RasenBallsport Leipzig v FC Schalke 04: Bundesliga 1
Red Bull Arena, Leipzig, 3rd December 2016
“going to watch RB Leipzig was a little like watching someone try haggis for the first time: you’re not sure you like the idea but the product is far better than you expect”
It seems that everybody has an opinion on RB (that’s ‘RasenBallsport’; or ‘Lawn ball sports’ – nothing to do with an Austrian beverage company associated with aviation) Leipzig: many complain about how the club is run, its absence of heritage and ‘soul’ and its franchise-like nature whereas others sprinkle terms like ‘a breath of fresh air’ or ‘refreshing’ – an accusation that certainly couldn’t be levelled at the sponsor’s signature beverage.
It really depends what you look for in a football club. For every person that is wowed by West-End Musical ‘Wicked’, there is somebody who disdainfully comments on how far from Frank L. Baum’s vision this aberration is. Either way, you can’t argue about the entertainment provided. Same goes with RB Leipzig.
Let me oversimplify the RB Leipzig history and you can make up your own mind about them, if you’re one of the few who hasn’t already. Think of the Oberliga (Fifth Tier of German Football) and RB Leipzig’s “origins” as a baked potato contest. RB Leipzig bought over a baked potato, scooped out the filling and kept the skin, filling it with lardons, spices, steroids, some of the original potato and expensive ingredients and competed against some humble potatoes. Their potatoes were unsurprisingly superior and then the process was repeated in each subsequent league.
However, when you steal the ingredients from a fellow competitor – let’s say, your sister (RB Salzburg) – then resentment can breed and other competitors may complain that the competition is not fair. RB Leipzig’s rise to the Bundesliga has been expected, even if this season’s early form has caught many off guard. I remember as ( newly promoted to Bundesliga 2.) Leipzig threw money, 8 million euros, at Anderlecht for Massimo Bruno, who went from playing Champions League football to being a loanee to Salzburg and a bench-warmer at Leipzig last season. None of their rivals could take such an expensive punt in this way at the time.
However, perhaps the best people to ask about RB Leipzig would be the inhabitants of this beautiful city, starved of success for so long until recently. They didn’t seem overly concerned by the big teams coming to their city, bringing armies of fans and trade. I cannot speak for the people of Leipzig, but it doesn’t look like they are being taken for walking wallets to me (although they can buy their tickets from http://www.dierotenbullen.com/eintrittskarten.html.)
While I could have taken a train to Leipzig, taking seven hours and one change from Brussels, flying to Berlin proved to be the cheapest option by some distance. Due to the early take-off, I had to take a taxi to the airport (through Uber). When my driver appeared, the taxi registration plate, Audi badge and thick glasses suggested I was in for a quick, aggressively-piloted passage. I’m not convinced his glasses didn’t have filters in them to block out ‘Give Way’ signs and solid white lines. As predicted, I arrived at the airport before you could say ‘get out of my way’ and in plenty of time for the flight.
However, the tardiness of my outbound flight meant that my well-laid plans were ruined. The lateness seemed to be caused by the washing and oiling of the wings, which I presume was to prevent the accumulation of ice. However, the extent of the lateness and the lack of communication was wholly unacceptable and the cheap Irish flight provider disappointed here. Add to that the pointless standing outside, in sub-zero temperatures, before the aircraft is even there and you have a disgruntled passenger. No-frills is one thing but no-sense is another.
Arriving at Berlin Schoenfeld airport belatedly meant that my ticket to see Hallescher FC v Werder Bremen II would go unused as I would never get there on time. So, in the meantime, I checked the Deutsche Bahn website to find alternative connections and decided to head to Leipzig around 1430 and spend some time in Berlin. During this deviation, I took in 45 minutes of action at SV Lichtenburg, in East Berlin, at the Hans Zoschke Stadion. With a capacity of 10000, the 142 fans in the stadium enjoyed some agricultural football with a community ambience. This was, however, a little too Hipster for me if I’m honest and I took the S-Bahn to Berlin Sudkreuz for the ICE train to Leipzig.
My old trick of not booking a seat and having a beer in the buffet car for less money worked again and the journey was painless and smooth.
Whilst almost all of my preparation had focused on the stadia, the football and sorting out transport, it had slipped my mind that German cities undergo a transformation in December thanks to the Christmas Market. Disembarking in Leipzig is a fairly grand experience: the station (apparently the world’s largest by floor area) is elegantly maintained while maintaining the multi-storey functionality one finds in many a Hauptbahnhof. After crossing the road and the tram lines, you enter a city that is a stylish delight and perhaps hasn’t exploited tourism as much as it could.
The architecture reminded me of Hanover in many ways although I would say Leipzig is a prettier city. There are several references to Leipzig’s pride of place in Saxony, which always reminds me of being called ‘Anglo-Saxon’ in France, ignoring the inconvenient truth that most Scots do not have these origins. The city is one I would revisit for a city break with my wife, even in the absence of a football match, and is characterful and generally intriguing.
Schalke always take a sizeable and vocal support and they were both visible and audible throughout the city centre. However, the biggest assault on the senses was surely perpetrated by the cloud of aromas produced by glühwein and pork. For anyone looking for indoor festivities, the Auerbachs Keller is a delight and serves pork and potato 27 different ways. While vegetarians may end up disappointed, this place is where Faust, by Goethe, is set and there is a certain grandeur about it and the food and drink were of excellent quality whilst remaining moderately priced.
My hotel for the night was located west of both the city centre and the stadium. It was the kind of area that had ‘slum’ bars, and graffiti, tattoos and piercings were the accessories du jour. I moseyed on in my Parka jacket, Soviet-style winter hat, looking like a fish on a bike, until I found the Hotel Merseburger (merseburger hof leipzig). My single room was perfectly adequate, if unspectacular, and was a little pricey at 57€, but I think Schalke fans had booked all the best affordable spots beforehand.
The Red Bull Arena
This stadium in many ways was characteristic of the whole visit in that I was surprised by just how much I liked it. The setting beside the river and set back a little behind the indoor arena is inviting and once lit up, the stadium looks spectacular in the distance. Formerly known as the Zentralstadion (until 2010), it has a capacity of 44959 although it feels much bigger than this.
Upon arriving at the stadium, the number of people hanging around outside, drinking beer on the steps was notable. I slalomed between them and the strategically placed Kaufmann bags that were receptacles for empty beer bottles towards the main gates and the media entrance. Bizarrely, upon going through this gate, there is a road with a large queue of traffic (turns out they park under the ground) and a big wall to enter the stadium grounds that screams communist architecture.
Upon being given my pass, the lift to the left ascends to level 5, the upper-tier path that is set back a little from the perimeter of the stadium itself and is a thoroughfare for the upper-tier fans. Crossing a bridge takes you into the stadium concourse where the food and drink is sold. Walking through to section 19, you do get a genuine wow moment at the view. Being in the back row was perfect and, while some will be reaching for the oxygen masks, the elevation offers a fabulous perspective of the whole stadium.
The snacks and drinks range was fairly good and a beer and currywurst would set you back 7 euros. The arching long side stands offer a pillar-free view while the behind-the-goal stands only have a single tier: expect expansion in this regard in the not too distant future. The Leipzig fankurve is being the goal in Sektor B. For all the talk of a plastic club, these fans made a decent racket all game. No, they didn’t throw pyro, their flags were a little ambiguous and they didn’t intimidate. The stadium, like the town (as mentioned earlier), reminded me of Hannover’s HDI Arena in some ways.
The players coming out to music from the Rocky films is rather twee, but each to their own – it isn’t 2 Unlimited or Die Elf vom Niederrhein though. The RB Leipzig fans produced a glittering tifo, which looked a little ‘Eurovision’, and probably emptied the local stationary store’s stock of shiny paper. It did seem a little like it was devised by somebody ‘corporate’, whereas Schalke’s fans bounced and sung ‘Schalke null vier’ to most recognisable melodies. Although my favourite of the day was ‘auf geht’s Leipzig gies a goal, gies a goal, gies a go-oh-oal’; well, that’s what it sounded like to my Scottish ear.
RB Leipzig v Schalke ’04
You can say what you like about the administration of the club, but Leipzig’s fans come to see football; and it’s excellent, entertaining football. After the abbreviated minute of silence (although the Gelsenkirchen word for silence must be ‘applause’), the match got under way and within twenty seconds, Leipzig had a penalty. It looked like a foul in real time from up in the gods but the TV replay beside me showed that Werner tumbled into Fahrmann in the Schalke goal and the keeper was furious.
Werner recovered from his momentary loss of balance to coolly slot the penalty in the corner. Leipzig could then have had a couple more before five minutes had been played. Schalke were all over the place and the pace, power and directness of Leipzig was too much for Naldo and Howedes in particular. The brought a few chants of ‘Lawn ball olé’ and the stadium was noisy and charged with excitement. The atmosphere would be lauded elsewhere, and it’s certainly no worse than the likes of Frankfurt, Munich or Bremen.
Make no mistake: Leipzig are not going away. They may not maintain their current form all season but they have some real gems in their squad in players like Keita, Werner, Poulsen, Forsberg and Burke. For all of the ‘buy young players to sell them on’ articles I’ve read, I have yet to see any acknowledge that maybe Leipzig are buying young players to develop and keep so that they can challenge for the league. Even the most cynical fan has to admit the advertising provided by Leipzig reaching the Champions League is more lucrative in the long term than cashing in on players.
Thereafter, the game evened out and Schalke probably deserved their equaliser when it came, with Kolasinac tapping home a rebound after Gulacsi spilled the ball. The sprinklings of Schalke fans outwith the ‘away section’ was very noticeable at this point. The Schalke fans contributed massively to the occasion and ensured that the atmosphere remained lively, even during lulls in the match.
A talking point during the match had to be the conduct of Timo Werner. He caused the Schalke defence all kinds of problems with his pace and power but has a cynical and cheating edge to his game. It’s not OK and his manager needs to sort him out. The second half kicked off in much the same way as the first and RB Leipzig were ahead within a couple of minutes. Forsberg’s inswinging free kick was met by Schalke’s goalscorer, Kolasinac, who had now scored past both ‘keepers.
After retaking the lead, Leipzig continued to make most of the play and looked more likely to score – Schalke’s impotence up front (Max Meyer is never a striker) meant attacks seldom had a focal point.
The 42558 (ausverkauft!) capacity crowd was announced but some seats were empty between the Schalke fans and the home support, presumably some kind of fresh-air force field. Those aquamarine seats look like leftovers from a communist swimming pool and the stadium would be given a lift if they were replaced. However, one wonders what kind of advert would replace them? I’d expect it would be a load of bull.
Leipzig continued to create most of the chances and the game opened up in the latter stages as Schalke chased for an equaliser. However, the Royal Blues remained second best for most of the encounter and when the whistle was blown, few would argue that it was not deserved. Not even the most ardent anti-RB Leipziger. For all the accusations of being an advertising construct, the team are hungry, well-drilled and able and the fans are far livelier and more engaged than they are given credit for.
To summarise, going to watch RB Leipzig was a little like watching someone try haggis for the first time: you’re not sure you like the idea but the product is far better than you expect and, even though you know what’s in it, you can’t help enjoying it.
- Quality of match: ****.5
- Stadium character: ****
- Stadium atmosphere: ****
- Hospitality: *****
- Ease of access: *****
- Things to do around the stadium: ****
- Overall: ****.5
Verdict: Fabulous stadium, great team, underrated fans and beautiful city.