Women’s Football at RB Leipzig – The Future or an Afterthought?

RasenBallsport Leipzig’s women’s team has been promoted to the 2. Frauen-Bundesliga for the first time in the club’s short existence. Spearheaded by a former World Cup winner, they tore through their regional division and were rightfully rewarded with promotion when the season was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Let’s take a look at how they got there and the club’s potential future in the fascinating ecosystem that is German women’s football.

RB Leipzig need no introduction. Notorious for the men’s rapid rise to international prominence and questionable business practices, but also their extensive scouting network and exciting style of play, the side from Saxony has been on the receiving end of plenty of criticism. Generally characterized as “Germany’s most hated team” and colloquially referred to by the name of their sponsor – Red Bull – rather than their official title, they divide opinion, to say the least.

In 2016/17, the same season that the RB Leipzig Männer embarked on their first-ever campaign in the top flight, a women’s team was established in addition to the club’s work with youth development for girls. The RB Frauen absorbed the playing squad of FFV Leipzig – a club which later ceased to exist and re-formed as the aptly named Phoenix Leipzig – and began their own journey with the aim of reaching similar heights to the men within the next three to five years.

Doesn’t seem too bad, at least Red Bull didn’t siphon funds into the squad like they did with the men, right? Well, that’s right, they didn’t do that, but the thing about FFV Leipzig was that they had just been relegated from the 2. Frauen-Bundesliga – some of the players even had previous top-flight experience – so when they rocked up at RB Leipzig in the Sachsenliga, the fourth tier, it caused quite a stir, to put it mildly. So much so that their opening day opponents, Bischofswerdaer SV, straight up refused to play and a compromise had to be reached for the remainder of the season. Leipzig agreed to have a certain number of youth players feature in their starting line-ups and matchday squads going forward, but it didn’t really make a difference as they stormed to a top-of-the-table finish, going invincible with a goal difference of +109, only conceding ten goals all season.

A 6-0 opening day shellacking at the hands of Magdeburger FFC threatened to set the tone for RB’s first-ever Regionalliga campaign, but in the end, the experienced, cool heads prevailed with the side finishing 4th in 17/18 and 3rd the following year, also claiming their regional cup, the Sachsenpokal, in 18/19.

Prior to last season, Leipzig management pulled off somewhat of a coup when they convinced Anja Mittag to come out of retirement and return to her home state to take up a dual role as player and as a member of Katja Greulich’s coaching staff. Mittag, a three-time European champion, World Cup winner, and Olympic gold medalist with Germany and with countless league titles, cups, and a Champions League triumph under her belt, had plenty left in the tank, coming off her second stint with Swedish behemoth FC Rosengård where she scored almost a goal every other game.

She ended up doing more playing than coaching in 2019/20 as she came second in the golden boot race with 17 goals, merely trailing Leipzig-born Marlene Haberecht of Phoenix. Mittag was to be the only runner-up at RB, though, as the team ripped up the Regionalliga Nordost, winning all but one of their 15 games. Union Berlin were the only team able to stop the rampant RasenBallsport attack – which found the back of the net 72 times over the course of the abbreviated season – when the two sides played out a scoreless draw on matchday three.

Anja Mittag in action for Leipzig in 2019 (Source: RB Leipzig)

With their first term in the 2. Frauen-Bundesliga on the horizon, Leipzig are facing a couple of quandaries. They will have to cope without the goals of Anja Mittag, who is retired for good now, and with five teams relegated next spring, they can ill-afford to perform at a below-average level. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic cutting the 2. Bundesliga season short, there was no relegation and every Regionalliga champion was promoted as opposed to the usual three, meaning that the now-bloated league has been split in twain. RB are part of the ten-team North section where three teams will get relegated, while just two will go down in the nine-team South division. However, BV Cloppenburg have recently filed for bankruptcy, which could yet throw up some questions regarding the new format, as it looks increasingly likely that they will drop out of the league. It remains to be seen what the course of action will be if the North division were to be reduced to nine teams and whether three sides will still be automatically demoted or if the last relegated team would be determined via, say, a play-off or something of that ilk.

Perhaps Leipzig won’t have to worry about a relegation battle, though. One would suspect that the step-up in quality won’t be much of a problem for the burgeoning Saxons – they were that dominant in the Regionalliga – but as with every promoted team, there is a particular degree of uncertainty as to whether they are indeed good enough to play at a higher level. Natalie Grenz and Larissa Schreiber will be tasked with replacing Mittag’s deadly finishing; the duo tallied 20 goals between them last season, while midfielders Lea Mauly and Marie-Luise Herrmann chipped in with eight and six strikes, respectively. Defensively, Leipzig should be sound. They only saw their net bulge three times last term and the incoming reinforcements should further strengthen their backline.

6 players have been signed in preparation for the upcoming season, most notably 19-year-old Austrian international Yvonne Weilharter – one of three center-backs to join the club. Prolific German youth international Vanessa Fudalla will be keen to put a torrid 19/20 Bundesliga season with Jena behind her and get back to doing what she does best: scoring goals.

In stark contrast to the club’s early days, inexperience might be a big factor in determining where Leipzig will finish. With the exception of 23-year-old Louise Ringsing, who was signed from last season’s Danish Gjensidige Kvindeligaen runners-up Brøndby IF, all of RB’s new signings are teenagers. The majority of Leipzig’s squad is 21 and younger, but the same can be said of many sides in the 2. Frauen-Bundesliga; it is essentially a development league, a division for youngsters to hone their skills in the hope of eventually making the jump to the big time, as we have recently seen with Selina Cerci and Fatma Sakar.

As I have previously opined, it would not surprise me one bit if this was just the start of a bigger incursion into women’s football by German men’s clubs. The ever-increasing financial demands will become harder and harder to shoulder for independent sides and as the transfer market evolves, with more teams paying transfer fees for players, clubs with greater economic muscle will eventually congregate at the top.

USV Jena, SC Würzburg, and FFC Frankfurt all merged with their local men’s sides this offseason, while Turbine Potsdam recently entered into a three-year commercial partnership with Hertha Berlin. Werder Bremen are back in the top flight and Union Berlin will likely challenge for promotion from the Regionalliga. Köln, although relegated at the end of last season, have invested significantly to bolster their roster and you would hope that local rivals Borussia Mönchengladbach eventually follow suit, given the men’s side’s success over the past twelve months. Borussia Dortmund, notorious for their lack of involvement in women’s football, are exploring the possibility of rectifying that particular blemish, while Schalke have already announced that they will establish a women’s department. Stuttgart, another high-profile club without a women’s side, are looking into the feasibility of the matter and they will publish more concrete information once the club’s COVID-stricken finances have stabilized.

So, where does RB fit into all of this? Financially, RasenBallsport Leipzig are among the most secure organizations in German football. Backed by the billions of Red Bull, and with Champions League football once again to look forward to, there’s cash aplenty. It has become something of a platitude when talking about investment in women’s football, but it bears repeating: a tiny fraction of the cash raked in from any potential men’s transfer would be enough to transform their women’s team into one of the best on the planet.

Football purists won’t like it, but the club is a dormant volcano, a potential powerhouse. There are parallels to Wolfsburg, who, despite their standing as a historical minnow, have shown that proper investment, proper commitment can go a long way even if you aren’t a traditional giant of the game. Whether RB Leipzig are the future of German women’s football or merely an afterthought is at the whim of the decision-makers.

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