BERLIN – Yes, you read that dateline right. I haven’t had a chance to catch Charlotte’s win against the Vancouver Whitecaps while I’ve been abroad in Germany, so for this week’s column, I’m taking a break from the play-by-play of Charlotte FC games and diving into the politics of football.
Tonight, Charlotte FC meets the New York Red Bulls (formerly the New York MetroStars before the Red Bull takeover in 2006) in the round of 16 of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. If you’re a Charlotte fan, please go wild and make some noise #PorLaCorona. If you’re not a fan, or just a casual observer, root against the New York Red Bulls if for no other reason than that the team is one of the worst things to happen to football across the world. No, seriously!
Toro, Toro, Toro
For years, Red Bull used extreme sports as their biggest earned media marketing tools. This was a symbiotic relationship; athletes from niche sports received unprecedented visibility, and Red Bull became the drink most closely associated with death-defying action. Extreme sports became the drink’s most important partner — next to vodka.
After dominating extreme sports, Red Bull made its move to conquer the world’s most popular sport: football, aka fútbol, aka soccer. Years of questionable tactics and dirty deeds led to a major success for the brand last week as [German] Bundesliga team RB Leipzig secured their first major title, the DFB-Pokal (German Cup), and yet again secured a spot in perhaps the most prestigious club competition in the world: the UEFA Champions League.
Naturally, one would assume the “RB” in RB Leipzig stands for “Red Bull,” but you would be mistaken. It stands for “RasenBallsport” – literally the German words “Lawn” and “Ball Sports” – because according to Bundesliga rules, a corporate sponsor can’t be a part of the official name of a football club.
That alone isn’t much of an indictment — corporations break rules and use tactics more sinister than wordplay to take advantage of loopholes all the time — but in German football, members of each club are supposed to own at least 50% plus one share of their own association in order to preserve the democratic nature of said association and protect it from the influence of outside investors (not to mention protect the fan base from price-gouging). A similar ownership structure can be found in U.S. sports, most notably with the NFL’s Green Bay Packers, though it’s rare.
While some German clubs received an exception to the 50+1 rule due to historical ownership by corporate investors, the vast majority of Bundesliga clubs play by the rules. For example, I’m a member of 1. FC Union Berlin and can vote at club meetings and help elect the members of the governing boards.
RB Leipzig, however, is the only German club that actively discourages and prevents membership. Whereas my membership costs around €100 every year, RB Leipzig charges €1,000 for non-voting “Gold” memberships.
In 2014, The Guardian wrote, “RB Leipzig doesn’t break the letter of the 50+1 rule — it does have a membership scheme, and it’s not registered as a stock company anyway. But it does break the spirit … On top of that, RB Leipzig reserve the right to reject any application without justification. As a result, more than four years into the club history, RB Leipzig have only 11 members — most of them employees of Red Bull (Bayern [Munich], for comparison, has 224,000).”
Many Germans aren’t happy with the Red Bulls, either. Per ESPN, “Leipzig has become the most reviled club in Germany. If it isn’t your favorite club, Leipzig is probably your least favorite.”
I was in Berlin for the German Cup final between Leipzig and SC Freiburg, and you could be forgiven for thinking Freiburg was Germany’s national team. On trains, in Biergartens and in public, the city was overrun with fans wearing Freiburg red (I estimated 10 Freiburg supporters for every one Leipzig supporter I saw).
Freiburg’s showing was even more impressive since the trip to Berlin is six-and-a-half hours on an express train, as opposed to 90 minutes for Leipzig fans. When I polled our tour group at my club’s home stadium in East Berlin, everyone was rooting for Freiburg, who ultimately lost an overtime shootout.
The Red Bulls next door
Charlotte will play the New York Red Bulls twice over the next two weeks, tonight at the Red Bulls’ home stadium in New Jersey then at Bank of America Stadium on June 11. Tonight’s game is arguably the more important one, a win-or-go-home match in the U.S. Open Cup that determines which team advances to the quarterfinals.
So, while there are so many more important issues in the world — I’m lucky to be writing this story on a green, efficient public train; and at a train station where I’m not afraid I’ll be a victim of a mass shooting, and all while many volunteers and public servants around me are still taking care of Ukrainian refugees — it’d be nice to see the plucky young Charlotte team keep New York’s Red Bulls from winning another national tournament.
The Red Bulls have never won the Open Cup despite being the runner-up in 2003 (pre-Red Bull) and in 2017. If Charlotte Coach Miguel Ángel Ramírez fields a strong team tonight, Charlotte can ensure that streak continues.
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