Tottenham Hotspur are not having a good time of it at the moment. On the back of consecutive defeats in the league, they travel to RB Leipzig on Tuesday with the ambition of overturning a 1-0 deficit in the Champions League and potentially setting off on a path to save their season. Yet, as engrossing as the travails of José Mourinho and Co may be, it is their opponents who are arguably writing a far more important chapter in the context of European football.
The Germans are enjoying their first foray into the last 16 — and have a toe in the quarters — but you’d be mistaken in thinking that the rest of the Bundesliga is swelling with pride at the achievement. To the contrary, the mere existence of RB Leipzig is an insult to the high-minded purists of the country’s traditional footballing cities. It’s an offence they’ve learned to bear in the last two to three years, but with the upstarts now making what look like genuine continental and league pushes, resentment is once again bubbling in full view.
Leipzig fans will be used to it by now. Since the club was founded in 2009, they’ve had to endure countless acts of protest: from multiple peaceful boycotts of their stadium by the away support, to far uglier threats of violence such as a full-on projectile attack by Borussia Dortmund ultras. In 2016, Dynamo Dresden supporters went as far as smuggling a severed bull’s head into the ground and chucking it onto the field.
For the uninitiated, the ire and symbolic gestures are directed at one target: Red Bull — the energy drink billionaire that bought its way into professional football and continues to fund the attempt to reach its summit.
Whereas Spurs have plenty of experience with the nouveau riche back home, the significance of Leipzig’s potential success is a fundamentally different proposition. It’s not their financials that have courted Red Bull so much hatred, but rather its perceived insolence towards German rules, culture and heritage.
German clubs are forbidden from incorporating their sponsors into their names; not to worry we’ll call the team “Rasenballsport Leipzig” (lawn ball sports). RB Leipzig for short. Also, in Germany all supporters must be offered a stake in the team and a potential veto on important issues; easily solved by setting membership rates at exorbitant and unrealistic levels.
The fear then is that any success for RB Leipzig would mean victory for those who would blatantly corporatise football. Money irreversibly permeated the game a long time ago but the idea of first-rate team existing primarily to serve the interests of a brand is one that nobody is willing to entertain.
Leipzig supporters, however, see things differently. To them the club represents long overdue prominence, not only for the city but for East Germany too. Thanks to historical legacies, western regions have rarely faced much of a challenge to their hegemony. That is also set to change with the progression of the new title rivals. The inevitability that a capacity 40 000 crowd will welcome Spurs on Tuesday, despite their team not existing 12 years ago, shows just how much it means to people previously starved of any measure of prosperity.
Then there’s the fact that only one of the club’s incoming transfers, Naby Keïta, exceeded €20-million (and he would later be sold to Liverpool for a reported €60-million). Leipzig has money to spend, but have learnt vital lessons from the likes of Queens Park Rangers and Monaco — that indiscriminately swiping a credit card in the face of high prices is a shortcut to failure.
Instead, there’s a palpable sense of footballing direction. Much of that is down to coach Julian Nagelsmann. At 32, he is one of the youngest coaches in the professional game and his verve appears the ideal complement to his club’s mission of disrupting the spaces around them.
Nicknamed the “mini Mourinho” — much to his own disapproval — it was Nagelsmann’s ambitious direction that far outclassed that of his Spurs counterpart in the first leg. Mourinho will again point to the absence of a striker to call upon, but that is no excuse for overseeing a performance so frustrating that Dele Alli could do nothing but slam his boots and water bottle into the ground.
The bad news is that Leipzig star Timo Werner will almost never suffer from such indecision and will be hopeful of adding to his already ridiculous tally for the season. If reports of him moving to Liverpool turn out to be true, there’s no doubt he will put in his utmost to steer Leipzig towards their lofty goals before he departs.
The English have their backs against it on this one, that for sure; an assertion that’s not helped when one recalls the horrid memory of Munich earlier in the group stages. But if it counts for anything, Spurs can take solace knowing they enter Germany this time less hated by the locals than their opponents.