In a mere decade, Red Bull GmbH has put Saxony’s second city firmly on the Football map. But if the notion of checking out an RB Leipzig match leaves a bad taste in your mouth, don’t panic. Leipzig’s Football scene is both peculiar and fascinating, and two clubs stand out as being colourful, idiosyncratic and traditional beyond belief.
1 FC Lokomotive Leipzig
1. FC Lokomotive Leipzig, commonly known as Lok, plays its home fixtures at the charming but aging Bruno-Plache-Stadion in Probstheida, southeast of Leipzig proper. A predictable athletics track surrounds the playing field while a fading clock face adds much needed punctuation to an otherwise continuous bowl of crumbling terraces. Any available feature is painted blue and yellow, the club colours taken from the coat of arms of Leipzig itself (eluding to Lok’s ambitions of local dominance). But the ground’s most outstanding feature is its nostalgic Haupttribüne which houses Lok’s clubhouse, bar, changing facilities and casino, as well as sheltering spectators in spectacular fashion. This elegant timber structure is listed as a protected building.
Yet as much as the edifice’s protected status adds suitable character, it is also the source of many headaches. Even if it had the money, the club would not be permitted to replace the wooden roof with a modern one. The overabundance of fire extinguishers and the conspicuous metal buckets sat pitchside are indicative of the pyromaniacal tendencies of Lok’s Ultras and the club’s paranoia of fire. Lok fans themselves are an interesting bunch. Aggressive and violent by reputation, they are collectively known for sitting on the right on the political spectrum. Individual fans may stray from this generalisation, but a lot of graffiti and banners produced by Lokomotive Leipzig fans have openly identified with right-wing politics. The result has been a lot of attention from international fan groups representing the left and right respectively.
One cannot enter the Bruno-Plache-Stadion without noticing the cute blue and yellow steam engine resting beyond the main gates. While this is a relatively new feature to the ground, it salutes the club’s past. Most fanatics and club employees will tell you that the club’s birth was in 1966 (when the “Lokomotive” name and blue and yellow colour scheme were first used), but we can trace the story of Lok Leipzig all the way back to 1896. The club, historically known as VfB Leipzig for the majority of its existence was, like so many 19th century German sporting organisations, a strictly amateur Turnen (gymnastics and athletics) club at its inception.
1966 was a time of revolution in German Democratic Republic sport. Inspired by success at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the GDR oversaw (or at least encouraged) the founding of independent Football clubs with a greater degree of operational freedom in an attempt to promote sporting excellence. While still technically amateur, many Football clubs founded or reinvented in this time were backed by national East German trades. Leipzig, the city with the largest train station by floor space in the entire world, was at the centre of the GDR’s rail industry. It made sense that the city’s largest club, VfB Leipzig, should represent the state’s national rail service. SC Leipzig (as it was known then) was reborn as Lokomotive Leipzig, initiating a longstanding rivalry with BSG Chemie Leipzig by pinching several of Chemie’s star players in the process. Lok would emerge as one of the GDR’s big clubs, alongside BFC Dynamo and SG Dynamo Dresden.
German reunification in 1990 and the admittance of East German Football clubs to the DFB prompted the return of the less Communist-sounding name “VfB Leipzig”. However bankruptcy in 1999 and again in 2003 led to the fan initiative to takeover VfB Leipzig’s assets and establish a new club under the name of 1. FC Lokomotive Leipzig. The club has functioned under this moniker ever since, even though it still sells merchandise featuring the former VfB Leipzig logo.
Over 120 years of competitive Football have garnered 3 championship (the first of which being the inaugural year of the Deutsche Meisterschaft in 1903) and 5 cup titles, as well as several successful runs in European competition (including second place in the 1987 European Cup Winners’ Cup), seeing humble Lok defeat the likes of SL Benfica, Rapid Vienna, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Torino, Fortuna Düsseldorf and Ipswich Town. However, sporting prominence remains firmly in Lok’s past. Since its participation in and subsequent relegation from the 1. Bundesliga in 1994, Lokomotive Leipzig has steadily fallen down the ladder, now competing in the Regionalliga Nordost. Aging infrastructure, ideological associations and an investment-friendly younger club up the road mean that Lok is unlikely to see national and international success ever again.
BSG Chemie Leipzig
If the charming town of Leutzsch (a handful of kilometres north of Leipzig) wasn’t green enough, the town’s most notable organisation has certainly gone out of its way to ensure that one colour dominates the place. Leutzsch is the home of BSG Chemie Leipzig, a cult Football club even by Germany’s standards, that plays Regionalliga Nordost Football at the Alfred-Kunze-Sportpark (don’t forget to pronounce the E).
On paper, Chemie and Lok appear very similar. Both definitely share common characteristics. Iconic grounds set in Leipzig’s green hinterlands welcome die-hard fans whose club’s glory days are in the past, as directors squirm to simultaneously appease the DFB, maintain a strong sense of community and keep the books balanced. The forerunner to Chemie can also be dated back to the 19th century (1899), and national reunification saw the Chemie moniker dropped in favour of the more sponsor-friendly “FC Sachsen Leipzig”, a move that would only be reversed when insolvency struck. But in spite of these similarities, the fan philosophy and identity of BSG Chemie Leipzig could not be more different to those of Lokomotive Leipzig.
Chemie fans are known for their anti-corporate and left-wing political agenda. They do not sit so far left on the political spectrum to warrant the “Communist” label, unlike fellow minnow Leipzig club Roter Stern. But the leftist ideology of the Chemie fan community is well established and legitimate. While their tifos and banners don’t beat the anti-homophobia and anti-sexism drum to the same extent that those of notably FC Sankt Pauli do, pro-refugee and anti-fascist stickers and graffiti scattered across Leutzsch and Leipzig by Chemie fans define their politically proactive culture. Indeed, Chemie stickers are far more visible across the city than those of Lok or RB are, which demonstrates the popularity of both the club and its political agenda within Leipzig.
Chemie fans fight commercialism in Football by involving themselves directly in the club’s business. Profound fan integration is key to the club’s operational structure; fans volunteer with pitch and stadium maintenance work and BSG’s principal Ultra group, the “Diablos”, take it upon themselves to sell match-day tickets and merch. These actions relieve the club of operational costs, allowing Chemie to stay in the black without the need to sell advertising space, churn out endless merchandise or bend over backwards to accommodate television broadcasters. It should therefore be no surprise that the ambitions of both the club and fans are social rather than financial or sporting. Chemie is a dying breed of Football club that exists to serve a single community by providing a pillar around which friends and neighbours can gather and socialise. The club is realistically unlikely to reach the 1. Bundesliga any time soon, but as long as it stays afloat and the matchday experience is not compromised, fans are happy. Visitors and groundhoppers are tolerated but must respect the close-knit community of Chemie Leipzig, rather than see themselves as customers entitled to do what they like.
Chemie’s love for the left has brought its Ultras close to those of a far larger and far more successful Football club. Affiliations or “Freundschaften” are common among German fan groups, arguably the best known being Hertha-Karlsruhe and Bayern-Carl Zeiss Jena (feel free to disagree in comments). The strong affinity between recent DFB Pokal victors SG Eintracht Frankfurt and BSG Chemie Leipzig is celebrated by both fan groups, with graffiti and sticker designs openly declaring their allegiance to one another. It would be difficult to describe Eintracht Frankfurt fans as holistically left-wing; the club is followed by fans whose political stances vary. But the Eagles’ Ultras define themselves primarily as left-wing, and fans of both Chemie and Eintracht attend matches of the other.
Chemie’s left-wing traditions have allowed its popularity to extend across the city. Again, similarly to the Sankt Pauli area of Hamburg, certain districts of innercity Leipzig that accommodate punks and anarchists have become synonymous with the counter-culture. These individuals use Chemie Leipzig as a vehicle to express their politics and alternative lifestyle choice. And again, just like Sankt Pauli, the club culture of resistance and defiance has elevated it to the status of cult Football club. Chemie’s ideals are more important than the actual Football, which is why it has become so popular.
Leipzig in itself is a city that seduces and thrills in equal measure. The home of Bach has been synonymous with music and poetry for centuries, while its architectural beauty, plentiful nightlife and rich sporting history ensure its popularity with the younger generations. Leipzig deserves to be on your “to-do” list, and Lok and Chemie, spectacular clubs in their own right, further add to its character. You don’t have to sell out to commerce to enjoy Football in this most excellent of cities….