselves behind the supporters. This is a mistake. We listen to our fans, we have discussions with our fans, but we have a clear plan." But on this visit, Mintzlaff reported, he'd had a productive meeting with Fortuna executives. He was confident that relations between the clubs would soon improve. He appeared less sanguine about returning home with a needed victory; in six meetings across two leagues, Fortuna had never beaten Leipzig and hadn't even managed a draw since 2014.

With Fortuna in the relegation zone and Leipzig just a point behind Monchengladbach at the top of the table, that seemed unlikely to happen now. And in truth, even Fortuna's Ultras seemed almost halfhearted about their protests. After Leipzig's three previous visits to Dusseldorf, there seemed little left to say.

"First, we did all the legal things," said Rudolph, who is a member of the Ultras' advisory delegation to the club. "Then we realized that we can't change it, and the protests became a little more violent. And now we just don't know what to do. There will always be protests; there will always be banners. But at a point it becomes, what shall we do?"

Fortuna tried. When Leipzig's players came out to warm up, the O'Jays' "Money, money, money ... mon-n-n-ay" blasted from the speakers. Later, an official fan account sent out a sarcastic tweet with a photo of the small knot of Leipzig fans in the visitors section surrounded by a sea of empty seats. "Respect," it read. "The away end has never been so full." Mostly, though, the supporters submitted as meekly as their team was doing on the field. Two minutes into the game, Leipzig took the lead. Later, after Timo Werner converted a penalty to double it, he ran over to the nearly empty section where the hundred or so Leipzig fans were gathered. He raised his arms aloft and shook them, as if he were communing with a full stand. The Ultras mocked him. Soon after, Leipzig scored again.

"If we make good decisions," manager Julian Nagelsmann says, "there's no problem at some time in the next five years for Leipzig to be German champion." But Werner is likely to be gone soon to an even bigger club -- Bayern Munich or maybe Chelsea -- and a replacement will cost far more than €20m. Buying talent on the cheap is a lot more difficult when the players need to be capable of competing in the Champions League. The club has stockpiled talented, young players such as Adams and centerbacks Ibrahima Konate and Dayot Upamecano, all of whom are 21 or younger, but its best chance of adding to its achievements any time soon is probably this season. That might be why the supporters in the VIP lounge were monitoring Monchengladbach so intensely.

The day after the game at Dusseldorf, they watched Monchengladbach lose to Wolfsburg. The result left Leipzig alone at the top of the table.

Meanwhile, Houston, after getting off to a disappointing start this season, the Portland Trail Blazers are focused on playing much better going forward.

On Wednesday night against the Houston Rockets they did that, limiting James Harden to his fewest points of the season in a 117-107 win.

“A season is full of ups and downs and we've had more downs this year than ups, but it's a whole second half of the season to play,” Damian Lillard said. “We executed and we played like we wanted to win the game ... we've just got to try to sustain that.”

Lillard scored 25 points and CJ McCollum added 24 as the Trail Blazers withstood a late surge from the Rockets to get their second straight victory.

The Trail Blazers led by double figures for most of the game, but the Rockets began cutting into the lead in the fourth. A 3 by Ben McLemore got them within five with about five minutes to go.

But McCollum and Carmelo Anthony then made consecutive 3-pointers for Portland to make it 111-100 with four minutes left, and Houston didn't threaten again.

When Hassan Whiteside made four points in a row, capped by a dunk, later in the fourth to make it 115-102, the home fans began streaming for the exits.

Russell Westbrook had a triple-double with 31 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds on a night when Harden scored 13 points. It was the fewest points Harden had scored since he had 10 against Minnesota on Jan. 18, 2018.

Lillard was proud of the work they did against Harden, who entered the game averaging an NBA-best 37.8 points a game.

“We gave him a lot of attention and pretty much just made him give the ball up to other guys and decided were going to live with somebody else beating us," Lillard said. “And it turned out to be a pretty good game plan."

Houston lost consecutive games for the first time since a season-high three-game skid from Nov. 20-24, and has dropped three of its last four.

“Everyone goes through the tough times throughout the course of the year,” Harden said. “For us, this is now. We’ve got to come together and figure out what the problem is and go out there and try to fight through it."

The Rockets had a tough shooting night after losing to Memphis 121-110 on the road Tuesday night and shot just 39.6%. Harden shot 3 of 12 and center Clint Capela was just 7 of 14.

Houston scored the first five points of the fourth quarter, but Portland got 3s from Gary Trent, Jr. and Anthony Tolliver to make it 96-82.

McCollum made all of Portland's points in a 6-3 spurt later in the fourth to leave the Trail Blazers up 102-88.

Westbrook was at the free throw line soon after that, and he and Lillard both received technical fouls for jawing at each other.

Houston finally found some rhythm on offense after that and used a 9-1 run, with 3s from P.J. Tucker and McLemore to cut the deficit to 103-97 midway through the quarter.

It was a nine-point game when the Rockets' Danuel House made a layup midway through the third quarter, but Portland scored the next seven points, including a 3 from Kent Bazemore, to extend it to 81-65 two minutes later.

Eric Gordon made two 3-pointers after that to power a 6-3 run that got Houston within 84-71.

Houston made six straight points later in the third, but Lillard added a layup for Portland to wrap up the quarter and leave the Trail Blazers up by 13 entering the fourth.

(Agencies)

CAPTION:Leipzig's fan base has grown exponentially over the decade of its existence, but around the league, there's no love for the club. Not even close. (Agencies)

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