Karlsruhe Fans “Voice” Their Disapproval”. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.goal.com/en/news/1717/editorial/2015/04/07/10495172/the-next-chelsea-or-anzhi-red-bull-gives-leipzig-wings-and-funds-
When RB Leipzig went top of the Bundesliga last week, becoming the first newly promoted side to remain undefeated after 11 weeks in the league’s history, one would have thought it would be a cause for celebration. After all, everyone likes an underdog, right? Just think of Leicester City’s fairy tale season last year in the Premier League. Despite love for the underdog, RB Leipzig’s rise to prominence has divided football fans with the Daily Mail calling them “the most hated club in Germany”. The cracks were there in September, when fans of Borussia Dortmund refused to travel to an away match in Leipzig. The leader of the protest, Jan-Henrik Gruszecki, said “Of course Dortmund makes money, but we do it in order to play football. But Leipzig plays football in order to sell a product and a lifestyle. That’s the difference.” This simple response shows why RB Leipzig’s rise is so repulsive to many fans; the team embodies the extreme capitalism that has characterized globalization in the last twenty-plus years, a poster child for the “Industrial Football” that has slowly taken the beautiful game away from fans and put it squarely in the pockets of big business.
RB Leipzig, on paper at least, should be celebrated as the first team from former communist East Germany in seven years to appear in German Football’s top flight. The reality is much different. As the Guardian explains:
Until 2009, RB Leipzig was a fifth-division club called SSV Markranstädt that few had heard of even in its native Saxony. Then the Austrian energy drink manufacturer Red Bull bought the club’s licence, changed its name, crest and kit, and promised a transfer budget of a rumoured €100m (£85m).
Money was all that mattered, and the team had it. They also had the clout (or cunning) to skirt a rule that prohibits German teams from being named after sponsors so “the new club was christened Rasenballsport Leipzig, meaning ‘lawn ball sports’”. Fans in the USA and Austria are, no doubt, familiar with similar “Red Bull teams” like Red Bull New York (who destroyed the legacy of the young—but proud—New York/New Jersey Metrostars and Red Bull Salzburg. It was not the naming of the club, however, that irked most people.
Rather, it was the fact that the club took control away from the fans in true corporate/extreme capitalist fashion. This was especially irksome in Germany, since the teams tend to value their fans: “The statutes of the German Football Association deter big investors from taking over its clubs. According to the so-called ‘50+1’ rule, clubs must hold a majority of their own voting rights. Only investors who have been involved with a club for more than 20 years can apply for an exception to the 50+1 rule.” It is a good rule that gives fans a say, but RB Leipzig has made being one of those “owners” prohibitively expensive: The Guardian reports that “while membership at Dortmund costs adults €62 per annum, being a ‘gold’ member at Leipzig will set you back €1,000 a year – and that still only makes you a ‘supporting’ or non-voting member,” and, therefore, RB have only 17 members—all of whom are either employees or associates of Red Bull.
There has—predictably—been a backlash to this from other fans. One fan of RB’s local rival Lokomotive Leipzig says “’My club was founded in order to play football, RB Leipzig was founded to make money. To sell an energy drink.” Indeed, in a cup match this season with Dynamo Berlin, opposing fans threw a severed Bull’s head onto the side of the pitch. While it is important to note that it is not all doom and gloom—RB have a great youth setup and tend not to invest in players over 24—there is still something unsettling about the corporate outlook that has overrun the East German side.
Horse Head In Your Bed? Dynamo Dresden Fans Respond to RB Leipzig’s Policies. Image Courtesy Of: https://www.theguardian.com/football/2016/sep/08/why-rb-leipzig-has-become-the-most-hated-club-in-german-football
Fortunately, there have been pockets of resistence to this trend. Union Berlin, another of East Germany’s (formerly) famous sides, saved themselves by selling shares to fans—not corporate interests—in 2012. (They also wrote an article about bull farming in their program for the match against RB Leipzig in lieu of writing about their rivals).
Union Berlin Chose Not To Give Their Rivals Any Press In Their Program. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-3599158/Why-RB-Leipzig-hated-club-Germany-Owned-Red-Bull-crafty-sponsor-s-outpriced-fan-power-aiming-Bayern-Munich.html
Elsewhere in Eastern Europe, Russia’s famous Zenit St. Petersburg turned down a lucrative offer from American fast-food chain Burger King to rename the club “Zenit Burger King”. While this is not the “McDonaldsization” of the world but an attempt to “Burger King(ize?)” the world, the response by Zenit fans was amazing—Russia Today found it (predictably) “hilarious”. For my part, I was left wondering which genius at Burger King thought that this attempt at cultural/economic imperialism could have ever been successful but that is beside the point; after all I’m just a marginal sociologist making much less than a big-wig in Burger King’s corporate structure.
The Letter in Question. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/european/zenit-st-petersburg-burger-king-offer-57m-offer-change-name-a7221766.html
Zenit Embrace The Past. Image Courtesy Of: https://www.rt.com/sport/358140-zenit-st-petersburg-burger-king/
Zenit’s social media presence has been a welcome breath of fresh air, resisting the corporate imperialism of globalization. They shared a picture of the team that harkens back to the artistic history of their city—a solid rebuke of the homogenizing trends of globalism—and even engaged in a humorous polemic with the English newspaper The Daily Mail for insulting their logo that I found to be very funny. The attempts of global (extreme) capitalism to steamroll the world into submission are being resisted in pockets of the world such as Berlin and St. Petersburg but are being accepted as a matter of course in Leipzig. The fact that we see the conflict play itself out in football is indicative of the power of the world’s most popular sport to accept—or challenge—global trends that extend way beyond the football pitch.