The German game has long been admired for tradition and integrity, but with football becoming increasingly financially focused and clubs such as RB Leipzig on the rise, will more German sides begin adapting to the modern game?
The Leipzig Model
RB Leipzig were formed in 2009 and currently top the Bundesliga in a surprisingly competitive Bundesliga season. Hassenhüttl’s style of play has received plaudits, but the unbeaten start has been somewhat overshadowed by criticism of the Red Bull model and concern surrounding the future of traditional German clubs. The model itself scarcely differs from that seen at Hoffenheim or Wolfsburg in terms of following the 50+1 ruling to the letter, yet the ‘portfolio’ of clubs under Red Bull ownership has led to additional scrutiny of their progress.
The model differs from traditional clubs in various ways. The transfer policy focusing on signing players younger than 24, the controversial membership/investment scheme and finally the dubious multiple club ownership debacle all scare the German football traditionalists. The latter has already been seen with the City club group, and it has been widely speculated that others may look to follow suit. Similarly, the membership scheme and the avoidance of the 50+1 rule is nothing revolutionary within Germany, Hoffenheim using ‘donations’ to avoid debt a prime example, but Red Bull have stretched the boundaries of the rulings to new extremes- only having a hundred or so members, inferior to the likes of Bayern Munich by over 200,000.
As RasenBallsport Leipzig climb the German ladder, commentators questioned why clubs like Schalke and Freiburg have been built following tradition only for the ‘plastic’ clubs to eclipse their relative successes. This brings in to question the equality and authenticity of the 50+1 ruling – where club members are insured majority stake in the club – within the modern era. Naturally there will come a stage, especially if Leipzig and Hoffenheim hold European positions come May, that clubs will ask for a stricter rule or for it to be dropped. The current refereeing of the rule has led to controversy and confusing.
In England, football teams have been an attractive investment opportunity for some time allowing ‘smaller’ clubs like Stoke and Swansea to compete with top European clubs on an economic level. In the English top flight the traditional clubs of the 80’s and 90’s have gradually lost their grip on the top places and even retaining a position in the top division itself, take Leeds United and Newcastle United as examples. The clubs that were willing to spend and commercialise are the traditional clubs who remain, alongside the Manchester City’s and Chelsea’s who took the new era as an opportunity.
TV deals have brought a new dimension to the modern footballing era. The Bundesliga simply doesn’t have the universal draw, with all the big names and big coaches, leaving it far behind the Premier League in terms of mega-money TV deals. The cycle of the Bundesliga losing its best talent and missing out financially has become a vicious one and unless changes are made, like RB Leipzig are attempting, German football will be left decades behind its European rivals.
Finances are no longer solely flowing to England however, this year AC Milan, Marseille among other European clubs have been boosted by takeovers. New powers threaten the little tradition left in the modern game, with the rise of China and the return of the MLS adding further commercialisation and riches to the footballing melting pot.
As much as German football can be admired for its fan ownership and restrictions attempting to cultivate tradition, at what point does it become naive? Similarities can be drawn between the present Bundesliga and the English top tier around 10-15 years ago when the investors with heavy pockets came knocking. The resolve of the German footballing authorities will be tested in the coming years, if not months, with some controversial choices to make.
It is inevitable with all the distrust and confusion surrounding the current regulations and the rise of non-traditional clubs, that the German associations will be faced with a decision in the near future. Either they protect German club traditions by becoming stricter in applying the regulations or choose to potentially prosper alongside the modern Europeans sides of this new money-driven era. The rise and potential success of RB Leipzig will make the latter far more likely.
If the German footballing authorities see fit to stick to the traditional guns, it may not be all doom and gloom for German sides. We have seen that financial investment has caused instability with those who are rich not necessarily becoming successful. Even though many managers now dream of the Premier League, the average tenure has dramatically decreased as the domestic competition has only become more difficult, which debatably has impacted on European success. Whilst German sides straddling debt have succeeded on reaching the latter stages of European competitions fairly consistently.
Naturally, different clubs and fans will have contrasting views on the future of German club football. Those such as Leverkusen and Hoffenheim will see the Leipzig model and the potential dilution of the 50+1 rule as an opportunity to develop further and potentially compete with the larger, more traditional Bundesliga sides. However, you have to wonder if the rulings were more lenient if sides like Werder Bremen would also jump on the Red Bull bandwagon in the wake of ‘hypothetical’ RB Leipzig success. We have already seen Hamburg – a traditional German side – begin to overlook the financial restrictions by conducting transfer business via a separate entity instead of directly purchasing players as a club.
It is clear that the anger and hatred expressed in butchered bull heads, insulting tifo and aggressive letters are targeted at a greater cause than RB Leipzig and their fans, the threat of capitalism trumping Traditionsverein.