Just before Christmas 2016, RB Leipzig went to Munich for a top-of-the-table showdown. Bayern had led the league from August, Leipzig had nipped in during November. Later that season, the club became the first from former East Germany to qualify for Europe since 2001.
The last time a team from Leipzig was crowned all-German champions was 1913. Even in the post-war era, when Leipzig was the second biggest city in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), its main club, Lokomotive, never won the national league, the DDR-Oberliga.
Leipzig is the cradle of German football. In 1900, the German FA, the DFB, were founded at the Mariengarten restaurant, Büttnerstraße 10. A plaque marks where the building once stood. Three years later, VfB Leipzig became Germany’s first champions, winning the title again ten years later.
In 2016, with all the local hullabaloo created by RB Leipzig, it was proposed that a DFB Museum should open on Büttnerstraße.
When RB Leipzig strode out against Bayern for that head-to-head clash of 2016, it had been 25 years since the last DDR-Oberliga. During that time, asphyxiated by the new economic reality, star players sold to savvier, richer clubs in former West Germany, the old giants of the GDR had wilted and disappeared – including Lokomotive, revived by fans as 1.FC Lokomotive Leipzig in 2004.
Surely then, given Bayern’s monopoly of the German game and the long absence of former GDR clubs at top level, the remarkable rise and unexpected title challenge of a team from Leipzig would have been cause for celebration?
Not at all. Because, natürlich, RB Leipzig are not from the home of Bach, Wagner and Mahler, but Markranstädt, a small town 10km south-west of Saxony’s largest city.
RB Leipzig are a vehicle for Red Bull, with stablemates in Salzburg and New York. Unable to be as flagrant about its brand in Germany, the crafty Austrian energy-drink giant called its new club RasenBallsport (‘Lawn Ball Sport’: RB) and plastered its charging bull logo everywhere. Dietrich Mateschitz is the billionaire co-founder of Red Bull and brains behind its football operations in Austria and the US. Germany being his next move, he sought advice from Franz Beckenbauer as to where best site this crucial investment. Der Kaiser had only one answer: Leipzig.
This wasn’t only because of the city’s unique soccer heritage. As chairman of the organising committee for the 2006 World Cup, Beckenbauer had also overseen the inclusion of Leipzig and its Socialist-built Zentralstadion among the 12 host venues. The other 11 were all in former West Germany. The Zentralstadion was the national stadium of the GDR, built by thousands of volunteers using rubble from a city devastated by Allied bombing. Without the Nazi overtones of the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, although originally sketched out by the same architect, Werner Marsch, it had attracted attendances of 110,000 for East Germany internationals.
Fallen into disuse after 1989, the old stadium was knocked down but its exterior, Socialist statuary and all, was kept when the new arena was built around it in the early 2000s. First hosting the Confederations Cup in 2005, it staged five games for the 2006 World Cup, most notably the epic Latin battle between Argentina and Mexico.
That same year, Red Bull’s Mateschitz began sniffing around Germany for a small club to piggyback for its football licence. The obvious option, as Beckenbauer pointed out, was Sachsen Leipzig.
The choice was both historical and logistical. As the pre-1990 BSG Chemie Leipzig, they not only had ties with seminal Britannia Leipzig formed in 1899 and their successor, TuRa Leipzig of the Nazi era, but they had been East German champions in the early days and still had something of a fan base.
Struggling on post-Unification as Sachsen Leipzig, the club had one crucial element in its favour: film mogul and entrepreneur Michael Kölmel.
Main sponsor of Sachsen Leipzig, Kölmel had won the contract to rebuild the Zentralstadion and raised nearly a quarter of its €90 million conversion costs.
Kölmel was very keen on the Red Bull takeover. Sachsen Leipzig fans were not. The deal fell through and Sachsen were dissolved in 2011.
The waters had been muddied by the creation of another BSG Chemie Leipzig in 1997, who then rose through the local leagues to face Sachsen in the regional Saxony league.
Now the sole heir of BSG Chemie, the club is based at the same Alfred-Kunze-Sportpark where the East German title was won in 1951 and 1964. Over the water from the former Zentralstadion, the ground is in Leipzig-Leutzsch, close to the S-Bahn station and No.7 tram stop of the same name, the line also passing by the main football arena.
In 2016, BSG Chemie won the Sachsenliga to gain promotion to the fourth-tier NOFV-Oberliga. This would have set up league fixtures with local rivals Lokomotive – only at the same time, the former railway club won the NOFV-Oberliga title of 2016 and now play in the third-flight Regionalliga Nordost.
Currently featuring Dynamo Berlin, this league became the boneyard of fallen GDR giants after Unification.
With links back to inaugural German champions VfB, Lokomotive had also played at the Zentralstadion – shortly after their reformation in 2004, ‘Loksche’ set a record attendance for a local-league match when 12,421 watched them play Eintracht Großdeuben reserves. This, indeed, is a city built on football. Now based at the Bruno-Plache-Stadion in Probstheida, close to where Napoleon lost a huge land battle in 1813, Loksche are another former GDR giant currently reawakening. Take tram No.15 12 stops from the train station to Probtsheida – the ground is a short walk down Connewitzer Straße, on the left.
Rejected by Sachsen Leipzig, embraced by Markranstädt, RB Leipzig moved into the Zentralstadion in 2010. Six years later, 24 hours after a 3-0 defeat at Bayern, RB Leipzig announced that they had reached agreement with Michael Kölmel and had bought the Zentralstadion. And, of course, renamed it.
All the Red Bull Arena needs now is regular European football.
Leipzig/Halle Airport is 27km (17 miles) north-west of Leipzig. An S-Bahn or inter-city train runs every 15-20min to Leipzig Hauptbahnhof main station (15-20min journey time, €6). A frequent train from Berlin takes 1hr 15min, advance single around €25.
Leipzig Hauptbahnhof is close to the city centre a short walk away and well connected for trams, including regular services to the Red Bull Arena.
Leipzig city transport consists of trams and buses. A journey of four stops (Kurzstrecke) is €1.80, a single valid for 1hr (suitable between station and stadium) is €2.60. 24hr day pass is €7.20. Buy tickets from machines at stops and validate them in the stamper alongside.
Long-established Löwentaxi (+49 341 98 22 22) is perfectly located, halfway between the station and the stadium. A transfer from the airport to either should be in the region of €40.
The nearest lodging to the stadium is about 5-7min walk away, on residential Waldstraße with bars close to it, the Arena City Hotel. Upper mid-range with breakfast (€12.50) extra, it has a sauna, bar and restaurant.
Leipzig station is ideally located for both stadium and town. Among the many hotels there, the 288-room Park Hotel is directly opposite as you come out of the station building, bright and modern, with its own sauna, whirlpool, small gym and restaurant.
Alongside, upscale chain the Marriott contains a panoramic restaurant and the Champions sports bar, open to non-guests as well (see Beer).
A short walk from the station towards town, the B&B Leipzig-City is a convenient, modern budget-chain option. The nearby Motel One Leipzig-Nikolaikirche is similar, a slight notch above, with a stylish bar.
Right in town, by the bar strip of Barfüßgäschen, the Five Elements Hostel offers cheap private en-suite bedrooms as well as dorms – a handy compromise for the wallet-conscious.
Another good choice for bar-hoppers is the Aparion Apartments, directly opposite Morrison’s Irish bar, with kitchenettes. Units can be rented out by the night, €60/two people a bargain.
By Marktplatz, the Steigenberger Grandhotel Handelshof is another of Leipzig’s classy establishments, elegant but relatively affordable with online deals – particularly given the two-floor premium spa.
At the main square of Augustusplatz, the Radisson Blu Leipzig is a business-friendly choice with great views of local landmarks.
Finally, for history buffs and those with a yen to visit Lokomotive Leipzig over the road, the Brauhaus Napoleon offers nine comfortable rooms and classic German hospitality in the inn where Prussian and Russian officers lodged before routing Napoleon nearby. Literally next door to the Lokomotive ground, the Parkhotel Diani provides mid-range conviviality.
The local beer is Ur-Krostitzer, the local bar hub is pedestrianised Barfüßgäschen, just off the main square of Marktplatz.
Round the corner on Klostergasse, the Café Madrid dedicates its Siesta Bar to TV football and has the good sense to provide German Paulaner on draught and leave the Spanish beer for the fridge.
Convincing candidate for best bar in town, certainly the most unusual, the Haifischbar, where Brühl meets Große Fleischergasse is a cult spot, choosy about the rock ‘n’ roll it plays, with a TV and cocktail deals. It’s squeezed between a tattoo parlour and strip club, but don’t let that put you off. On Brühl itself, Emil & Moritz puts TV football on a par with open-plan, informal, creative dining while Champions at the Marriott is a US-style sports bar.
Arriving or leaving via the vast train station, raise a glass to Leipzig at the cosy Bierbar Gleis 8 on the upper level – it’s been there since the year dot, as have the staff and regulars. There’s a TV for football and plenty of conversation around the timeless bar counter.