A cool, windy, rainy early spring afternoon is the day of the Champions League eighth finals rematch against Tottenham. It seems everything is given for the celebration: the first leg in London ended with a Leipzig win of 1-0, and the team, heading to the European elite at the speed of light, awaits for the next round in good shape while the opponent is suffering death by a thousand cuts due to being decimated by injuries.
In the afternoon, some Tottenham fans walk through a bustling part of the city battling with the weather in the open air, and tune in for the evening match with a few glasses of beer in their hands. When we walked up to them and asked about the English team, they surprisingly said they were Germans, but they cheer for the opponent. We were curious for the reason, and we received a short and straightforward answer: “No Red Bull!”
The story faithfully reflects the dual feelings for RB Leipzig that has been employing Péter and Willi Orbán as key players and Dominik Szoboszlai who is recovering from his injury. In Europe, the club's rise to the topflight can be interpreted as a fairy tale, but in Germany it still remains one of the most, if not the most, hated clubs in the Bundesliga. The duality is understandable because in the globalized world of football, in which the owners of the richest clubs open up to the Asian and Arab markets where realms are being built with the affluent foreign capitalists' money, no one frowns once the wealthy appears and lifts the club to another dimension. It would also be strange for Manchester City or PSG to look askance at the Leipzig project or if the European Football Association, which is turning a blind eye to the financial gimmicks of the two clubs, was expressing concern about Red Bull's expansion. The problem is that there's a country in Europe that is the powerhouse of football where the so-called 50+1 rule is currently fighting against the rise of businessmen who see football clubs as status symbols. Well, this country happens to be Germany.
|RB Leipzig's three Hungarian starts are Péter Gulácsi, Dominik Szoboszlai and Willi Orbán (Photo: Imago Images)|
The rule has already been mentioned a thousand times in relation to the Leipzig club. Its point is that, according to the German Football Association (DFB), clubs are required to retain a majority stake or a majority vote. Under the terms of the deal, no matter how much money the Russian tycoon invests in the club, he cannot acquire a majority stake. The exceptions are only those clubs where the benefactor has been sponsoring them for more than 20 years (the latter was inherently introduced in view of long-term partnerships such as Wolfsburg with the Volkswagen Group and Bayer Leverkusen with Bayer pharmaceutical company). This rule was circumvented by the Austrian energy drink company by only allowing individuals and companies join the club that belong to Red Bull, thereby satisfying the DFB's requirements on paper.
For the rival team's fans, the trickery and the rise of a club from nowhere without tradition and history hurt their sense of self, but from a sporting point of view, there is nothing to object to in the Red Bull project. After the Red Bull group purchased fifth-tier club SSV Markranstädt's licence in 2009, it quickly changed its name and logo and leased from Leipzig municipality the mostly unused stadium which could accommodate 43,000 spectators. Eight years later, thanks to a conscious professional concept, rapid development of infrastructure and money invested in the club, the club was already in the Bundesliga and is now considered one of the strongest teams in the league, having made its name on international level too and marching to the semi-finals of the Champions League last season.
The majority of Bundesliga club fans are boycotting their away games? It's foreign that a former GDR city conquers the German topflight? Leipzig fans are being mocked as "consumers”? They're all true, but while the rivals' fans languish, the club is getting closer and closer to Bayern München, which has been on the German throne for many years. Let's add quickly that this isn't a credit to the club, but mainly to the Red Bull family.
Under the auspices of Red Bull there are a total of four professional clubs with Leipzig being the European jewel of the Austrian company, but it also has a semi-professional academy team in Asia and Africa. RB Salzburg and its reserve team FC Liefering are undoubtedly the biggest help for RB Leipzig. The strategy development is exemplary. The observers' job is for Liefering to select the most talented young people from all over the world, train them, and then hand them over to Salzburg at the age of 18-19. There they then acquire a cutting-edge routine as well as international experience, show themselves in the Champions League or the Europa League and, at the latest, at the age of 22-23, pass them on to one of the top clubs in Europe for a high transfer fee. The final destination is usually Leipzig. Dominik Szoboszlai, who switched clubs in the winter, is the 18th player to sign with Leipzig from Austria.
|The RB Leipzig training center, opened in September 2015, is one of the most modern facilities in Germany (Photo: AFP)|
The deal benefits everyone: the clubs in the Red Bull project share the same philosophy, so the players raised in Salzburg are not new to Leipzig's tactics and style making the transferees' integration easier. Meanwhile, Salzburg is generating revenue after player sale and preparing the place for another youngster from Liefering. It's important to note, however, that Salzburg doesn't "produce" players for Leipzig only. Thanks to the professional work of the club, footballers can play for other top clubs and other leagues. For example, last winter Erling Haaland chose Borussia Dortmund and Takumi Minamino signed with Liverpool.
What happens to the young footballer after signing with Leipzig? There are usually two models followed at the club. One of the paths is what Péter Gulácsi, Willi Orbán, Yussuf Poulsen or even team captain Marcel Sabitzer took. They signed with the lower-division RB Leipzig but are now key players in the Champions League. The club is planning for the long term with them; they are clearly the backbone of the team. A small but important note: although Leipzig is often praised for their good sense of the market, the majority of current key players joined the club five or six years ago, and in recent years the club hasn't been able to attract so many outstanding players at almost the same time). The other path is what Naby Keita, who joined Liverpool in 2018, Timo Werner, who signed for Chelsea in the summer, or Dayot Upamecano, who has just joined Bayern Munich, got. The club sees the relatively cheaply acquired players as shorter-term or longer-term investments, who are passed on for a significant financial gain.
|The young but resourceful Julian Nagelsmann (Photo: AFP)|
Of course, despite conscious professional planning, the project could fall apart if they can't find the right experts. The club, however, made no mistake in this regard. Leipzig was first elevated to the top German teams by Ralf Rangnick, who is known as a difficult man but has a great professional reputation. From the summer of 2019, tactically mature and professionally skillful Julian Nagelsmann, 33, has been in charge of the professional work of the first team.
What could be the outcome of the project?
In the long run, what else could be other than winning the Bundesliga. In the short-term, it's winning the first trophy. The biggest opportunity to do so is in the German Cup this season and winning the cup would be another milestone in the club's history.
(This article was published in the Saturday edition of Nemzeti Sport Supplement, Képes Sport, on February 20, 2021.)
Translated by Vanda Orosz