Football fans fear rise of Germany’s ‘plastic clubs’


Berlin (AFP) – The promotion of RB Leipzig to the Bundesliga has caused resentment amongst hardcore fans of traditional teams, sparking fears that “plastic clubs” could ruin the traditional culture in Germany’s top flight. 

RB Leipzig are backed by Austrian energy-drinks giants Red Bull, who took over a football licence and founded the club in 2009.

The team were renamed RasenBallsport Leipzig, specifically to get around the German league rule forbidding teams from carrying a sponsor’s name.

Four promotions in seven years have taken Leipzig to the Bundesliga and their young squad are unbeaten after six games in their first season in the top tier.

They have beaten both Borussia Dortmund and Hamburg and drawn with other powerhouse clubs Cologne and Borussia Moenchengladbach.

But their impressive performances so far have earned little respect from Germany’s hardcore fans — labelled “Ultras”.

Some Leipzig matches have been boycotted and a severed bull’s head was even thrown onto the playing area for an away German Cup match.

Ultra fans of Cologne blocked the Leipzig team bus for their home game in September, which led to the kick-off being delayed, while banners reading “We Hate RB” were on display around the city.

Borussia Dortmund’s Ultras boycotted their away game in Leipzig last month, with supporters’ groups refusing to put their money into Red Bull’s pockets.

– El Plastico –

“Red Bull Leipzig is leading the whole system of football to ad absurdum,” filmmaker and Dortmund fan Jan-Henrik Gruszecki told broadcaster Sport1.

“Traditional clubs like Dortmund, Schalke, Cologne and Bayern Munich want to make money and play football.

“Red Bull want to sell a product and a brand. This is the basic difference.” 

Hostility towards sponsored teams in Germany’s top flight is nothing new, but RB Leipzig have crystallised growing resentments.

Ingolstadt, Bayer Leverkusen, Wolfsburg, Hoffenheim and now Leipzig are all backed by wealthy companies or individuals.

None is widely popular and all are dubbed plastic clubs.

When Wolfsburg, backed by car manufacturers Volkswagen, played Bayer Leverkusen, sponsored by pharmaceutical firm Bayer, last season, trade magazine Kicker dubbed it “El Plastico”, a play on words using the “El Clasico” reference to the Real Madrid-Barcelona clash.

Theoretically, Germany has a rule that should prevent individuals or institutions owning clubs outright.

The 50+1 rule also states that a club must hold a majority of its own voting rights.

But Leipzig bypassed the 50+1 rule with 51 percent of the club owned by Red Bull employees — and the other 49 percent is owned by Red Bull.

“The peculiarity of the culture of football in Germany is that the clubs were founded as an association, in which the supporters have control of power and decision-making,” Jonas Gabler, an expert on football culture in Germany, told AFP.

“The wishes and interests of the fans are taken very seriously.

“This interaction of fans with their clubs is an essential element of the culture of football.

“Now fans have the impression that this tradition is perverted by clubs who are created by companies.”

Fans of traditional teams criticise so-called plastic clubs for relying on a sponsor, who can withdraw the cash at will, and for taking the place in the top flight of a less wealthy club.

For example, Leipzig beat Nuremberg, who have a strong tradition in Germany’s top flight, to an automatic promotion spot last season.

Reasonable ticket prices are a feature of German club football, but fans fear a deterioration of the mutual respect between clubs and their supporters could lead to a rise in prices.

“Many leaders personally reject this economic model. And many prefer not to oppose the majority of fans on this, so they remain cautious,” observed Gabler. 

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