For the past 20 years, Bayern Munich has enjoyed a near-monopoly of the Bundesliga title.
Their 13 German league crowns and periods of dominance over the last two decades have only been briefly interrupted by title successes for Borussia Dortmund, Wolfsburg, FC Kaiserslautern and Stuttgart — the latter two of which are currently second division sides.
But now a new kid, a German version of Leicester City — is threatening to upset German football’s established order: RB Leipzig.
Tonight (kick-off 7pm) the young upstart team— RB stands for RasenBallsport (meaning “Lawn Ball”) - meets Bayern, with the two clubs level on points at the top of the Bundesliga.
Leipzig’s success has naturally drawn comparisons to Leicester City’s unlikely Premier League title win last season. “2016 was a great and unforgettable year for the whole club,” said Leipzig’s Director of Sports Ralf Rangnick this week, reflecting on a year which has seen the East German team make an immediate mark in the Bundesliga following its promotion.
While those comparisons with Leicester are arguably wide of the mark — Leipzig was only formed in 2009 and is backed by Red Bull’s billionaire founder Dietrich Mateschitz — Bayern’s midfield conductor Xabi Alonso believes there are some similarities.
“At the moment, yes (they are doing a Leicester),” Alonso told CNN. “At the moment they have a very clear idea of how they want to play.”
The Bundesliga breaks for winter after this round of mid-week matches and the Allianz Arena showdown is the standout tie.
Having led for three weeks until early December, Leipzig knocked Bayern off the summit for 24 hours after their impressive win over Hertha before Bayern’s 1-0 victory at bottom side Darmstadt put them top again on Sunday.
Leipzig are one of the few German clubs who have deep pockets like Bayern, with the financial weight of Austrian drinks giants Red Bull behind them.
Playing in the German fifth division as recently as 2009 — then as SSV Markranstadt before Red Bull’s takeover — Leipzig’s rise hasn’t been greeted with the same feel-good factor that surrounded Leicester’s success. What has really irked the rest of German football fans is Leipzig’s intuitive approach to the Bundesliga’s mandatory “50+1” rule.
The rule, implemented in 1998, was introduced to ensure clubs’ members retain a majority of its voting rights to protect against the influence of external investors.
By way of comparison, Borussia Dortmund has nearly 140,000 members who each pay an annual fee of around €60. Leipzig, however, has just 17 members and charges an annual fee of €800.
In reality, while still technically abiding by the 50+1 rule, it barely applies — especially since the majority of its 17 members are Red Bull employees.
Leipzig, however, isn’t the first German club to receive backing from a wealthy organisation. Ingolstadt, Bayer Leverkusen, Wolfsburg and Hoffenheim all previously followed that path and have been dubbed “plastic clubs.”
Although Leipzig’s structure has caused resentment, it’s worth considering that its promotion to the Bundesliga was the first time an East German club had made it into Germany’s top flight since 2009.
Sport in former communist East Germany was heavily state sponsored and once the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the money stopped.
The idea that there would be proportionate representation of East German clubs in the Bundesliga never came to fruition, and stopped altogether when Energie Cottbus was relegated in 2009.
Leipzig as a city, however, has a long football history. It’s the birthplace of the German Football Federation and the VfB Leipzig was Germany’s first title winner.
Their team has an average age of just over 23 and there is little fear ahead of their clash with Bayern.
“We’ll put everything into it and I can hardly wait,” said centre-back Willi Orban, who scored against Hertha.
Centre-backs Orban and Ilsanker will be tasked with containing Bayern’s Thomas Mueller and Robert Lewandowski, while Leipzig’s top scorer Timo Werner, who has nine league goals, will face Germany’s Mats Hummels. Bayern will be missing his centre-back partner Jerome Boateng, who needs a shoulder operation.
While tonight’s clash may be too early in the season to bill as a title decider, Leipzig’s trip to Munich could well provide an opportunity to ruffle a few more feathers.
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