I got off the bus, and admittedly, I was a little terrified. Taking a spur-of-the-moment trip, alone, to a new city, arriving with just a hotel reservation and a plan to go to an open training, may not have been my most intelligent moment. I’d made the reservations at 9pm, possibly the most spontaneous thing I had ever done. Looking back now, it was one of the best decisions I’ve made.
Spontaneous. Something you’d never call me. I’d planned my classes from my first day of university in order to study abroad my junior year, ensuring I had five semesters of German by that time. When I was growing up, my grandparents had told me stories about living in Germany, and my dreams of living there only intensified when I fell in love with football in 2006. I wanted to visit the World Cup stadiums I’d seen on my TV screen.
But I was out of my comfort zone. Most of the people in my program had taken German since high school, and all knew vocabulary that I didn’t understand. They had friends from their university; they seemed to have no trouble forming groups. “Outgoing” was something else you’d never call me. No, I was nervous. But I booked that last minute ticket to Leipzig anyway.
I checked in to my hostel and headed immediately to Cottaweg, fearing I might be late. It was my first time in the city, my first time travelling alone, and my first time going to a training. The taxi driver, after asking where I was from, spoke to me in English, seemingly confused that I was going to see RB Leipzig. He was searching for any clue as to why this girl who was stumbling through German was going to training. Training for the team that was the alleged “death of German football.” To be honest, I watched the team for a few players. There was an American on the team, and one of my favorite players transferred there. Rani Khedira was back from injury. And I wanted to travel. It wasn’t really support for the club at that time. Not until I got to Cottaweg.
I walked through what was then a construction site (and is now a 13,500 square meter building) to the fields. As I watched the youth teams practice I became aware of how awkwardly early I was. I considered just going back to my hostel. Then I saw groups of little kids in their jerseys running over to the next field, where construction had forced the first team to change in trailers. The players talked to every kid there that day. I stood by myself, feeling a new allegiance begin to form, and smiling the whole time. It was one of the first times in a while
I felt fairly alone back in Bonn, due to worsening depression. I went through the motions. Get up, go to class, come back, go to bed. Rinse, repeat. That weekend in Leipzig was a reprieve. Back in Bonn, I was reading the football news pages my teacher brought for me and spending a lot of time in my own head. My professor insisted something was helping my German, and she said it must be football. She was probably right.
Just two games after that training, the team made history. RB Leipzig was 1:1 against Darmstadt, and seemed content with a draw, which would probably end their promotion hopes. But three minutes into stoppage time, Fabio Coltorti became the first goalkeeper in the Bundesliga or 2. Bundesliga to score a winning goal from open play. Just when everyone had counted them out, the most unlikely source brought them back into contention.
I still felt uncomfortable and alone in Bonn, but the next home game, against Sandhausen, made for a perfect escape. At least, so it seemed. Alarm clock issues, the Deutsche Bahn strike, missing the one available train…ultimately, I missed the game too. It was a 4:0 loss, which made it slightly easier, but I was still angry at myself (and the buses and trains that had made me lost and late), and tired from being on edge all day. It was completely different from my first trip to Leipzig.
A consolation, though, appeared in the form of another open training at Cottaweg. My friend and I thought it might be canceled due to the result, and were unsurprised when the security guard directed us to a largely deserted area. After nearly 45 minutes spent alone on edge of the field, Tim Lobinger, the athletic director at the time, came over to set up and noticed us. I immediately worried that we were in trouble.
I smiled and nodded while Lobinger spoke, thinking I didn’t understand. Nor did my friend, a Bayern fan whose German skill still needed a bit of improvement, realize he was apologizing. But Lobinger was saying sorry for the wait; the team went for a bike ride before training, and they should be back soon. We could stay right where we were. He hoped we enjoyed ourselves.
The training was subdued, consisting mostly of stretching, with just a handful of fans watching. But it sticks out in my mind for the way the team took notice of a little boy who’d come to watch. He got to meet Niklas Hoheneder, who’d joined RB Leipzig when they were in the fifth division and was with the team through three promotions. The fan favorite signed autographs and posed for photos with the boy. The social media director, too, took photos and interviewed him a bit. Nearly every signed something for the young fan that day. They’d just lost by four goals at home and their chance of promotion was definitely over, but they gave time to the fans that came out for them. I could see how much it meant to that boy, and it meant as much to me: it reminded me how much football had gotten me through, and how it could hopefully get me through this spell, too.
The next weekend, I happened to be staying in Salzburg, while the last away game was in Ingolstadt – who had one last chance to secure promotion. I hid my Leipzig shirt under a sweatshirt on the way, already aware of the tension. The game started with a bang, as Leipzig captain Dominik Kaiser scored in the fourth minute. I was there alone, but I never felt like it. Perhaps there is something about having the rest of a stadium, and really a large part of the footballing fandom, against you that can bring you closer to strangers. It was completely different from the previous game I’d been to, Borussia Dortmund-Bayern Munich, where I didn’t want to take part in chants against Mario Götze while sitting next to the famous Yellow Wall. It was special, but I was a neutral, and I felt like an outsider in yet another place. But in the away block in Ingolstadt, surrounded by fans singing “Wir sind Leipzig, Rasenballsport Leipzig,” I felt included.
I’m sure my conversation skills didn’t astound anyone that day. Luckily no one is looking for a riveting conversation in the middle of the match. We were all focused on the same thing: how terrible the referee was. Ingolstadt pulled back two goals, but the fans around me never gave up. We sang past the final whistle. Ingolstadt fans invaded the pitch to celebrate their promotion and began throwing things at our section. We changed to the tongue-in-cheek “Wir sind Schweine, Roten Bullen Schweine”1 chant in response. When I left, I felt almost undercover, slipping my sweatshirt back on and listening to fans on the city bus bragging about how the best divers deserve to win. Luckily the anger was enough to keep awake until I made it to Bonn early in the morning.
With the team’s first season in the Bundesliga, complaints will only become louder – or, in fact, more gruesome, as in the cup match against Dynamo Dresden when the home fans threw a severed bull’s head toward the field while unfurling a banner that read “bulls for the slaughter.” Last season, oil was dumped on away fans’ banners at games, and banners depicted the Red Bull CEO as Hitler. Other fans view RB Leipzig as corporate, plastic, a blight on the traditional German model involving fan investment and input.
I do understand the pride in club ownership in German football. I am not blind to the valid criticisms (the transfers with Red Bull Salzburg and the process to become a member), but I support Rasenballsport Leipzig anyway (the RB is officially Rasenballsport, not Red Bull, despite what many news outlets are writing). I’m not alone as they had the second highest attendance in the 2. Bundesliga last season, behind 1. FC Nürnberg and ahead of cult-favorites FC St. Pauli. RBL recently took over the Saxon Training Center for Women’s and Girls’ Football after FFV Leipzig couldn’t financially sustain it any longer, and now they have a women’s team participating in the fourth division as well girls’ youth teams. They are investing in the community, one with a long footballing history. It’s something to remember before blindly labeling the club “100% Plastik”.
The last time I watched the team was during a 2015-16 preseason friendly at their stadium. By far the best part was the Season Opening held the next day, however, where the players and coaching staff were introduced and all performed songs in costume. The pictures and videos alone remind me why I love the club. None are headed toward a singing career anytime soon (though Rani Khedira leading “Was wir allein nicht schaffen” got calls for an encore), but they had a blast with the fans. And the entire event was free. I was leaving Germany in a little over a week, and that weekend reminded me of everything I would miss – everything I couldn’t have imagined in those first anxious weeks.
Leipzig still had one more gift for me, however. I was standing in the middle of the city, minding my own business, when someone stopped me and asked for directions. In German. Months before, I would have froze before apologizing. That time, I was able to give them the directions with no problem. The night I was leaving Leipzig, I managed to do the one thing couldn’t until that point: feel confident when speaking German. Like Coltorti’s goal against Darmstadt, which kept RB Leipzig in it when everyone thought they were done, the team had given me the strength to keep going.
1 Wir sind Schweine, (we are pigs)
Roten Bullen Schweine, (red bull pigs)
wir zahlen keinen Eintritt (we pay no entrance fees)
und trinken Champagner statt Bier (and drink champagne instead of beer)