The Inexorable Rise of Red Bull Leipzig

Red Bull Leipzig have risen through the ranks of German football thanks to hefty investment from their drinks company owners. Could this controversial club one day challenge Bayern Munich for the Bundesliga?

Oct 23 2015, 6:18pm

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

Watching Bayern Munich should be a pretty exhilarating experience. This is arguably the best club side in the world, managed by Pep Guardiola, probably the greatest coach of this generation, who has got them playing outstanding, goal-filled football.

And yet the way they crush all domestic opposition is actually faintly depressing. Borussia Dortmund, supposedly their biggest rivals, were thrashed 5-1 recently, while Wolfsburg had the brazen impertinence to take the lead at the Allianz Arena, only for the bullying brutes of German football to ruthlessly stomp on their hopes and dreams, like a man crushing a bug with a steel-toe-capped boot. Robert Lewandowski scored five goals in nine minutes, and any slight chance that Bayern could be challenged was airily dismissed with a light flex of their muscles. It was the Bundesliga in microcosm.

So if the second-biggest team in the country and a club owned by Volkswagen can't challenge this colossal beast, can anyone? Could a side from the old East Germany who didn't exist six years ago manage it?

The name of the team is officially RasenBallsport (literally meaning 'lawn ball sports') Leipzig, RB Leipzig for short, but that's a simple formality. They play in the Red Bull colours of white, red and blue, the Red Bull logo of two cattle locking horns features on the club badge and, well, everyone calls them Red Bull Leipzig.

They are not, to say the least, the most popular football club of all time, and in the world of German football, so pious about fan ownership, it's easy to see why when they're not only owned by, but named after a global fizzy drinks corporation. In 2009, SSV Markranstädt were a fifth division team that few people in Germany paid much attention to, until Red Bull purchased their league license and changed the club's name and colours, reportedly with plans to spend €100million on getting them into the Champions League within 10 years.

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They have already shelled out a decent chunk of that on new players, most notably this summer when they signed German under-21 international Davie Selke from Werder Bremen, and their ascension to the Bundesliga at some point (they're currently third in 2. Bundesliga) is inevitable.

So the relevant question becomes 'just how far can they go?' Can they actually launch a sustained challenge to the great overbearing giant of German football?

Red Bull certainly have a fair old wedge of cash behind them. They sold 5.6 billion cans of their sickly sweet produce last year – making hay in the lucrative 'drunk youngsters celebrating' and 'lads on tour' markets as the silent partner in the Jaegerbomb – producing revenues of around £4.2billion. They're quite happy to invest that into sports. They're heavily involved in Formula One, and it's not simply through nifty cornering and a few well-deployed spanners that they have won four drivers' and four constructors' championships; Red Bull Racing's budget was reported to be £196million last year.

Of course being a success in F1 is much more difficult than in football. When Red Bull arrived in the motor racing world, they bought an already established team (one of ten), hired the best technical director in Adrian Newey, and a hugely experienced driver in David Coulthard, and even then it took them five years to win a championship, which required the added ingredient of a world-class driver in Sebastian Vettel. These are two very different propositions.

The key question to consider is how much money it would take for RB to even establish themselves near the top of the Bundesliga, never mind threaten Bayern. Chelsea had already qualified for the Champions League when Roman Abramovich arrived and it still took the better part of £200million and Jose Mourinho to turn them into title-winners. Manchester City had to spend nearly £500million to win the Premier League. PSG have climbed atop a massive pile of cash to dominate French football, but they were a pretty big club already and there was no colossus in their way. Suddenly the €100million Red Bull have reportedly committed to the club looks like loose change.

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Challenging the established order is a hideously expensive business even when there's something to build on, but this is essentially creating a club from scratch, and one wonders whether Red Bull truly have a pit of cash so deep as to rival a Russian oligarch or Emirati sheikhs. If Red Bull's aim was truly to become a great power of German football, starting from the bottom isn't the most obvious way to do it.

And then of course one has to consider their other clubs. Red Bull own a network of teams around the globe, with 'franchises' in Salzburg, New York, Ghana and Brazil. When considering Leipzig's potential impact, it's always worth remembering that they are not the sole beneficiaries of Red Bull's cash.

They have already spent handsomely, last winter shelling out more than any other club in Germany other than Borussia Dortmund. Selke, Emil Forsberg and Omer Damari, among others, have arrived for healthy sums, but in most other aspects this doesn't seem like a club whose only plan is to throw money at every problem.

Ralf Rangnick, appointed in 2012 as their sporting director but who took over as manager this year after Alexander Zorniger was sacked, is credited as one of the key forces behind the revival of German football in the last 15 years, helping to build a solid youth structure that eventually saw them win the World Cup last year. Spending obscene amounts of cash doesn't really sound like his style. "As long as Rangnick is in charge, I think there will be some Wenger-esque financial self-restraint," says Philip Oltermann of the Guardian, who has covered RB Leipzig extensively. "There was a lot of uproar when they bought Davie Selke from Bremen, who was just starting to find his feet in the Bundesliga. But compared to the Premier League or current business in the Turkish league it all looks quite sensible: no aging big stars, mainly young players with potential."

This theory is backed up by Red Bull spending some €30million on setting up their own state-of-the-art academy, which they have set about stuffing with the best young talent in Germany. The 15-year-olds Elias Abouchabaka and Nicolas-Gerrit Kühn were whipped away from Hertha Berlin and Hannover respectively, while this year they hired Frieder Schrof, who was responsible for bringing the likes of Mario Gomez and Sami Khedira through at Stuttgart, to oversee their youth development.

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"Ideally, I would like to see the majority of the players at RB Leipzig to have come through the ranks of our own youth academy," said Red Bull founder Dietrich Mateschitz back in 2009, and while it will only be clear in time whether Leipzig are just paying lip-service to the idea of 'developing' their own players, it doesn't suggest a team whose only plan is to get to the Bundesliga as quickly as possible then start wantonly firing cash around, in the desperate hope of winning titles immediately. This is an extended marketing exercise, but not one demanding instant and spectacular results. Similarly, Red Bull's F1 team is committed to promoting from its own pool of young drivers, and struck PR gold when they began hovering up titles with their biggest talent, Vettel.

Theoretically Leipzig have the infrastructure for sustained success; they are the only decent-sized team in a city of over half a million people and with an even bigger catchment area, they have a 45,000-seater stadium originally built for the 2006 World Cup (now, obviously, renamed the Red Bull Arena), and of course they now have money.

Success is a relative term, though. Challenging Bayern will take many millions and perhaps more pertinently a great deal of time. One wonders if Red Bull will invest enough of both to topple the established order.