Your humorously headlined article on the rise of drink maker-funded RB Leipzig to the top-tier of German association football (“Red Bull gives you wingers”, The Economist, May 14th-20th 2016) claims to shed some light on the East-West tensions that are, according to your subhead, “very much alive”.
As much as I appreciate your newspaper providing some valuable insights into contemporary German Fussballkultur and the fact that it, indeed, has so far escaped the most devastating excesses of commercialised football, epitomised by relatively low ticket prices and a vivid fan culture, I strongly disagree with your attempt to inflate the controversy surrounding RB Leipzig into an underlying West-versus-East issue.
Leipzig deserves it
Despite the great public criticism that the Red Bull business model has triggered since RB Leipzig was formed in 2009, it does not transcend into a discriminatory East-West divide.
Today, there are few football enthusiasts in Germany who wish clubs bad luck hoping they miss promotion just because they are based in the eastern part of the country. In fact, most fans and officials hope for eastern teams to make it to the higher leagues, including the Bundesliga, not least because they are aware of the unparalleled exodus of young talents as well as seasoned internationals to clubs in the West that followed German reunification (did you know that former Celtic player Andreas Thom was the first East German to sign for a Bundesliga club?). This is also true for RB Leipzig whose recent promotion is predominantly being welcomed as a long overdue return of an eastern outfit to the Bundesliga.
Rivalries between East and West German clubs, or rather their fan bases, have other roots, geography not being a leading motive. FC St. Pauli, the team I have been supporting since I was a boy, and Hansa Rostock are not at loggerheads with each other because of their clubs’ geographic locations, but due to opposing (imagined or not) political stances of their most influential fan clubs. Left-leaning Paulianer are right, of course.
Rival managers lashing out at Leipzig calling them all kinds of names should not be taken too seriously; it is all part of the pre-match verbal exchange we grew accustomed to.
I still don’t like RB Leipzig, but …
Don’t get me wrong: My sympathies for RB Leipzig and their approach to commercial football are very limited. But RB managed to bring elite football back to an overperforming eastern metropolis in an chronically underperforming region, doing so by chiefly relying on promising young talents, many of them home-grown (their scouting is impeccable).
Maybe the likes of Hoffenheim and, this might come as a surprise, Hamburg should be regarded as worse examples of excessive commercialisation: Hoffenheim is an entirely synthetic construction with no traditional fan base whose modern arena was built closer to Heidelberg’s tourist attractions than the team’s name-giving village. And Hamburg’s patron-sponsor Klaus-Michael Kühne is continuously pumping money into the team, de facto taking over management and single-handedly bringing in new players whenever he deems it necessary.
RB Leipzig is neither football’s only nor last commercial overkill, and the popular critique against its business model should not be blown out of proportion and labelled “systematic discrimination” against East German outfits.