Chemie Leipzig – Fairytale, Downfall, Resurgence

RB Leipzig’s rapid rise to international renown has hijacked the spotlight and reshaped the narrative around football in the city of Leipzig and East Germany at large. RBL is often portrayed as the East’s “great hope”, the club that will revive the memories of better days and whatnot. This frankly absurd point of view only serves to dilute and overshadow the vibrant football scene that has existed in Leipzig for over a century, long before this sterile marketing behemoth decided to come waltzing in and take over.

The great clubs of yesteryear are still largely there, although condemned to lower league mediocrity due to the economic changes brought about by reunification, but they are still alive and kicking. Leipzig is home to a football landscape that has everything: from VfB Leipzig, the first-ever German champion in the DFB era, and its spiritual successor DDR-Oberliga powerhouse Lokomotive, to Roter Stern, a progressive, politically outspoken club, and finally, the team we will examine today, BSG Chemie, a club that has experienced the highest of highs and lowest of lows (literally).

Officially founded in 1950 as the sports department of paint and coating manufacturer VEB Lacke und Farben Leipzig – hence the name Betriebssportgemeinschaft (BSG) – Chemie’s existence got off to a perfect start when they won the DDR-Oberliga in what was technically their debut season (they had already played in the league the year prior but under their old moniker ZSG Industrie Leipzig). Chemie and Turbine Erfurt (Rot-Weiß Erfurt’s predecessor) finished level on points in 1951, so the champion had to be determined via a playoff; die Chemiker (the Chemists) ran out 2-0 victors in front of 60,000 raucous spectators in Chemnitz – ticket demand for this fixture was reportedly in the hundreds of thousands.

This result catapulted Chemie to the top of the food chain in sporting terms, but the club was viewed with suspicion by the government; they favored Vorwärts Leipzig, the club of the People’s Police. In the middle of the 1952/53 season, several of Chemie’s best players were moved to Vorwärts – to no avail: Vorwärts’ fortunes didn’t improve and despite the unjust treatment, people continued to throng to Chemie games and the Chemists still managed to challenge for the Oberliga title in all but one of the following three campaigns. They were eventually stopped dead in their tracks in 1954 when football in the city was restructured in an attempt to facilitate the better development of elite athletes. One of those structural reforms engendered the establishment of Sportclubs, out and out, state-subsidized sports organizations as opposed to the more archaic, less professional BSGs; it proved to be a seismic alteration as those outfits would come to dominate the Oberliga for the rest of its regrettably short existence. It’s important to note that most SCs were still presided over by a parent company or a branch of government and not, like the name might suggest, completely independent entities.

One of those newly-founded SCs was Lokomotive Leipzig – different from the more well-known Lok that was established in 1966 – and this proto-Lok was essentially assigned all of Chemie’s players; as a result, BSG Chemie ceased to exist. In 1956, Lok faced fellow Sportclub Rotation Leipzig in what remains to this day the league game with the highest attendance in the history of German football, with over 100,000 people witnessing the encounter in person in Leipzig’s old Zentralstadion, which has since given way to Red Bull Arena. The following year, Lok won the FDGB-Pokal. The 1963 merger between Lok and Rotation – which was performed at the behest of the local governing body since they wanted to concentrate the city’s best players in one organization – allowed Chemie to be brought back to life. However, since they were again established as a BSG, they were firmly stuck in the shadow of SC Leipzig, the ostensible heavyweight born from the fusion of Leipzig’s top dogs. Logically – since transfers were a rarity at that time – Chemie’s squad consisted mainly of cast-offs who were deemed not good enough to play for SC.

This motley crew was, naturally, expected to be in for a rough ride in their first Oberliga season, but things didn’t quite pan out that way. What Chemie did in 1963/64 would go down as the biggest fairytale story in the history of the Oberliga. Under the tutelage of legendary coach Alfred Kunze, Leipzig’s undesirables went on to become the first and only BSG to win the league after the implementation of the Sportclub system. How did they do it? In a 1993 interview, Kunze averred that it was all psychological; a fanatical underdog mentality can be a hell of a drug. On the pitch, this mindset manifested in the form of defensive resilience and deadly counterattacks. Ironically, they beat SC Leipzig not just on the pitch but also in terms of popularity within the city: Chemie’s average attendance was double that of SC, and north of 10,000 away fans traveled to Erfurt on the final day of the season to watch their team lift the Oberliga trophy – not bad for a side superciliously branded with the sobriquet “the Rest of Leipzig”. In honor of Kunze, Chemie have since named their iconic home ground after the title-winning coach, while the players have been commemorated in the form of life-sized statues inside the stadium.

Kunze during the 1964 title-decider (MDR)

BSG followed up on that incredible achievement by winning the Pokal in 1966 and they also went on a mightily impressive three-year home unbeaten run, but their ventures into European football swiftly ended in heartbreak and sustained success wasn’t forthcoming; in fact, they soon became the very definition of a yoyo-club. Between 1971 and reunification, they dropped down to the second tier a staggering five times. The club henceforth competed as Sachsen Leipzig, but genuine sporting success proved elusive and the virtually ever-present post-reunification financial struggles, plus excessive violence in the stands meant that Chemie devotees grew increasingly restless and disillusionment was rife. Finally, in 1997, this despondency was sublimated into the creation of a new BSG Chemie Leipzig – BSG now stood for Ballsportfördergemeinschaft – to preserve the tradition of the old club and also as a potential fallback should Sachsen Leipzig go out of business or “stray from the club values [of the old BSG]”, which is exactly what happened when political differences led to clashes in the fanbase.

Chemie’s supporters are widely known to be left-leaning, community-focused, and unrelenting in the fight against discrimination – naturally, this has led to many a heated encounter with adherents of Lok Leipzig, a club that has increasingly become a safe haven and breeding ground for neo-Nazis. The verdure coterie of Chemie is a socially-conscious, hands-on people which is particularly evident in their frequent attempts to transfigure their charming but increasingly antiquated home, the Alfred-Kunze-Sportpark. From handling the seemingly never-ending restorations and maintenance of the ground, to the creation of a family stand – with an integrated playground for kids – to their current campaign to finally install floodlights, Chemie fans are doing everything in their power to make the AKS as comfortable as possible for people from all walks of life – except Nazis, of course! Chemie is essentially run by its supporters – after all, it only employs half a dozen people – and it prides itself on its amateur status and repute as the quintessential local club. Such is Chemie’s entrenchment as a vital pillar of the community, that the club basically is the community, it has fully embraced its role as a veritable social institution.

The new BSG broke away and took to the field for the first time in 08/09 in the 12th(!) division. Thanks to three consecutive promotions and a subsequent merger with Blau-Weiß Leipzig, Chemie were already playing in the sixth-tier Sachsenliga as early as 2011. That same year, they decided to bring back the traditional name of the club: Betriebssportgemeinschaft Chemie Leipzig. Despite a minor setback in the form of relegation to the seventh tier, Chemie’s ascent up the leagues soon continued, culminating in promotion to the Regionalliga in 2017 after winning the Oberliga at the first time of asking the previous year. Unfortunately, they slipped up in their inaugural season in the fourth division and immediately dropped back down. In January of 2019, they made a pivotal hire when they brought in Miroslav Jagatic to steer the ship and get them back into the Regionalliga, which he duly did.

After finishing in 12th when the 19/20 season was canceled due to COVID-19, people naturally expected much of the same for this term, but Jagatic and his men have totally exceeded expectations. The former Tennis Borussia Berlin player managed to turn Chemie into promotion challengers, and when the new season was halted late last year, they were unexpectedly sitting pretty in third, above fully professional sides like Chemnitz and Jena, big spenders Cottbus, and city rivals Lok. Sadly, that turned out to be the last time a ball would be kicked in the Regionalliga Nordost. League action never resumed and last month, the federation announced that the campaign would yet again be canned, with league leaders Viktoria Berlin obtaining a spot in the third division.

Chemie did, however, recently prove that they are already in decent shape for next season when they hosted 3. Liga side FSV Zwickau in the Sachsenpokal. The visitors ultimately ran out 1-0 victors thanks to a fortunate goal, but Chemie put in a very good performance despite not having played a competitive game in six months; had they been a tad more clinical in front of goal, the result could have looked very different.

Nevertheless, the only way seems to be up for this team. Jagatic won’t get carried away, of course; last year, he asserted that this is a long-term project which could take several years to complete. However, if his side continues to play like they had been playing prior to the season’s stoppage, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that we could see Chemie in the professional ranks of German football sooner rather than later. One thing is clear: they certainly wouldn’t look out of place in a 3. Liga that is becoming increasingly populated by traditional powerhouses.

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