German fans start to feel love for RB Leipzig

Augsburg fans hold up anti-Leipzig banners -- detractors of the Red Bull-owned team are now in a small minority

The name 'RB Leipzig' remains a red rag for most hardcore German fans, but the controversial Bundesliga club is winning over mainstream supporters, and rightly so, says Michael Ballack.

RB Leipzig are second only to Bayern Munich in the German top flight and on course to qualify directly for the group stages of next season's Champions League.

They are the only club from a city in former East Germany currently in the Bundesliga.

Founded in 2009, when Red Bull took over a German Football League (DFL) licence, they are by far the youngest club in Germany's top flight.

Backed by the energy drinks giants, RB Leipzig resisted the urge to buy big-name stars for their first season, snapping up young talent to nurture -- with impressive results.

Playing eye-catching football, their young squad opened the club's first season at the top level with a Bundesliga-record 13-match unbeaten run.

They picked off established names like Borussia Dortmund, Hamburg, Schalke and Wolfsburg in the process.

But they have received anything but a warm welcome in Germany's top tier.

Fans of rival clubs have shown given them the cold shoulder -- or indeed worse -- due to the perceived commercialism they are seen to represent.

In August, a severed bull's head was thrown from the stands during a German Cup game in Dresden.

In September, home fans staged a sit-down protest in front of the RB team bus which meant kick-off had to be delayed before their game at Cologne.

And in February, hooligans in Dortmund attacked Leipzig supporters, including families with children, which led to the hosts being fined by the German Football Association (DFB).

The animosity was intensified after Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke last year described Leipzig as a club "performing" to sell cans of drink.

But the resentment and even pure hatred Leipzig have been shown by diehard 'Ultras' here is not reflected by mainstream football supporters, according to a new survey.

- 'Refreshing' style -

"It is acknowledged that refreshing football is being played in Leipzig and that their fans know how to behave," Gunter A. Pilz, an expert on German football fan culture, told SID, an AFP subsidiary.

"These factors can positively change the image that a billionaire from Austria came to create a club solely for advertising purposes."

In a survey of 5,950 fans from Bundesliga clubs across Germany by market research company LSC Management, more than three quarters said they feel RB Leipzig have enriched the Bundesliga.

Some 94.5 percent believe the club is doing a good job.

"As a result, the opinions towards RB Leipzig are far more positive than what has been presented by a marginal group of so-called 'fans'," concluded the survey.

"Even among the 'Ultras', there are quite a few who acknowledge this," added Pilz.

"There will, however, always be those who, in their fight against the commercialisation of RB, see them as the enemy."

Leipzig coach Ralph Hasenhuettl is pleased his squad are winning people over after regularly experiencing hostility from opposing fans at away games.

"I am delighted that we are able to win fans over through the way we play," he said.

"We're pleased that we are able to offer people a nice weekend experience."

Ex-Germany captain Ballack believes some of the resentment shown towards Leipzig is just jealousy at Red Bull's investment in the club and the city.

"I think it is an debate based on envy," Ballack, who hails from Chemnitz, near Leipzig, told magazine Sport Bild.

"Every city would see themselves as lucky if a sponsor like Red Bull, with someone like (co-founder billionaire) Dietrich Mateschitz, would come and provide economic support for the local club."

A separate survey of 1,000 fans ranked Leipzig as the seventh most popular club in Germany, another indication of the rising support RB are nurturing.

Leipzig's fans promote a non-violent, family-friendly culture.

As one banner fittingly read during their recent home defeat to Hamburg: "Better to be obsessed with great sport (football), than by hate and envy."