RB Leipzig vs Atletico Madrid: German club's biggest game a reminder of city's glory days
Champions League – RB Leipzig Training – Estadio Jose Alvalade, Lisbon, Portugal – August 12, 2020 General view during RB Leipzig training [Lluis Gene/Pool via REUTERS]

When RB Leipzig take the field for their Champions League quarter-final against Atletico Madrid on Thursday, it will mark a new stage in the rapid rise of a club which was founded only 11 years ago.

But despite the newness of the club, backed by energy drink company Red Bull, for football lovers in the Eastern part of Germany and the Saxony region in particular, the occasion will spark some nostalgia as well as a good deal of local pride.

A regional league club as recently as seven years ago, RB Leipzig were only promoted to the Bundesliga in 2016 and they continue to break new ground with the last 16 win over Tottenham Hotspur, taking them into the ‘final eight’ tournament in the Portuguese capital.

“This is the biggest game in our club’s history and we will do everything we can to advance another round. The boys are motivated and will give everything,” said Leipzig’s sporting director Markus Kroesche.

Critics of the club, of which there many in Germany, may scoff at the reference to history, given RB Leipzig have very little of it.

The criticism of the club is because of the way that Red Bull became an exception to ownership rules in Germany where individuals cannot buy a majority share of a team unless they are the single biggest investors for an uninterrupted 20-year period.

But billionaire Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz was able to circumvent that rule when he bought the licence of amateur club SSV Markranstaedt in 2009 and turned them into RasenBallsport Leipzig – literally Lawn Ball Leipzig, a name which allows them to use the company’s RB initials.

But what is often ignored in the well-worn arguments about the soul and spirit of Bundesliga clubs is an acknowledgment that East German football, which went into the doldrums after reunification in 1990, was in desperate need of a club with new resources and ideas.

Established clubs across East Germany, who had been top teams in the old DDR-Oberliga and participants in European competition, quickly ran into financial difficulties, many collapsing into regional league obscurity.

FIRST GERMAN CHAMPIONS

RB Leipzig vs Atletico Madrid: German club's biggest game a reminder of city's glory days
RB Leipzig’s Yussuf Poulsen during training [Lluis Gene/Pool via REUTERS]

Leipzig may have a novel ownership structure for the Bundesliga but the idea of new clubs, with new names is nothing unusual for older East German football fans, who got used to the communist authorities forced mergers and name-changes frequently throughout the 40-year history of their state.

Leipzig, as a city, has a long history in football having been the place where the German Football Union (DFB) was founded in 1900 with VfB Sportbrueder 1893 Leipzig one of the first 86 member clubs.

Under the shorter name VfB Leipzig, they became the first German champions in 1903, winning the title again three years later and once more in 1913 and they won the German Cup in 1936.

After post-war refoundation and mergers, two Leipzig clubs emerged in the 1960’s — 1. FC Lokomotive and BSG Chemie Leipzig.

While Chemie enjoyed some domestic success, Locomotive were the team that made more of a mark on the international stage, enjoying a run to the final of the now discontinued Cup Winners’ Cup in 1987, where they lost to Ajax — a Marco van Basten goal ending the dream for the East Germans in Athens.

Then, as will be the case on Wednesday, Leipzig fans missed out on attending their big night. Whereas COVID-19 restrictions mean the Atletico match will be played behind closed doors this week, in 1987 East Germans were simply barred from travel to the West by the communist authorities.

The big night for Leipzig fans in that year came in the semi-final where the formidable Bordeaux team, including the great Jean Tigana, were eliminated on penalties in front of 67,000 at the old Zentralstadion.

There is no lineage between Lokomotive and RB Leipzig and indeed ‘Lok’ still exist, playing regional league football in front of small crowds of loyalists.

Their Zentralstadion was for many years a symbol of the decline of East German football, under-used with no top team to attract fans.

But it is now Red Bull Park, home to the club which on Wednesday will be hoping to write a new chapter in the story of Leipzig’s football.

 

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