The final whistle blew, signaling the end of the game between TSG Hoffenheim and Rasenballsport Leipzig on August 28th. Both teams left the pitch having scored twice each. A new reality had settled in to Bundesliga. Modern football had come – and had made it clear it had come to stay.
For the past 8 years TSG Hoffenheim has been the symbol of modern football, grown on money rather than merit. Hoffenheim is the pet project of German millionnaire Dietmar Hopp, co-founder of SAP, and their professional men’s side was pushed to success by his financial support. German football fans professed that the club, although founded in 1899, lacks football tradition and a solid fan base.
With the advent of RB Leipzig those fans meet a new and much more explicit symbol of the changes football (and society) is undergoing.
Never before has a newly promoted team met with such conflicting reactions by fans and the media. RB Leipzig is the first club from eastern Germany to be promoted to Bundesliga in decades. They are also the first club in the history of German football which isn’t really a club but a business corporation. Austrian energy drink producer Red Bull invents tradition rather than follows it – and then sells it like any other product. While a club’s tradition normally grows over decades, developing close ties with a region, Red Bull has been known to march in, canned product at the ready, and sell with not so much as a glance at cherished symbols and heritages. Their complete overhaul of three-time Austria champion Austria Salzburg in 2005 openly displayed their tactic to re-create a club’s identity with the corporation’s crest and colours. And why change a winning scheme?
This relationship between club and business when the latter dominates the former is called modern football. And RB Leipzig (it entirely depends on who is talking if this means RasenBall or Red Bull) is the living, playing and provoking symbol of modern football.
What, now, is wrong with modern football? Why does RB Leipzig evoke such enthusiasm on one side and such corresponding hatred on the other? What is happening?
RB Leipzig is not the death of traditional German football but a leading symptom of its death. And it’s not just football. We are witnessing a major change in society at large. RB Leipzig arriving in the top division just makes that shift all the more visible.
We have become beggars at the door. We used to be a free people. Our feelings were our own. We MADE our fandom, we didn’t receive it from anyone.
When I was my youngest daughter’s age I supported Fortuna Düsseldorf. I was the proud owner of one flag, one scarf and a set of Panini stickers. Of course, that wasn’t enough to express my love for the club. I painted Fortuna’s crest everywhere. On my folders at school, with felt-tip pens on a huge piece of cardboard to be hung in my window, with a ball-pen on my left arm. When I wanted to show my fandom, I couldn’t go to a shop – or to my cell-phone, as it is – and buy some representative material. I had to create it myself.
It was the same with our other obsessions. Star Wars, for instance. When my brother and I wanted to identify with the Jedi we took our bicycle pumps and skidded their front part out to resemble a light saber. When we wanted a jedi-robe we sewed it. The whole realm of fandom – football, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings – became part of our world only through the work of our hands. We were active and we were free in what we did. In football the club gave us the feelings; in return, we gave something of ourselves back to the club in our creativity.
And today? Clubs arrange events for the fans and we come in droves to attend a theatrical production or a (red) bull fight complete with fiesta. We listen to music provided by the club, buy lots for a tombola, eat and drink and pay for that, too, surrounded by local enterprises giving away free caps with their logo on them. What are we? Cattle being fed and watered… and then milked.
But it feels so good. Everything is given to us. Not just the caps and the lanyards and the keyrings but the good feelings, the sense of belonging. The merchandise is our brand. Not one item in our household need go without our club’s crest. Isn’t it wonderful? Such fans we are!
RB Leipzig, the family’s club, nice and shiny and so needlessly hated, gives all this not only to their fans but to a whole region.
RB Leipzig is just the tip of the iceberg. A structure totally focused on commerce. Make no mistake, they are successful. After seven games in 2016-17, the Saxons are third in the table, just two points behind Bundesliga giants Bayern München. But some of the media still don’t get that nobody ever said RB Leipzig can’t play football. It’s the structures that enable them to perform so well that raise the criticism of many fans.
Modern football works this way. What can be turned into money will be turned into money. They take our feelings, our love for the game, our desire to belong and sell it back to us at a higher cost. The same thing is happening everywhere with all our feelings and desires. You want to feel loved, beautiful, sexy, successful? There is a piece of garment, jewellery, a patch, a sticker, a movie, a song to represent it. Now available at Amazon. It takes mere minutes to order and you can pay with PayPal.
We are helpless, aren’t we? We do want to belong, to feel beautiful and loved and successful. And we sincerely love our clubs, clubs which likely won’t differ so much from RB Leipzig in a few years. We still cradle our crests tarnished by the years and love our stadia lavished with tradition. We take pride in our clubs still being members’ associations, but we are haunted by a growing fear that all this may very soon belong to a fading past. The future is bright and glowing and pricey and we want to be part of it. We do want the big stage, the Champions League hymn, the whole magic. Standing on a fourth-tier pitch in the rain with a dozen others, watching some guys play who’ll turn back into ordinary people after the final whistle, just isn’t the same. We’d feel awkward taking selfies with them.
The future is bright and glowing and pricey and we want to be part of it. We do want the big stage, the Champions League hymn, the whole magic. Standing on a fourth-tier pitch in the rain with a dozen others, watching some guys play who’ll turn back into ordinary people after the final whistle, just isn’t the same. We’d feel awkward taking selfies with them.
No, we do want the big stage and we indulge in the illusion that our feelings can still be our own in spite of the monetary hubbub they are drowned in. I’m free to buy or not to buy, am I not? I go to the games, chant with the crowd when I feel like it, pay for the scarf with today’s date and names on it just this time. I’m still free.
But am I?
The fish in the middle of the net doesn’t see the net. Surrounded by other fish it thinks it is still free.
I support a plastic club. It’s not RB Leipzig but it’s still just as plastic and traditionless. I do this out of my own free will, so I’m not part of the scheme, am I?
In the coming weeks Bundesliga fans will be occupied with a recurring question: how to act when the team with the two charging red bulls on their shirts comes to town. Boycott them would mean to boycott the home team, too. Any violent behaviour will be used against the home fans and also damage their club – as when 1.FC Köln fans blocked the Leipzig team bus from entering the stadium. Treat them like any other club? But they aren’t any other club.
The fans will be creative. There will be banners (hand-painted!), chants and tifos. I have absolute trust in our Ultràs to do something worth noticing, but will it change anything in the long run? When the selling and buying of feelings will go on and on around us, not only in football?
I believe the battle is already lost. On August 7, Liverpool FC played a friendly at Mainz 05, celebrating re-christening the Mainz stadium “Opel Arena”. In Mainz, like in many other stadia, fans sing Liverpool’s worldwide acknowledged football hymn, You’ll Never Walk Alone. We perform this ritual in chorus, with our scarves raised and at the top of our lungs.
On that sunny August 7 Opel had hired a well-known pop singer who performed an opera-like version. It was a musical display to be consumed, not sung along by 32,000 voices. We scarcely recognised the song. Opel employees, who had been invited to the game (rumour has it for free), unveiled a yellow banner (clearly not hand-painted!) with the firm’s logo. There was nothing we as fans could do but sit and consume all this, which was exactly what Opel and Mainz 05 intended.
This display represented the opposite of everything fandom is meant to be. We booed and whistled. But we stayed and watched the game nonetheless. Mainz won 4-0.
Outside the stadium there was food and drink, music and games. There was fun for the entire family. It was a sunny day, the day fandom died.