Opinion: It's too easy to be cynical - why RB Leipzig's success should give us reason to smile
RB Leipzig are the first East German side in the Champions League semi-finals | Photo by Julian Finney - UEFA via Getty Images

As Red Bull executives scoured Germany for the newest acquisition to their sporting empire, the untapped potential in Leipzig must have seemed too good to be true.

One of Germany’s biggest cities, with a larger population than footballing hotbeds like Liverpool and Lyon, its two major sides were languishing in the fourth division. Unlike Essen, similarly large and bereft of top-class footballing action, Leipzig had no major clubs in close proximity.

But it wasn’t always so. RB Leipzig, now ostracized as a corporate shill by rival supporters up and down the country, are the first East German side to reach the Champions League semi-finals. It marks not only a significant moment for German football, where post-unification Western dominance still reigns supreme, but also for a city that, for so long, had such a proud footballing culture.

A city used to success

When one hundred thousand fans flocked to Leipzig’s Zentralstadion in 1956 to see Lokomotive face city rivals Rotation – still a record for a German league match to this day – Leipzig was a city used to footballing success. The German football association, the DFB, was founded in Leipzig in 1900. VfB Leipzig had been the nation’s first champions in 1903, and by the 1930s their rivalry with ‘TuRa Leipzig’ was well established. A city newspaper in 1935 described a fixture between the two as provoking ‘frantic emotions in both rival stands, better described as hostility than competitive spirit.’

But soon enough, they were just another proud city to suffer the harsh realities of the East German regime. Chemie Leipzig, named in association with the local chemical plants, won the first East German championship in 1951. Just a few years later they were forcibly disbanded, as the Communist party instead created a new club for the railway industry.

Soon after, Leipzig’s remaining major clubs were forced into a merger, with the players deemed not good enough given to a resurrected Chemie. In one of German football’s most stunning upsets, the phoenix club beat the party organized SC Leipzig to the title. It was the final time a workers’ side would win a title against a club associated with the state.

The Communist Party was not afraid of intervening in footballing matters. For five years, the sporting calendar was switched from the traditional August-May to February-November, as the leaders aimed to stay in step with the Soviet Union. However, unlike their counterparts in Moscow, Germany was not subject to such harsh winters, and instead saw attendances tumble during the summer months. The decision was eventually reversed.

Throughout the period of the GDR, the Stasi – East Germany’s brutal secret police force – were heavily involved in the sport. Erich Mielke, its head, demanded the relocation of 1953 champions Dynamo Dresden to Berlin, and ensured their sustained dominance of East German football throughout his time in power.

Reunification and dissolution

By the time of reunification, Leipzig’s footballing institutions had been renamed, reorganized and restructured so often as to rob them of any true sense of their pre-war footballing heritage. The disregard shown by West German clubs to their Eastern counterparts was the final nail in the coffin.

Eastern clubs couldn’t compete with Western wages, and as soon as the borders opened their squads were decimated. Only two spots were made available for East German sides in the first Bundesliga season and none were secured by sides from Leipzig. Suddenly their days of footballing success seemed a long way behind them.

Lokomotive reformed to become VfB Leipzig, in an effort to rekindle their pre-WWII successes, but their dire financial struggle saw them relegated time and again, before being dissolved in 2004. The city’s second club, then called Sachsen Leipzig, suffered from supporter unrest, and became similarly financially unstable, eventually being forced to disband themselves.

The hardcore supporters were determined to retain Leipzig’s footballing tradition – and when Red Bull first investigated purchasing a club in the city, sizeable protests were organized. Instead, while supporter groups revived their sides, competed with old GDR names and logos, Red Bull settled on a provincial side in the suburb of Markranstadt.

In their first season, all three clubs met in the same division. Admirably, the Lokomotive v Sachsen derby drew a crowd of over fifteen thousand, but it was RB Leipzig who swept to the title, twenty-two points clear of second place.

And while Red Bull drew criticism from footballing purists nationwide, fans began to be attracted to the new side. By now, both phoenix clubs in the city were dominated by ultras groups. Sachsen, now returned to the name BSG Chemie, held strong associations with ‘antifa’; Lokomotive ultras became associated with the far-right, unveiling tifo banners before derby matches with slogans like ‘Rudolf Hoess [the Commandant of Auschwitz], our right-winger’ and ‘Juden Chemie’.

A chance for resurrection

In the name of resurrecting Leipzig’s footballing tradition, the two clubs instead descended into bickering and infighting. Red Bull sensed the opportunity to establish a well-structured, successful club in Leipzig, and they seized upon it. After all, where were parents likely to take their children on a Saturday afternoon: to a seething cauldron of political aggression, or to a brand new stadium to see some of the country’s finest footballers?

Perhaps those who scorn RB Leipzig should take a moment to consider why it took such corporate involvement to create a successful East German team. It may not be how the rest of the Bundesliga does it, but with the system so historically skewed towards those in the West, what chance did Eastern clubs have?

It’s too easy for European giants to maintain a monopoly on history and tradition. Leipzig do not have the success of Bayern Munich or history of Borussia Dortmund. But to the locals, who have for so many years seen their great sporting city bereft of a club to be really proud of, it means a great deal.

There is certainly nothing romantic about RB Leipzig’s success. But their very presence at the top of the European game, and what it might mean to a proud footballing city so cruelly robbed by years of authoritarianism and circumstance, is surely enough to raise a smile.