No eastern German city has a football team in the first division of Germany's Bundesliga professional soccer league. But energy drink maker Red Bull would like to change this. It has invested millions in RB Leipzig, a team that is part of the Red Bull sporting franchise and will make its debut in the third division on Friday night.
When the team appointed Ralf Rangnick as its sports director last year, he promised a lot: a new philosophy and any piece of the puzzle needed to make the team successful. Anything less wouldn't do.
Rangnick delivered, too. One year later, RB Leipzig has graduated from the fourth division, finishing its season without a single defeat. And although the team is playing what is only its first game in the third division on Friday night, it is already considered a favorite to advance to the second division after this season. "Regardless what people think of us, we are the most attractive team to advance in recent years," says coach Alexander Zorniger.
The reason became apparent during the summer break last year, when Leipzig spent more than a million euros on new players. It was more than every other team had spent in a transfer period over the last six years. And it wasn't seasoned professionals from the first and second divisions that the team hired -- instead RB Leipzig focused on young or at least relatively young talent -- men known mostly to sport insiders. They include players like Yussuf Poulsen, 19, who has been recruited from Denmark's second division Lyngby BK, and Joshua Kimmich, 18, who comes from VfB Stuttgart.
A Focus on Local Talent
Both are highly desired. Kimmich will soon receive the silver Fritz Walter Medal, as the second-best player of his age in Germany. "We are very deliberately taking a different approach because we want to see the long-term development of players," Rangnick says of the investments, which are aimed at promoting RB Leipzig into the higher divisions. RB Leipzig has also built a 35 million training center of truly professional standards. "At some point there will also be Kimmichs and Poulsens from the region, but that will take a little time," Zorniger says.
Zorniger himself has been given additional time. Because the team has risen, Zorniger's contact has been automatically extended by one year until 2015, which is being interpreted as a sign that he has two remaining attempts to land the team in the second division. If he succeeds, the contractual clause will kick in again. Few posts leading the team have been filled for longer than a season in the team's three-year history, and this is the first time the managers coaching the team are surviving for a second season.
With the exception of one player who left to play at VfL Wolfsburg, the rest of the teammates responsible for RB Leipzig's rise will also be on board for the next season, further strengthened by the additional talents on the team. And that's a stark contrast to many of the team's competitors in the third division, where financial troubles and upheaval are the only constants.
Still, Zorniger isn't fond of the team being labelled as a favorite. "It's legitimate that they say we are favored because of our considerable means," he says. "But we haven't even proven yet whether or not we are capable of competing in a higher division."
Third Division a Stopover
"The third division should be a stopover for us," said CEO Ulrich Wolter, "but not necessarily immediately." That's clear even to investor Dietrich Mateschitz, the co-founder of Red Bull. In an interview this week with the Leipziger Volkszeitung newspaper, Mateschitz said, "This isn't a competition where as many mercenaries as possible try to get into the Bundesliga as fast as possible," he told the paper. "It's about a healthy development and healthy growth. And that with as many of our own players as possible."
Billionaire Mateschitz, who has invested millions in the team since 2009, said the team "had to be given enough time to grow." The energy drink company's original goal was to be playing in the Bundesliga by 2017, but Leipzig surprisingly failed twice to move up out of the regional division. Then came Zorniger, Wolter and Rangnick.
Rangnick is well vetted on the pitch and has even led TSG Hoffenheim, a team that was built on the basis of millions in investments from native son and software giant SAP founder Dietmar Hopp, from the third to the first division. In 2011, billionaire Hopp provided concrete figures for the first time on his investment in the team -- some 240 million.
"In Hoffenheim we were a small village club under good conditions, but that was not comparable with Leipzig," said Wolter. With some 100 million in investment, the Leipzig team has been outfitted with state-of-the-art infrastructure for some time now, including a modern arena.
There could also be something of a synergy effect, given that Rangnick is also responsible for Leipzig's Austrian sister team, Red Bull Salzburg. Red Bull sponsors similar football clubs that carry the name of the brand in New York, Sao Paulo and Sogakope, Ghana. "It's a great gift to be able to bring many things together," says Zorniger.
The Red Bull team is also becoming increasingly established in Leipzig. Many football fans are fed up with the crippling opposition between the two languishing local clubs, VfB/Lok and Sachsen/Chemie, which has led to Leipzig being excluded from the Bundesliga for 15 years.
It's clear how badly the city is yearning for high-class football by the more than 7,500 spectators, on average, who attend the regional home games and the more than 30,000 who came out to a recent relegation match against Sportfreunde Lotte, a regional team from North Rhine-Westphalia.