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RB Leipzig’s growing influence extends to women’s game

  • April 19, 2023

Serenaded by a boisterous fan block, Leipzig’s players were reluctant to leave the pitch long after the final whistle. They had just lost the biggest game in club history, but there was still cause for celebration.

“Of course, it’s incredible to be able to celebrate earning promotion despite getting knocked out of the cup,” said Leipzig captain Johanna Kaiser following their last-minute German Cup semifinal exit at the hands of Freiburg. 

While the 1-0 defeat meant Leipzig missed out on becoming the first second-division side to reach the German Cup final in decades, it happened on the same day they officially achieved their long-term aim of securing promotion to the Frauen Bundesliga.

“We’re so excited about going up, the feeling is massive,” said a beaming Kaiser.

A steady path to the top

Promotion has long felt like an inevitability for Leipzig, who have carried top-flight aspirations since RB launched a women’s team in 2016. Their first season was a torrid run through the fourth division, fueled by roster made up of players poached from now-defunct FFV Leipzig and a sprinkling of prospects from RB’s existing youth teams.

From there, things slowed down and while they have significantly more resources than much of their competition thanks to owners Red Bull, investment in women’s football tends to be less flashy than on the men’s side of things.

“I think people assume because the men’s team is behind Leipzig there is a ton of money involved, but it’s not as extreme as people think,” Leipzig assistant coach Anja Mittag told DW.

Anja Mittag playing for Germany
Anja Mittag scored 50 goals for Germany in 158 appearances.Image: Anke Fleig/SVEN SIMON/picture alliance

Mittag, a World Cup-winning former Germany international who initially joined Leipzig as a player and assistant coach in 2019, isn’t complaining about the pace of progress.

“It’s about growing it slowly and not pushing too quickly. If you just take over a [top-tier] team you might have to rush things because success comes too quickly. This way we can go step by step and build sustainably,” she continued.

After two-straight third place finishes in the second division, this strategy has finally borne fruit and delivered a ticket to the big show with six games left to play.

More attention, mild scrutiny?

Leipzig’s success in the league and a fairytale cup run that saw them knock out Bundesliga sides Frankfurt and Essen have ignited interest in the team. Many of the 1,800 in attendance for the Freiburg match admitted their interest began this season and the hope is that attention levels will continue to rise.

RB have long been the most controversial club in German football. And while critics may see the increasingly-successful women’s side as just another jewel in Red Bull’s continent-spanning football empire, criticism has generally been significantly more muted than it was as the men’s team climbed up the leagues.

Leipzig fan Jörg recounted Union Berlin fans producing critical banners for a third-tier encounter, but noted that criticism of the women’s team is “not as present and it’s also not at the same level as with the men, with all the stress that entails,” he told DW.

While one opponent boycotted a match in the club’s inaugural season, this was largely due to frustration with Leipzig acquiring players from a cash-strapped Bundesliga 2 side to play in the fourth division, not necessarily due to the club’s structure. The virulent, at-times violent response to Leipzig’s initial rise to the men’s Bundesliga would be unthinkable in the women’s game.

This is partly due to stark differences in fan culture between men’s and women’s football in Germany. And as Anja Mittag pointed out, the financial reality facing the women’s game means investment is seen less skeptically.

“[The broader response to Leipzig’s women’s team] has been generally pretty cool. In my experience, people from other clubs are largely supportive and wish us well,” she told DW. While higher profile Bundesliga matches against bigger teams could lead to increased criticism and confrontation with RB, it seems unlikely to escalate much further than it already has. 

Leipzig’s arrival to the Bundesliga also reflects a broader trend in German women’s football, where historic, women’s-only clubs have struggled to compete. FFC Frankfurt, one of the most decorated sides in European football, merged with Eintracht in 2020 to stay afloat, while fellow former powerhouses Turbine Potsdam look set for relegation, meaning Leipzig would replace them as the only Bundesliga team in eastern Germany.

“Having the men’s team behind us makes us sustainable, and it could be good for the Bundesliga as well,” said Mittag.

Grand ambitions or good enough?

For now any thoughts about the future are squarely aimed at the pitch. “We’re really proud of ourselves and what we accomplished. We’ve demonstrated we’re capable of playing in the first division. Not to mention winning promotion so early in the season. I think that sends a real message for next season,” said Johanna Kaiser.

Women's football, RB Leipzig - SC Freiburg
RB’s deep pockets means the sky’s the limit for their women’s sideImage: Bert Harzer/Eibner/IMAGO

Just how they fare once they reach the Bundesliga, and if the women’s team will mimic the men’s in challenging for titles, will be determined by how much management continues to invest.

“Of course we want to get to the Bundesliga and stay there. But from there, it depends on the club’s goals a bit. Do you want to be a Champions League team or is it okay to stay in the middle of the table? So we need to develop long-term goals,” Mittag told DW.

Leipzig’s assistant coach also hedged her bets towards immediate Bundesliga glory. “We won’t be beating Wolfsburg or Munich next season, it won’t happen that fast,” she went on, but if Red Bull flex their considerable financial muscle, it might not be long until beating Wolfsburg or Bayern is a realistic proposition.

Edited by: James Thorogood

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