Buying Its Way to the Bundesliga Red Bull Wants to Caffeinate Small Soccer Club

The energy drink manufacturer Red Bull is planning to pump millions into an obscure fifth-division soccer team in eastern Germany in a bid to get it into the Bundesliga. But loyal fans have reacted by staging protests and attacking the pitch with herbicides.

When advertising banners are defaced in a fifth-division soccer stadium, when the pitch is destroyed with herbicides and when protests are staged in the small eastern German town of Markranstädt, something out of the ordinary must be going on.

Leipzig's Central Stadium: Soon to be home to a Red Bull soccer powerhouse.

Leipzig's Central Stadium: Soon to be home to a Red Bull soccer powerhouse.

Foto: Jan Woitas/ picture-alliance/ dpa

That something, in this case, was the takeover of the local football club by a global soft drink company based in Austria.

Red Bull is the reason for all the commotion in Markranstädt, which is situated just outside Leipzig in the state of Saxony. The company is trying to use the local club, SSV Markranstädt, to force its way into the German national league, the Bundesliga, using a clever trick -- and a lot of cash.

In the middle of last week, a new club called Rasen Ball Leipzig e.V. -- RB Leipzig for short -- had its name entered in the club register. It is no coincidence that the letters "RB" match the initials of the brand name Red Bull.

"About half a year ago, Red Bull contacted us to find out about the procedure for establishing a new club in Saxony," says Klaus Reichenbach, the head of the Saxon Football Association (SFV). "They wanted to be sure they did not make any mistakes with the formalities."

Red Bull was looking for a fifth-division club that would be willing to enter into a deal -- in return for a generous payment. Red Bull has declined to specify the amount, but according to the Leipziger Volkszeitung newspaper it is in the six figures. The company discovered SSV Markranstädt, which agreed to relinquish its playing rights in the coming season and be absorbed into Rasen Ball.

If the club's new owners have their way, it will soon be playing at the professional level. "Anyone who is familiar with our involvement in motor sports knows that we plan for the long term," a Red Bull spokesman told SPIEGEL ONLINE. The company hopes to see the new club's reputation spread to hundreds of kilometers beyond Markranstädt within the medium term.

According to Red Bull, "Leipzig, Saxony and the adjacent regions" will be inspired "by what we hope will be rapidly developing euphoria." The spokesman, who did not want to be named, said that "the Hoffenheim model made sense," in a reference to 1899 Hoffenheim, a football club from a tiny village which rocketed up the leagues after SAP co-founder Dietmar Hopp pumped millions into the club.

The RB players will wear red and white jerseys, the Red Bull colors. The same colors are worn by the company's Austrian team FC Red Bull Salzburg, which is coached by Huub Stevens, as well as the company's New York-based soccer club, the New York Red Bulls.

Moving Up the Ladder

It is difficult to find anyone in Leipzig willing to openly criticize Red Bull's move into German football. There is an enormous thrill of anticipation in this highly traditional football town about taking on opponents other than fellow lower-division teams like FC Oberneuland or VfB 09 Pössneck. According to a survey published in the Leipziger Volkszeitung, more than 70 percent of residents welcome the Austrian company's involvement in local soccer. Back when Leipzig was the second city of communist East Germany, local teams like Lokomotive Leipzig, popularly known as Lok, and rival Chemie Leipzig (today FC Sachsen Leipzig) played in the top division and even on the international level.

SFV chairman Reichenbach now hopes to see "higher-class football," and points out that "the entire region and the entire East have earned it." He is betting on the prospect that "clubs in Leipzig will finally be playing in a class that can fill up the World Cup stadium." Recent FC Sachsen home games have hardly attracted more than 3,000 fans to the 44,000-seat arena, but that, hopes Reichenbach, will soon change. Once Rasen Ball gets promoted to the fourth-division regional league at the end of the coming season, as its new owners expect, they will move the side from Markranstädt to Leipzig's Central Stadium, which was a venue during the 2006 World Cup. The goal, then, will be to move further up the ladder as quickly as possible. Red Bull does not deny rumors that seven-figure sums are available for this purpose.

Given these prospects, protests like the herbicide attack in Markranstädt are little more than a formality by Leipzig fans, who have a reputation for being fiercely loyal to their club. There is little public support for such actions in Leipzig. "Red Bull has approached a football-loving town which is at absolute rock bottom," says Matthias Gärtner of the Alliance of Active Football Fans. "At this point, the devil himself could show up and, if he happened to have a few million in his pocket, be welcomed with open arms."

'Violence Is Unacceptable'

Things were different in 2006, when Red Bull tried to take over the highly traditional club of Sachsen Leipzig. After months of protests and violent fan conflicts, the Austrians officially abandoned their plans to turn Leipzig into a Bundesliga city.

Today, the soft drink maker is pleased to have ended up in the peaceful neighboring town of Markranstädt. "Violence is unacceptable at Red Bull," says the company spokesman. He mentions the takeover of bankrupt Austria Salzburg, another club steeped in tradition, several years ago. The company's rejection of violence, says the spokesman, was "the reason we parted ways with the old fan scene in Salzburg. We lost thousands of fans in the short term, but we gained tens of thousands in the medium term."

The company seems to have put the three-year period since its first takeover attempt in Leipzig to good use. In preparing its bid to take Markranstädt into the big league, the Salzburg-based company is apparently doing its utmost to avoid making any mistakes. Red Bull was even careful in its selection of the newly installed manager of RB Leipzig, Andreas Sadlo. In the past, he was well known as a sports agent, which would have caused problems in the regional league, where the sphere of influence of the German Football League (DFB) begins. "Our statutes prohibit agents from becoming involved in the operating affairs of a club," says DFB spokesman Stephan Brause. But Red Bull made sure the DFB restriction would not pose a problem. "Mr. Sadlo has resigned from his position as a agent," says the company spokesman. "We want to draw a clear line there."

And how are Leipzig's traditional clubs, Lok and Sachsen Leipzig, reacting? They too have been surprisingly moderate in their comments. Both clubs emphasize that their own medium-sized investors will remain loyal to them, while the larger investors will likely go to RB.

Sachsen Leipzig, at any rate, could even benefit directly from the Red Bull boom. If the company takes over the boarding school owned by the club, which has filed for bankruptcy protection, Sachsen Leipzig could expect to be compensated for the training of many adolescent players.

Former FC Sachsen investor Michael Kölmel, who operates the World Cup stadium in Leipzig, is one of the people most looking forward to the new developments. He has already reserved the naming rights for the stadium. RB Leipzig will soon be playing in the "Red Bull Arena."

The outlook for Lok isn't quite as rosy. Since 2004, the club has managed to work its way up from the 11th to the fifth division, and now, on the verge of its planned advance into professional football, it is forced to look on as an upstart challenges it for the public's attention and sponsor interest.

Lok President Steffen Kubald has only told the local press that he hopes that "it will not be fixed from the start which team will be promoted." In a reference to Germany's most successful side, he says the new Red Bull team will be the future "Bayern Munich of the fifth division."

But even the Bavarians only managed second place last season.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan