On a historic night for German football, RB Leipzig deserved their first major trophy. The Red Bull construct remains controversial and unpopular, but it has tapped into a mentality in Saxony which simply doesn’t care.
SC Freiburg 1-1 RB Leipzig (Leipzig win 4-2 on penalties)
(Eggestein 20′; Nkunku 76′)
As thousands of SC Freiburg supporters strolled up Reichsstraße towards Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, singing, drinking and letting off flares, one fan broke ranks to slap a sticker on a bus stop.
“A club doesn’t belong to one person,” the sticker read, a quote alongside an image of iconic Freiburg coach Christian Streich. “The club belongs to the members and the people who identify with it.”
It’s a concept which, in many places across the football world in 2022, is little more than abtract lip-service. The fans tell themselves their clubs are “theirs,” but they’re not really; they belong to wealthy businesspeople, investors or, nowadays, sovereign wealth funds.
But not in Germany, where the 50+1 rule still holds sway. And certainly not at SC Freiburg, a club owned entirely by its 35,000 members. It’s a tradition of members’ associations – or Vereine – which goes back to the 19th century, and which still underpins the entire culture of German football today
Seismic shift in German football
That changed on Saturday night when RB Leipzig won the German Cup, their first major trophy.
Because RB Leipzig doesn’t belong to its members; it belongs entirely to Red Bull. Its primary purpose isn’t to promote the sport of football for democratically organized members; it is to promote Red Bull. Football is just the means.
Does that matter? After all, Domenico Tedesco’s team of expensively assembled players play attractive, successful football – even when down to ten men and a goal down in a cup final, as they did for over an hour on Saturday, rallying, equalizing and taking the game to extra-time before winning on penalties.
Why should anyone care about the corporate structures behind it all? The 25,000 RB Leipzig fans, some of whom may have followed the team through thick (two previous cup final defeats and last month’s Europa League exit) and thin (the rest of the team’s 13-year existence), certainly don’t appear to.
“Mimimimimimi,” read one banner unveiled after Ermedin Demirovic’s decisive penalty had crashed off the bar to hand RB the cup. It’s the German equivalent of the childish “wah, wah, wah, stop crying” sentiment, and it appears to be the default response to criticism or rejection of the Red Bull model within the Leipzig bubble.
In the world of RB Leipzig, the mentality cultivated both by the club itself and by the uncritical local media which surround it, is a siege mentality.
Criticism only ever comes from the outside, from the others, from the footballing establishment all conspiring to keep plucky little RB Leipzig down out or jealousy, envy or fear.
And it is only ever expressed by an extreme, intolerant minority – namely the ultras, such as those of SC Freiburg who, as the RB Leipzig players collected their winners’ medals and lifted the trophy, unveiled a huge banner reading simply: “Scheiss Red Bull.”
In reality, it’s dangerous nonsense. RB Leipzig’s victory was due, on the night at least, to a team of great quality which managed to dig deep and stay in the game even when reduced to ten men and when Freiburg efforts were coming back of the post and the bar.
Over the course of this season, it was due to Domenico Tedesco, the impressive and articulate head coach who has revolutionized RB’s season since taking over in December.
When down to ten men, the obvious choice might have been to sit back and stick the big man up front to provide an outlet once or twice. But Tedesco took Andre Silva off, brought on Dominik Szoboszlai and later Dani Olmo, and moved Christopher Nkunku up front as RB played out the rest of the game without a recognized striker.