RB Leipzig Ultras: German Soccer’s Great Contradiction – The New York Times

RB Leipzig’s executives have long since grown used to the protests. Some are eerie: Union Berlin’s most ardent fans dressed in black plastic and stood in silence for the first 15 minutes of a game between the teams. Some seem a tad petty: Borussia Dortmund still refuses to use Leipzig’s crest when the team visits Signal Iduna Park. And, occasionally, they get a little gory: Dynamo Dresden fans once greeted RB Leipzig by throwing a severed bull’s head onto the field.

Nobody at the club would have been surprised, then, when a banner criticizing Dietrich Mateschitz, the billionaire founder of both the team and its ultimate backer, Red Bull, appeared in the stands during a game at Schalke in 2017.

Mateschitz had recently criticized the German government’s decision to open its borders to refugees from the war in Syria, and a television network owned by Red Bull had earned a reputation as a platform for populist figures in both Germany and Austria. “The patron of the most authoritarian club calls himself a pluralist,” the banner read. “What a joke.”

What made the demonstration noteworthy was not the presence of the banner — over the decade in which it has risen from German soccer’s regionalized fifth tier to the semifinals of the Champions League, the club has inspired far worse — but its location. It was not brandished by the home supporters. It was, instead, the work of RB Leipzig’s own ultras.

Outside Germany, it would be tempting to see Leipzig as the plucky underdog in Tuesday’s first Champions League semifinal. After all, its opponent, Paris St.-Germain, is little more than a vanity project on behalf of the Qatari state, a soccer club co-opted by a nation keen to win a little soft power and perhaps airbrush its human rights record.

ImageRB Leipzig’s win over Atlético Madrid gave the club its first berth in the Champions League semifinals.
Credit…Pool photo by Lluis Gene

On the other hand, there is — in a sporting sense — much to admire about Julian Nagelsmann’s team: its inventive, bright young coach; its commitment to playing attacking soccer; its belief in nurturing talent; its intelligent and productive recruitment. The fact that it is owned by Red Bull might feel a little tacky, but to those outside the Bundesliga its ownership structure is nothing out of the ordinary.

To most fans in Germany, though, particularly those in the country’s “organized” fan scenes — an umbrella term that encompasses hooligan firms, ultra factions, interest groups, progressive activists and what are effectively supporters unions — the very existence of RB Leipzig is an affront to all that they believe in.

The team’s primary purpose, as they see it, is not to play soccer or represent a community, but to increase Red Bull’s brand visibility. The entire organization is, in their eyes, an artificial construct weaponized by an international corporation — and brazenly circumventing the 50+1 rules that are supposed to place ultimate control of German clubs in the hands of their fans — so that it can sell a few more cans of energy drink.

While that is a view shared by many mainstream fans — Robert Claus, a researcher on German fan culture, said that while “there are some subjects where what ultras think and what the majority of fans think are not the same, RB Leipzig is a different matter” — it is most keenly felt, and often most publicly expressed, by the ultras.

RB Leipzig is the antithesis of what ultra groups, regardless of which team they are attached to, represent. To be an ultra is to be opposed to a team like RB Leipzig. And yet, as that banner at Schalke proved, there is a second side to the story. The strict binary might hold in principle, but it does not in practice.

“Sooner or later, when you’re a season-ticket holder, as I was when I was 13 or 14, you don’t just look at the field, you look at the banners and the flags in the stadium,” said a Leipzig fan known as Mucki. “It feels wild and uncontrollable, and it fascinates you.”

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Credit…Olga Maltseva/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mucki — who agreed to speak only under a pseudonym — was a child when RB Leipzig was formed in 2009, and barely into double figures when he started to attend games. He did not think, then, about the reason this club had landed, almost fully formed, in his hometown; he just found the idea of following a team with ambition thrilling at a time when the two traditional clubs in the city, Lokomotive and Chemie, were toiling in obscurity and flirting with oblivion.

As a teenager, he was invited by friends onto the kurve at Red Bull Arena — the team’s home stadium, in the middle of the city — and though he does not self-define as an ultra he was a member of Red Aces, the club’s first ultra faction. Now he is part of Rasenballisten, a fan group that aims to “support the team, but not Red Bull.”

Though there is considerable esprit de corps in Germany’s ultra scene — groups often acting in concert on issues they consider important — Leipzig’s various groups are not seen as “equals,” according to Claus.

“There is a very active ultra scene, and they are quite progressive on things like homophobia and racism,” he said, issues that unite ultra factions. “But as far as I know, they are not part of the broader fan organizations. They are not connected, because they are not really accepted.”

Mucki recognizes that, to many, he is an impossible contradiction: someone who might be regarded as an RB Leipzig ultra. The emotions generated by seeing the team win are real, but his relationship with his club is complicated, layered. “The bond I have with the team is a love-hate thing,” he said.

Mucki and his colleagues are, of course, aware of the way their team is viewed by their peers across the country. Though he is quick to point out that “only a few clubs are not global businesses” — even Dortmund has sold the naming rights to its stadium — he does not hide behind accusations of hypocrisy. “I understand the points they make,” he said. “But it is easy to point these things out. We are trying to change them.”

They have had some success. He believes that Red Aces were integral to helping the club foster an “open-minded, tolerant” environment that has voiced support for refugees and staged demonstrations against Pegida, the Islamophobic group that first gained prominence in Dresden before spreading across Germany.

Earlier this year, though, Red Aces disbanded. Partly, Mucki said, its members were “tired,” not of hostility from the outside but of resistance from the club itself. “They want an organized fan culture, but they do not want it to be critical,” he said. “They want us involved in certain processes — we were invited to give our views on the redesign of the stadium — but on others, they tried to keep us down.”

That was a particular problem when it came not just to pyrotechnics — the club, he said, issued statements condemning fireworks displays “within minutes” — but to anything that might be regarded as political. Oliver Mintzlaff, Red Bull’s head of soccer, has said publicly that he does not believe sports and politics should mix, an idea that is anathema to Germany’s organized fan scenes.

“Many things were restricted,” Mucki said. “Ultimately, our ideals broke in the face of that.”

But there was another factor, too, in Red Aces’ demise. “The club has grown so quickly that it is harder to feel that connection,” Mucki said. “In the lower leagues, you could connect with the players, you had more chances to influence the way the club worked. Nowadays, it is more like a global business.”

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Credit…John Macdougall/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

It is, in other words, precisely the same sense of disenfranchisement felt by fans, ultras or not, of almost every other major club in Europe. The only difference is that RB Leipzig’s fans have been exposed to it scarcely a decade after the club was formed. The team’s rise has been so rapid that its fans have not been able to keep up.

Other ultra groups are rising, ready to take Red Aces’ place. One observer of the fan scene in the city estimated each group contains between 50 and 100 members, most of them younger than Mucki — in his early 20s — is now. They have grown up with RB Leipzig in the city, the first generation of fans for whom supporting the team is not a conscious choice.

The original ultras have gone their separate ways. “Some still go, just as ordinary fans,” Mucki said. “Some have joined other groups. Some do not go at all.” Red Aces had been part of Rasenballisten, a coalition of groups dedicated to changing “what people make of their club.” Mucki decided to remain in the hopes of continuing that battle.

It operates under an alternative logo — one based on Leipzig’s cityscape — and rejects outright the use of the bull as a symbol for the team. That is the iconography of the sponsor, and nothing more. In an ideal world, a form of that logo will one day supersede Leipzig’s current crest. That is the aim: not to complain about Leipzig’s existence, but to try to change it. To look inside the artificial and find the authentic.

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