The Bundesliga Paradox

When Bayern returned from their Club World Cup odyssey a few weeks ago, they looked a bit flat, and understandably so. The fact that this season’s frankly absurd and dangerous fixture congestion had finally caught up with the Bavarians allowed clubs like Arminia Bielefeld and Eintracht Frankfurt to take points off of the juggernaut. Meanwhile, elsewhere, RB Leipzig were licking their lips at the prospect of being able to close the gap, which they duly did. At the point of writing this, only a couple of points separate the Bundesliga’s top two.

The possibility that Leipzig could win the German top flight has reignited a familiar discussion: who would you rather see lifting the Meisterschale in May, Bayern or Leipzig? On the surface, it’s not a particularly controversial question. What we’re seeing is just a regular title race between two really good sides. The only problem is that, no, it isn’t just another title race. There’s something more at stake here than just a championship: the Bundesliga’s integrity.

You could argue that this title race transpiring in the first place is already an indictment of the league – and you’d be right! The very existence of RB Leipzig is an affront to most German football fans and it is in sharp contradiction to what the Bundesliga purportedly stands for, but we’ll get to that later. Right now, supporters of other clubs find themselves in a catch-22 situation, because the answer to the seemingly simple question being posed is a resounding neither. Nobody wants to see Bayern win their ninth successive league title and, in the process, to further perpetuate the laughable “farmer’s league” trope. Equally, nobody wants the perceived antithesis of football to be triumphant. It’s not a paradox inasmuch as it is simply an either-way-you-lose situation.

Essentially, it boils down to a lesser-evilism. But who is the lesser of two evils here? The obvious comparison to make is that of Biden versus Trump, but perhaps the more accurate one is that of Putin against Navalny. Bayern obviously represent the vulgar status quo that needs to be toppled at all costs. Whereas the other side is that of Alexei Navalny or, in this case, RasenBallsport Leipzig. In the foreign media, Navalny has been propped up as a breath of fresh air, the only one that can counteract the autocratic Putin (sound familiar?). What the media frequently neglects to mention, however, is that Navalny is no saint; far from it, he is a proto-fascist, if not an outright fascist. Ironically, Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz has also been accused of harboring far-rights convictions, but that’s perhaps a story for another day.

The important bit here is the media’s perception. Too often, Leipzig have been framed as a perfectly sound football club that simply has the Sword of Damocles dangling over its head; supporters of other German teams are merely jealous of Leipzig’s rapid, swashbuckling success. Back in August of 2020, Bundesliga Fanatic’s Louis Ostrowski wrote the following about how the Red Bulls are perceived in the non-German media:

. . .There is a difference in mindset. The English fans and English media largely treat Leipzig as a normal football club, and it is galling seeing organisations like the BBC tweet about RB Leipzig’s fairytale story, when they usually try to resist promoting any private companies where possible. Foreign fans and media often assert that Leipzig’s success is great for German football, and it is easy to understand why. For many, they have the best chance of ending Bayern’s monopoly on the Bundesliga, which is surely a good thing, and those German fans who speak out against Leipzig are often accused of trying to protect Bayern’s dominance . . .”

This naïve and, frankly, uninformed point of view helps to normalize something that is anything but normal. The media is basically doing the legwork for RB’s PR team. There are very valid reasons for why they are despised. In the context of global football, in other words, in a world of Manchester Cities and Paris Saint-Germains, RB Leipzig are nothing special, nothing new; we’ve seen clubs buy their way to the top before. However, within German football, it’s a different story. Whether you like it or not, the 50+1 rule, designed to prevent affluent magnates from exercising their libido dominandi and to keep control of clubs in the hands of supporters and their representatives, isn’t something that can just be disregarded.

50+1 doesn’t boil down to moral superiority nor is it a desperate attempt to cling to a bygone era; it’s how a football club should be run, people who follow the Bundesliga will tell you. Circumventing it is a cardinal sin that will be met with fierce resistance. The thing is, Leipzig haven’t merely bypassed the 50+1 rule – plenty of clubs have attempted to do this with varying degrees of success – but the most impertinent aspect of the club is that its sole purpose is to serve as a marketing device for Red Bull.

Augsburg fans protesting RB, the DFL, and the DFB in 2017 (TF-Images/Getty Images)

The energy drink conglomerate is building a footballing empire and it is killing clubs and their distinct identities. The New York Metro Stars were one of the most unique, recognizable franchises in Major League Soccer. Now, although more successful than they were back in the day, they’re nothing more than “the American branch”. Furthermore, Red Bull has transformed the Bundesliga in its native Austria into a one-club league. Well-run sides like LASK Linz are deprived of the opportunity to get tangible rewards for their labor. No matter how hard they try, they are always fighting a losing battle up against a juggernaut like Salzburg. And yet, for all their dominance, Salzburg still only play second fiddle to Red Bull’s crown jewel in Leipzig. What a sorry existence. Did a once-proud club like Austria Salzburg really have to die for this?

As football continues to charge headlong toward that breaking point where it will begin to simply eat itself alive, this hoarding of teams by corporations will only become more common. We’ve seen it with City Football Group and we’re now seeing it in an embryonic form with Flyeralarm, too, who are not only the naming sponsor of the Frauen-Bundesliga but also the main investor behind Admira Wacker and 2. Bundesliga side Würzburg, with Felix Magath essentially masquerading as Ralf Rangnick there.

The Bundesliga tells anyone who will listen that it is home to football as it’s meant to be, but how, then, did it – and the people in charge of German football at large – allow a club like Leipzig to grow into what it is today despite it standing in stark contrast to the sport as it is supposedly meant to be? The Bundesliga is proud, almost to an obsessive extent, of its tradition, its history, its passionate support; all of these things are anathema to Leipzig and yet they are thriving. Something doesn’t add up.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to money. The prevailing narrative is that the more strong competitors Bayern have the better. Leipzig giving Bayern a run for their money makes the league more appealing, in the same way that Bayern being competitive in the Champions League also helps, that’s why it’s easy for the Bundesliga to turn a blind eye to Leipzig’s 50+1 shenanigans and the Bavarians’ lucrative deal with Qatar Airways. Despite vehement remonstrances from their own fans, Bayern have not just doubled but tripled down on their dealings with the petrostate built on slave labor, making cringe-worthy promotional videos, and of course, there’s the whole Club World Cup dilemma. Union Berlin supporters summed it up pretty well recently. For their game against Hoffenheim, they displayed a banner that read: “Whether Bayern in Qatar or Gladbach in Budapest – the cash has to flow!”

Union Berlin fans condemning German football’s greed (Matthias Koch)

A contradiction that German football will have to reckon with is that if you want to persist with the fan majority system, then you can’t be in it for the money, especially not right now with the market being as volatile as it is; you can’t have your cake and eat it too. We’ve seen it countless times, several clubs were in dire straits financially even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Fan ‘ownership’ and financial opulence don’t really go together. Perhaps nowhere in elite football is the inherent antagonism between wealth and the desire to adhere to ethics expressed more acutely than in Germany. The game is stuck in the middle of a veritable cold war and it will have to find a way of rectifying the widespread lack of economic stability while at the same time trying not to upset the delicate balance already in place – 1860 Munich and now KFC Uerdingen have shown us the pitfalls of endeavoring to split from the traditional order.

Because of the above-mentioned irregularities, there is a disconnect between German football leadership and German football supporters, and this chasm will only widen in light of the recent news that the DFB wants to cut funding for the so-called Fanprojekte. Fanprojekte are organizations that bridge the gap between supporters and the club, and they offer a wide range of services, including recreational and educational activities for teenagers. For the time being, supporters’ groups in the two Bundesligas won’t be affected by these cost-cutting measures as those leagues fall under DFL jurisdiction, but this will only further stoke the resentment that’s already bubbling in the lower leagues, and who’s to say that the DFL won’t eventually follow suit?

Supporters, especially those of clubs in the Regionalliga and below, have long since held the belief that the decision-makers in German football only act in the interest of money. The same executives who cut funding for social projects and who allow clubs like RB Leipzig to flourish will then turn around and espouse that football belongs to the fans while actively ignoring their best interests. Something has to change. A Leipzig championship could conceivably be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, but, ultimately, only time will tell.

To get back to the original quandary, trying to decide who would be a better Bundesliga champion out of Bayern and Leipzig is, to use an old German expression, like choosing between the plague and cholera. There is no right choice; either you pick the entitled behemoth funded by blood money or the plaything of a billion-dollar company owned by a virulent racist.

Regrettably, it has to be acknowledged that this entire conversation is essentially moot because we’re way past the point of no return. Whether you like it or not, Leipzig are here to stay and, barring the implementation of massive financial regulations or a complete collapse of the organization, Bayern’s vice grip on the league won’t loosen either. The German game finds itself in an unenviable position: will it stay the course and continue to alienate its fans in the name of international recognition and profits or will it actually attempt to change and stick to its professed values?

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