Feature

Two matches, one city - Leipzig’s incredible weekend

This weekend will mark the most historic football day in the football-mad - if hitherto crestfallen - city of Leipzig.

Red Bull Arena

Leipzig have battled criticism this season despite incredible results on and off the pitch. Source: AFP

There is a mood in the air here in Leipzig. This understated, unassuming place is about to find its voice. But not everyone here will be cheering for the same outcome.

There will rapture and anger, pride and envy, delight, disgust and that most German of emotions: 'schadenfreude'.

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For the first time since the Bundesliga became unified a quarter of a century ago, a team from Leipzig will host a match in the top tier.

That Rasenballsport Leipzig (described as the "most hated club in German football") is facing Borussia Dortmund at the Red Bull Arena on the weekend - in front of a national TV audience - has put the city into a tizz.

This date has been amassing national and foreign attention on the city. The Guardian have mused at length about it and even the New York Times posted a huge feature.

Dortmund have already caused a stir by refusing Leipzig the opportunity to make half-half scarves to honour the occasion. Their fans have promised to boycott the match. Never mind: the rest of the 42,959-seat stadium is sold out.

Snap history lesson No 1: Rasenballsport Leipzig (lawn ball sport) are effectively Red Bull Leipzig; the fourth and most controversial installment of the energy drink company's worldwide football project.

But for a city that is overlooked continuously (and somewhat infamously) in the national conversation, one senses many locals are relishing being the ones to rough up the establishment - even if it means doing so with a completely corporate identity. Over the past seven years since their formation, their crowds have skyrocketed. 

German outlets have descended on the club’s training ground this week, eager to get a glimpse of the three dramatic new signings - Bernardo (controversially taken for nothing from sister club Red Bull Salzburg), teenager Oliver Burke (£13 million from Nottingham Forest and already dubbed the next Gareth Bale, despite playing just a handful of matches) and defender Kyriakos Papadopoulos, on loan from Bayer Leverkusen.

The match itself has a sensational narrative: this rising, corporate-driven empire, with more money than God, against Germany’s darling club. It is a match made in TV heaven. The ratings will be astronomical.

But there will be a clutch of Leipzig football fans who won’t be cheering the city’s flagship team. In fact, they’ll get to cheer against them twice - on the same day, no less.

In an extraordinary piece of fixturing, at 2.05pm local time, the historic powerhouse club of Leipzig - Lokomotive Leipzig - will play host to Red Bull Leipzig’s second team (reserve clubs are a big deal in Germany).

It will be a day of out-and-out hatred from Lokomotive fans: so humiliating will it be to face the reserve team of a club they think shouldn’t exist.

Snap history lesson No 2: Leipzig wasn’t always a football backwater. In the days of the East German league, Lokomotive - were a true powerhouse.

The four-time East German Cup winners finished league runners-up three times and nearly pulled off a miracle European Cup Winners’ Cup victory in 1987, pipped 1-0 by arguably the greatest Ajax side ever (Marco van Basten, Dennis Bergkamp, Frank Rijkaard, Rob Witschge, John van 't Schip, Jan Wouters and Aron Winter, with Johan Cyruff as coach).

But since then? Nothing. Loko’s star fell quickly and reunification did them (and almost every other East German side) no favours. Stars of the east were absorbed into cashed-up teams in the west and, to this day, have not recovered.

The last team from the old Eastern Bloc nation to play in the Bundesliga were Hansa Rostock, who bowed out in 2009.

But loyalty means everything in this city. Even as Lokomotive tumbled down the divisions as a mixture of bankrupcy and bad results nearly killed them off, they still clocked a world record for lower league attendance (12,421 saw them face Eintracht Großdeuben in the 1th tier of German football in 2004).

Slowly but surely, they have been fighting back. A promotion last season has tipped them back into the fourth tier, the Regionalliga Nordost - setting up this huge clash with Red Bull’s second team.

Both teams will push for promotion: Loko are third after five matches, RB Leipzig are fifth. Loko’s website refuses use the official logo of their rival - replacing the angry bulls with dairy cows and a deflated ball which reads “100% plastic”.



Don’t expect too many RB Leipzig fans to making the trip down to Lokomotive’s crumbling old ground on the southern edge of the city. They'd get hounded from the terraces of the old Bruno-Plache-Stadion in any case.

Besides, they’ll be thinking about Dortmund, and giddy at the thought having such a big club in their city - and doing so knowing that, one day, they could be BVB's equal.

Regardless of who wins and loses, it is bound to be a day like no other.


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5 min read
Published 9 September 2016 at 9:31pm
By Sebastian Hassett