East German soccer ended after the 1990-91 DDR-Oberliga season, a year and a half after the Berlin Wall came down, with an American connection. Paul Caligiuri played for Hansa Rostock, the Oberliga’s last champion before it disbanded amid Germany’s reunification.
Hansa Rostock and Dynamo Dresden joined the Bundesliga for the 1991-92 season. Rostock was relegated after its first season. It returned in 1995 and has had the most success among clubs from the former East Germany, having taken part in 12 Bundesliga seasons since reunification. But Rostock was relegated in 2008 and now plays in the third division.
Besides Rostock and Dresden, which has played four seasons at the top tier, Energie Cottbus (six seasons) and VfB Leipzig (one season, 1993-94) were the only other former East German clubs to play Bundesliga ball. Cottbus’ 2009 relegation left the Bundesliga without a former East German club for the last seven seasons.
German journalist Uli Hesse, in his 2014 article “The fall of East German football,” explained the region’s “disadvantage has less to do with history, politics, experience or ideology and more to do with location.”
He cited a lack of big sponsors in the east. That of Germany’s 13,000 large companies, only 1,400 were based in the east. Smaller clubs in the west, such as Wolfsburg and Ingolstadt, rose to the first division because they were bankrolled by Volkswagen and Audi, respectively, while clubs in the east struggled for funding.
When the 2016-17 Bundesliga season kicks off on the last weekend of August, it will finally again have a club from the former East Germany -- thanks to a sponsor who poured hundreds of millions of euro into RB Leipzig.
But that sponsor came from Austria, the energy drink Red Bull, which also owns MLS’s New York Red Bulls and Austria’s Red Bull Salzburg.
Bundesliga regulations don’t allow a sponsor’s name in a club’s title -- Bayer Leverkusen being a grandfathered exception -- so Leipzig’s RB stands for RasenBallsport (lawn-ball sport). The team is nicknamed the Roten Bullen and the logo looks similar to the one on the can.
Seven years ago, Red Bull took over of fifth division club Markranstadt and reached the second division in 2014, when its spending on players represented half of the entire league’s. Last season, it won promotion to the first division.
A remarkable success story -- greeted by German soccer fans with an extraordinary amount of disdain because of its Austrian Red Bull ownership. “The hatred of RB Leipzig exceeds all boundaries,” read the headline of Die Welt article last year that reported on how the team hotel and bus required extra police protection on road trips.
Terence Boyd, RB Leipzig's German-American striker, told The Guardian: “When we are away, sometimes in the middle of the night, hooligans from the opponent clubs come to our hotels like in the middle of the night and chant ‘F*** Red Bull.’”
Meanwhile, in the city of Leipzig, where the German soccer federation (DFB) was founded in 1900 and VfB Leipzig was crowned as the first German champion in 1903, RB Leipzig drew an average of nearly 30,000 in the second division last season.
The Bundesliga was a nearly $3 billion business before Red Bull money enabled the former East Germany to once again have a club at the top tier. Bundesliga players have worn sponsor logos on their shorts since the 1970s, when Eintracht Braunschweig jerseys were adorned with the Jaegermiester logo and Borussia Dortmund’s first shirt sponsor was a tobacco firm.
We’ll see whether protests and abuse continue to follow RB Leipzig during its first year at the top tier.
RB Leipzig plays its first home game on Sept. 10 against Borussia Dortmund, some of whose supporters’ groups announced they would boycott. “The ownership structure of promoted Leipzig goes against everything that we associate with soccer. It is scandalous that a purely commercial marketing branch of an Austrian drink manufacturer is allowed to actually compete in Germany's top flight,” read one statement.
On Tuesday, when RB Leipzig opened sales for Dortmund’s visiting fans, the 4,300 tickets allocated to visiting fans sold out in 23 minutes, and the 43,000-seat stadium is sold out.