Rising from the East: Red Bull’s battle for Bundesliga status & acceptance

4/12/2013
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“Not everyone loves us at the moment. But that isn’t important. It’s more about respect,” says RB Leipzig managing director Ulrich Wolter.

The story of four-year-old franchise ‘RasenBallsport Leipzig’ – their name differing from other Red Bull owned clubs because Article 15 in the DFB’s regulations prevent a sponsor’s name in the club identity – is a divisive one.

Red Bull, already with club franchises in the USA and Austria, investigated the feasibility of taking control of a professional football club in Germany in 2006: with the aim of achieving Bundesliga football within a decade.

Saschen Leipzig – who were dissolved in 2011 after financial meltdown – and Fortuna Dusseldorf were identified as potential options. Red Bull attempted a controversial takeover of the former in 2006, but a combination of volatile fan protests and the influence of the DFB disrupted their ambitions.

By 2009, Red Bull chiefs agreed to take over the licence of fifth-tier SV Markranstädt, a club from the suburbs of Leipzig, migrating to the grandeur of the Red Bull Arena (not to be confused with its namesake in New York), which was constructed for the 2006 FIFA World Cup. The stadium holds around 43,000 and the owners agreed a two-decade lease on the venue. 

Leipzig’s place in German football is written in history. The German FA was established in 1900 and four years later, the first national champion was VfB Leipzig (now known as Lokomotive Leipzig), one of the strongest dissenting voices to Red Bull’s involvement in the city.

Yet Leizpig, the 12th biggest city in Germany (as of 2010), with a population of just over 500,000 – the same size as Bradford – has been a football hinterland for nearly two decades.

Lokomotive continued the legacy of VfB Leipzig’s title success in 1903 and held their own in European competition until 1989 – even reaching the European Cup Winners Cup final in 1987.

The reunification of Germany in 1990 was to the long-term detriment of many East German clubs. A small taste of the Bundesliga in 1993 lasted 12 months, marking Lokomotive’s gradual financial decline. The same pattern followed right across the East of the country, as most of the domineering former GDR clubs went to the wall.

The last Bundesliga club from the East of Germany was Energie Cottbus who were relegated in 2009. Even in 2.Bundesliga, there are only four East German clubs: Union Berlin, Dynamo Dresden, Cottbus and Erzgebirge Aue. That group is increased by another five in 3.Liga; Chemnitzer FC, Hallescher FC, Hansa Rostock, RB Leipzig – boasting two promotions in four years – and Rot-Weiss Erfurt.

Wolter points out that while animosity is directed towards the club for attempting to bring Bundesliga football to Leipzig within the next five years, other East German sides have wasted opportunities to hold their own in the top-flight.

“This is often a question between clubs for tradition and financial situation of the clubs in the former East bloc,” Wolter tells Sport360°.

“We are of the opinion that all of these clubs in the former East, like Hansa and others, all had their chances in the Bundesliga or second league and finally, they went bankrupt.

“We had a World Cup Arena in Leipzig, and no club. And for that reason, it was good to start a club in a region where so many people are interested in football.

“Our club is four years old, but also, Hansa Rostock is not really a traditional club, because it was a former politician that said a club from Saxony had to move to the coast.

“There’s a question of tradition there, too. Leipzig is a big city, with lots of fans, and the economic impact is good, so we might have a chance of reaching the Bundesliga.”

RB Leipzig are expecting one of their biggest crowds of the 3.Liga season on Saturday, when Rot-Weiss Erfurt travel to the Red Bull Arena for the ‘Central German Derby’. The clash of tradition, politics and regional pride make this a recipe for an intense affair with up to 20,000 expected.

Building on youth

Matches against FC Hansa Rostock and other East German clubs will bring in the strongest crowds in the German third division; although the league itself is clouded in financial problems. That is what is prompting RB Leipzig to invest in their future. Signings this summer include 18-year-old Joshua Kimmich from Stuttgart and Danish U19 international Yussuf Poulsen.

“The decision several years ago for every club in the first and second league to have a Youth Academy helps a lot," adds Wolter.   “This is something we do here in Leipzig right at the start. It’s our philosophy to build a strong club. We’ve started from under-eight to U23 so we have lots of teams. It’s the future.

“It’s one reason for German football’s success. Many players from FC Bayern came through the academies, also, and Borussia Dortmund too.”

Asked again about the immoral circumstances of Red Bull’s involvement in German football, Wolter refuted claims from rival supporters of being “the Hoffenheim of East Germany”.

“The Red Bull philosophy is completely different: It’s a question of legacy,” he reiterates. “We rented the stadium for 20 years and built an academy which cost us 30million. It’s a big investment in our future, so this is the difference between the American/Russian investor to what we have in Germany.

“I still don’t know whether the German model is better than the English one. The 50+1 model only provides security against Russian oligarchs buying clubs and selling it off in years to come. When you see our team now, there are no big stars or millionaires.”

There may not be stars or millionaires in the meantime; but Leipzig’s ambitions are serious and it seems only a matter of time before they’re shaping up against Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga.

READ MORE:

VIDEO: Pioneering Germans RB Leipzig take attack to new levels

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Vedad Ibisevic: From Bosnia to Bundesliga via the Billikens

4/12/2013
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Wednesday night's international friendly between Bosnia & Herzegovina and the USA was always going to have special meaning for one player in particular.

And what is now becoming customary for Vedad Ibisevic, he marked the occasion with a goal against a country that gave him his first crucial opportunity on his path to professional football.

The VfB Stuttgart striker won his 47th cap for Bosnia & Herzegovina in Sarajevo, scoring the second goal in a blistering start from the hosts, but found himself on the losing end of a 3-2 result.

While Ibisevic is now an established Bundesliga presence – with 24 goals in all competitions in 2012/13 for the Swabians – the 29-year-old has travelled a long and winding road to get to where he is.

And a central component of his journey in football was provided by the very country he was striving to inflict defeat upon on Wednesday night.

Ibisevic moved to Switzerland with his family when he was 16 after the outbreak of war, before moving to the United States 10 months later to reunite with relatives on the East Coast of Missouri.

The 29-year-old and his sister, who still lives in St Louis, are Green Card holders and Ibisevic spends his close season stateside with American-based family.

While Ibisevic was discovering a devastating goalscoring touch in the college soccer scene for St Louis Billikens – which would draw eyes from Paris Saint-German scouts after 18 goals in 22 games – he was still dabbling in International Business at St Louis University.

Collegiate football in the United States and his unstable upbringing has shaped the Ibisevic starring in the Bundesliga today. Humble, determined and a passionate family man, the environment was a good starting point for the Bosnian international.

Different experience

“It was a very different experience. In my case, it was a light journey that brought me to college football,” he tells Sport360° in an exclusive interview.

“I was just wanted to make the best out of it, but it definitely isn’t easy for a young footballer to play in college leagues and get prepared for the professional game.

“The level is pretty good and there are a lot of good players, but the feeling of the competition is really different.

“It’s a good possibility if football doesn’t work, professionally, so by going to school, you get the other chances. But I always wanted to be a professional, so there was no Plan B. “I would have found another way if I found it hard.”

Ibisevic left the States for Paris in 2004, but his stint in France lasted less than two years when chances at PSG were limited and flanked by a loan-spell at Dijon. Germany was the next destination on an already whistle stop tour at the age of 21.

And there is no doubt the Bosnian has found comfort in German football. It’s the place he calls home, which started out at Alemannia Aachen, before the deep pockets of Dietmar Hopp took him to Bundesliga-aspiring rookies Hoffenheim.

Four months in, Ibisevic had smashed 18 goals in 17 league matches in the German top-flight, leading the Bundesliga ahead of their late hinrunde clash with Bayern Munich.

The unthinkable was indeed unthinkable as Ibisevic picked up a cruel knee ligament injury that derailed Hoffenheim in the second half of the season.

No regrets

Asked if he has any regrets during that time, he says: “Not anymore.”

“I used to think about it a lot, especially for a few years after,” he continues. “But it was a while ago, and I’m happy now, playing well, scoring goals, so I don’t think about it. It was really difficult in that time because there were a lot of questions not answered.

“Firstly, what would I have achieved for the whole team if nothing changed? If it happened, it’s meant to be. I’m very glad I came back from the injury and I’m playing really successfully.

“I was just too long at the one time in Hoffenheim. I needed a change and some new motivation. I feel it was the right decision, and that’s something you can see on the pitch.

“I’m happy when playing now, that’s important.”

Since his £4m move to VfB Stuttgart, the smile – and clinical goalscoring prowess – has returned to Ibisevic in the Bundesliga.

Scoring all of the Swabians’ goals this season in the league, Cup and Europe, his record in the German top-flight with Hoffenheim and Stuttgart stands at 67 goals in 138 matches (he also scored six goals for Aachen in the Bundesliga).

Four of those goals were scored in each of the first four rounds of the German Cup as Stuttgart reached the final; falling at the last hurdle to an all-conquering Bayern Munich side after a thrilling 3-2 contest.

Aiming high

While there is bound to be heartache from getting so close to a major trophy, Ibisevic looks back at the occasion with nothing but fond memories.

“It was my first final,” he recalls. “I cannot explain how awesome that is, really.

“The happiest time for me in football, for sure – and I want to play in more. It’s not easy for us, but we have three competitions to make that happen.

“The other teams are getting better and they will want to play internationally, too. Like I said, the feeling of getting close to titles is amazing, but it will be difficult to repeat that.”

Just 72 hours separate tonight’s friendly with the United States and Saturday’s league match with Bayer Leverkusen, but international football means something special to Ibisevic.

Five wins from six World Cup qualifiers s put Bosnia in an excellent position to reach their first major international championship since the split of Yugoslavia in 1993. Ibisevic already has four goals to his name, but admits the team aren’t getting ahead of themselves just yet.

He adds: “We are doing well. We’ve played excellently so far. It’s important we’re patient and we have important games in September.

“That would be a dream come true to make it at the World Cup.”

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Bundesliga preview: Pep tasked with building on perfection

4/12/2013
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For Pep Guardiola the task at Bayern Munich is relatively straightforward: improve on perfection.

There have been dominant Bayern sides in the past but Jupp Heynckes’ 2012/13 model took even the more cynical observers by surprise.

Breaking 25 league records in landing the domestic double either side of a triumphant Champions League title at Wembley, the Bavarian giants ruled not only Germany but the entire continent.

After Dortmund’s entertaining two-year grip on the title, Bayern emphatically wrestled it back, and by playing excellent football in the process.

So for the tiki-taka technician his job at the Allianz Arena perhaps represents something a little tougher than when he first accep-ted the role in December 2012.

Bizarrely there is already a degree of pessimism surrounding the Spaniard, and not just because of his choice of plaid shirts combined with bright orange trainers.

Guardiola’s tinkering with a winning formula in pre-season has been met with a degree of derision as he’s deployed Philipp Lahm in defensive midfield and altered the formation from game to game but perhaps the biggest source of scepticism has been the arrival of Thiago Alcantara from Barcelona.

– Ross Dunbar: Pep Guardiola reinventing the wheel at Bayern Munich

The 22-year-old’s elevation to primary midfield pivot has come, at least for now, at the expense of poster boy Bastian Schweinsteiger. The German international struggled with injuries last season but remains the main man in Munich and Felix Magath’s warning that Guardiola’s express faith in Thiago (represented by the coach’s brother) will lead to a dressing room backlash could prove prophetic.

But for now we should at least marvel at what this team is capable of. Mario Gomez has been the only notable departure, although Luiz Gustavo looks soon to follow, and along with Thiago and promising defender Jan Kirchhoff, Guardiola also pushed through the signing of Mario Gotze.

Bringing Gotze into an attacking midfield three that could also feature Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben, Thomas Muller, Toni Kroos or Xherdan Shaqiri is an embarrassment of riches.

The 21-year-old’s ability to play in between the lines, picking passes and darting into the box adds another dimension to a potent creative force. While strengthening their own cause, the acquisition of Gotze has, on the face of it, weakened their nearest rivals.

Losing arguably their best player, the pride of their academy and a popular dressing room figure to Bayern hit Dortmund hard.

But manager Jurgen Klopp has, at least for now, managed to keep hold of the remainder of his squad, despite Robert Lewandowski’s protests at being denied a move to Bayern, and in new signings Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang has two players who can more than compensate for the loss of Gotze and bring a more direct and equally dynamic edge.

– Ross Dunbar: Borussia Dortmund's success pinned on an ever-evolving style

Dortmund’s ability to juggle a successful Champions League campaign with domestic duties should also improve meaning the season might not quite be the anticipated one-horse race.

A young Leverkusen team were much improved under Sami Hyppia last term and another year down the line could even threaten Dortmund’s position as Germany’s second-best team.

Son Heung-Min’s arrival from Hamburg was a particularly astute piece of business. Schalke, as usual, possess all the pieces to beat any side on their day and given they were under-par last term but still finished fourth, should deliver a greater challenge.

Borussia Monchengladbach, Eintracht Frankfurt and Hannover will be among those looking to break into the top four, or the very least secure a Europa League berth.

Of the new boys Eintracht Braunschweig return to the top flight after 28 years, while the Bundesliga always seems a better place when the capital is represented. Hertha Berlin, who are on their fourth full-time coach in just two years, will hope to find some stability under Jos Luhukay.

SPORT360 PREDICTIONS°

James Piercy (Deputy Editor) Champions: Bayern Munich Surprise package: Nuremburg Relegated: Werder Bremen, Eintracht Braunschweig One to watch: Matthias Ginter (Freiburg) Bayern should be too strong but a combination of new methods and Dortmund’s hunger means the gap won’t be as wide this time.

Andy Lewis (News Editor) Champions: Bayern Munich Surprise package: Gladbach Relegated: Augsburg, Eintracht Braunschweig One to watch: Leonardo Bittencourt (Hannover) Bayern will win the title, but Dortmund will go close and win the cup. Schalke will improve and Gladbach can qualify for Europe.

Kenny Laurie (Reporter) Champions: Bayern Munich Surprise package: Hoffenheim Relegated: Augsburg, Eintracht Braunschweig One to watch: Julian Draxler (Schalke) So hard to look past Bayern, while Julian Draxler is a superb talent who could make a name for himself in a World Cup year.

Jon Turner (Web editor) Champions: Bayern Munich Surprise package: Wolfsburg Relegated: Hoffenheim, Eintracht Braunschweig One to watch: Son Heung-Min (Leverkusen) Expect more of the same from the mighty Bayern Munich while Bayer Leverkusen will run Borussia Dortmund close for second.

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