Union Berlin are a wonderfully fascinating club (hopefully more articles on them to come). A team like no other and one whose fans are willing to go that extra mile to show that football can go beyond just the pitch and can be a platform to make a statement.
Recently Union played fellow German Bundesliga 2 side Red Bull Leipzig at home. The visitors have long been a figure of both ridicule and hate given their rise through the German league system since they transformed themselves in 2009. Back then the energy drink company Red Bull continued their tradition of buying up franchises by purchasing the playing license of German fifth division side SSV Markranstädt. Due to strict German ownership rules it was forbidden to officially name a club ‘Red Bull’ so they created the name RB Leipzig (which stands for RasenBallsport Leipzig). The newly formed team has steadily progressed through the German league system and now sit in the second tier of German football with the aim of being in the Bundesliga in the near future. This rise has been met with much criticism and several clubs have voiced their concerns about the way RB Leipzig are being run.
This was on show at the Union Berlin v RB Leipzig fixture on the 21st of September. As the teams walked out onto the pitch they were met with 20,000 Union fans dressed in black, standing in complete silence. The fans had all been given black ponchos and copies of a leaflet entitled, “Football culture is dying in Leipzig – Union is alive”. The silent protest lasted for the first 15 minutes of the match and ended with thousands of Union fans cheering loudly and letting off streamers.
There were banners inside the stadium that read “Football needs workers’ participation, loyalty, standing terraces, emotion, financial fair play, tradition, transparency, passion, history, independence.”
Union Berlin won the match 2-1 but the bigger picture was the real focus. German fans take their clubs seriously and the identity of each team is something that runs through German football. Leipzig have long argued that they are doing no wrong. They have a good fan base, a fantastic youth setup and an impressive stadium but the whole idea of a team like RB Leipzig does not sit easy with many German football fans.
More and more German clubs and managers are stepping forward to criticise RB Leipzig so it will be interesting to see what will happen when they achieve their goal of reaching the Bundesliga and what their own plans will be when that happens. The club have shown real determination to fulfil their ambitions and it has been predicted that maybe they will be a serious contender to topple Bayern Munich’s crown within the next five years.
There is something that doesn’t sit quite right when you look at clubs like RB Leipzig. Germany seems to be one of the few top leagues left that is hanging on to some true values about how football should be run. There is no monopoly on TV money, the wealth is shared out equally, the fans are treated well and ticket prices are low. Despite all of that the emergence of a team like ‘RasenBallsport’ suggests that even in Germany there are ways of flooding a club with cash in way that is sacrificing identity and community for success and trophies.
RB Leipzig are currently sitting 4th in the Bundesliga 2 (one point off top spot) and have shown some early season promise, so this could be the year they gain promotion to the top table of German football.
Union Berlin were simply saying what millions of German football fans have been thinking, but can anyone stop Red Bull, and will they be the company to finally break the German football model? RB Leipzig don’t break any rules on German football ownership (they fall in line with the ’50+1′ rule) but they do break the spirit in which the German game is played. Bankrolled by a company that generates over £3.5billion in revenue every year it might only be a matter of time before we see the Red Bull logo pictured alongside the Bundesliga trophy.