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Official Review by Jordan White, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
The ZentralStadion was built in 1956 as a flagship stadium in the former East German city of Leipzig with a capacity of 100,000. The stadium was an uncovered, bowl-shaped arena with a large athletics track that was stylistically representative of stadia of this era.
As the years passed, the budget for maintenance of the stadium declined with its increasing disuse and it fell into a state of disrepair. It was not until 1997 - long before the inception of the stadium's current tenants - that a decision was taken to renovate the Zentralstadion as a purpose-built football stadium. With Germany hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2006, the newly-renovated Zentralstadion would be East Germany's only host stadium, bearing in mind that the Olympiastadion is located in West Berlin.
The new stadium was built within the old stadium meaning that some original features have been preserved, such as the external entrance on the east side of the stadium. Finding a bowl within a bowl is surprising and slightly disorientating, and a network of pathways and bridges links the original turnstile areas to the new stadium via the old terracing.
In 2009, a new club named RasenBallSport Leipzig was created. The name 'Red Bull Leipzig' was refused by the German Football Association (DFL) due to its obvious corporate branding. They bought over the license of SSV Markranstädt and from 2010, they became tenants of the Zentralstadion. The stadium was renamed the 'Red Bull Arena' as the Austrian drinks company bought the naming rights to the stadium.
The conception and subsequent rise of RB (RasenBallSport) Leipzig is a much-debated and highly contentious issue in German football. Clubs in the Bundesliga must follow the '50+1' rule, which (theoretically) ensures that no one person or company can own the majority of the club. Another facet of German football is that the fans have a say on how the club is run via open membership. RB Leipzig's commitment to meeting these criteria is often debated due to the prohibitively expensive nature of club membership, absence of voting rights for members and the corporate links of everybody on the RB Leipzig board.
RB Leipzig are undoubtedly the most disliked club in Germany among fans of other teams as they are perceived as a marketing vehicle for Red Bull more than a football club. Reasons for this include Red Bull’s attempts to buy over other clubs in Germany, including 1860 Munich, St Pauli and Fortuna Dusseldorf, suggesting that owning a club, any club, to expand the football marketing portfolio was the primary goal. They are also using another club in their portfolio, Red Bull Salzburg, as a feeder club, siphoning the best players from Salzburg to Leipzig with no transfer fee, much to the annoyance of the RB Salzburg fans.
Many fans have also been repelled by the non-organic nature of the club and its perceived absence of community and heritage. Add to that the huge sums of money the club has had to spend on players, creating something of an uneven playing field, and it's unsurprising that they ascended through the leagues very quickly.
However, there are those who believe that Red Bull investing in Leipzig is a win-win situation: Red Bull gains access to the Bundesliga and the expansion potential in and around Leipzig, while the town itself and its inhabitants gain a well-funded football club, bringing interest, trade and thousands of visitors to Leipzig.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
In the immediate environs of the stadium, the usual German fare of beer, Gluhwein, sausages and pretzels permeates the air and invites you to indulge. Many fans seem to prefer this option to eating in the stadium despite the prices being the same. Perhaps this is linked to the late kick off and immediate hunger, but the density of fans agglomerating around the perimeter of the stadium with supermarket beer and stall-bought Bratwurst is high.
Bratwurst, Frankfurter and Currywurst range from €2.50 to €3.50 euros with fries and hamburgers similarly priced. Soft drinks, including the club sponsor's product, are sold at €2, with beer at €3.50 for 40cl. Unusual for German football stadia, wine is also available for €4 euro with the seasonal warming 'stadionpunch' (gluhwein) costing €2.50. Teas and coffees are €2 euro.
For all the accusations levelled at RB Leipzig, their fans cannot be accused of not generating an excellent atmosphere. That they were playing against Schalke, whose travelling support is always numerous and noisy, simply added to the occasion. Despite the seats being distastefully made to look like a children's swimming pool, they are not so tightly packed that fans cannot jump around or move their arms. The magnificent roofs over each of the stands amplifiy the acoustics surprisingly well.
While there are tales of areas to avoid inside some East German stadia, such as the fankurves in Dresden, Magdeburg, Halle and Rostock, the arena is very family friendly all over. Such a high density of children can often mean that the octaves go up and the atmosphere cools but there was no evidence of that in this match being reviewed. That RB Leipzig had recently ascended to the top of the Bundesliga, surpassing all expectations, meant that the game was receiving more attention than may have been foreseen at the start of the season, and the match was sold out before any public sale.
The stadium provides a pillar-free environment, with no running track, ensuring excellent views all round as well as a good proximity to the pitch. The 'fansektor' for the Leipzig fans is behind the goals to the south side of the stadium, in sector 'B.'. This is where most of the noise and singing is orchestrated although it is less concentrated than at many German clubs, where the singers are all in one area. Here, the singing and participation is more diffuse.
RB Leipzig won this match 2-1 and scored in the second minute, extending the excellent pre-match atmosphere well into the first half. Even when Schalke equalised late in the first half, the home support did not diminish. Schalke's fans were loud both pre-match and until around the 70th minute, when they seemed to detect that their team were not going to find a way through.
Leipzig was heavily bombed during the Second World War by Allied Forces and one may have preconceptions of a city rebuilt under a communist regime lacking in charm or appeal. Yet, upon arriving in the city by rail, one steps into the largest railway station in the world (by floor area). This acts as a gateway of grandeur to an elegant, historic and beautiful city.
The stadium is around 25 minutes on foot from the railway station, although a plethora of trams lie in wait outside the station. However, as a visitor to Leipzig, it really is worth allowing an extra couple of hours to take in some of the city centre. While its seductive appeal may have been heightened by its Christmas Market, decorations and lighting and general buzz, Leipzig is nevertheless full of interesting architecture, a thriving café and bar scene and scars of history. Auerbach's Keller in the city centre is a fabulous authentic restaurant and bier halle, and is a venue in Goethe's play Faust, although its choice for vegetarians is rather limited.
The stadium is immediately adjacent to the Elsterbecken, an artificially created river basin and an indoor concert venue, and is across the road from the Federal Administrative Court of Germany. The view of the stadium from the bridge over the Elsterbecken is highly impressive at night when everything is illuminated.
Many German football fans criticise RB Leipzig fans, labelling them 'sell-outs,' 'plastic fans' and other such lazy insults. Many clubs have some kind of 'baggage,' be it religious, political or moral. RB Leipzig's baggage is their origins and their owners: it is not their fans.
A visit to the arena however brings you into a positive atmosphere of fans who are supporting a team, not a cause. That their songs are not interspersed with tales of previous triumphs or messages is irrelevant: they create an excellent noise supporting their team.
Part of the attraction of German football is the Pavlovian reactions of the fans to certain proceedings, such as the reading out of the first XI, the goalkeepers warming up or the arrival of the teams. This was in evidence in Leipzig as much as anywhere else in Germany. Yes, the 'RasenBallSport' display in the Fansektor when the teams graced the pitch was more Eurovision than Bundesliga, but they are trying. There were no covert attempts by the club to insert 'Red Bull' into any of the songs played through the speaker, although the adoption of the 'RB' chant is probably an accepted equilibrium for now.
The people of Leipzig have been starved of top-level football for a long time and, with its more traditional clubs like Lokomotive and Chemie languishing in the 4th and 5th tier of the German Football pyramid, many are throwing their vocal support fully behind RB Leipzig. As for the 'selling their souls' accusations, people can disagree with how a club is run while simultaneously accepting that they have excellent, non-violent fans inside a worthy stadium.
While there is some car parking space in close proximity to the stadium (only VIP parking underneath it), this is also shared by the concert arena. Therefore, if David Hasselhoff is in town, parking nearby is likely to be difficult. The stadium is so well served by the tram service, connecting a large and busy railway station, that taking the car almost seems more awkward. The roads were gridlocked upon leaving the stadium and drivers, frustrated by criss-crossing fans and lack of movement, looked as though they had had their evenings' ruined.
Trams 3, 4, 7, 8,13 and 15 all go past the stadium, whose closest stop is 'Waldplatz/Arena' and it takes 7 minutes from the Hauptbahnhof. Single tram fares are €2.60. It is a pleasant stroll from the train station to the stadium in dry weather and most people could do this in 30 minutes.
Leipzig does have its own airport, located on the outskirts between Leipzig and neighbouring Halle, although it seems to handle much less budget airline traffic than Berlin. An ICE train from Leipzig to Berlin takes around one hour.
While Leipzig is an inexpensive city in general, tickets to watch RB Leipzig range from cheap to prohibitive. Both fansektors behind the goals are cheap, with tickets €15 and €20 euro per match, although both of these stands are small and single-tiered. Seats in the principal stands along the length of the pitch vary from €30 for a place near the corner flag against the likes of Augsburg to €75 euro for a central seat against Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund. This is considerably more than other Bundesliga clubs with similarly sized stadia charge.
While the whole experience in itself is very enjoyable and the stadium both interesting and comfortable, the pricing strategy is a little reprehensible in a city whose average household salary is well below that found in the likes of Munich, Hamburg or Frankfurt. Many clubs in Germany have realised that in keeping season tickets cheap and day tickets affordable, fans are more likely to come and spend money on club merchandise and food and their business models and pricing strategies reflect this. RB Leipzig have taken the more British approach of higher ticket prices which has a deleterious effect on atmosphere. While RB Leipzig fans may be flocking to the ground at the moment, the need for changing this strategy will become apparent when the success dries up.
The ticket is accompanied by a small, pamphlet-like programme giving factoids and statistics about both RB Leipzig and the visitors. There is no stadium tour and obviously, given the age of the club, no museum. The main entrance to the original stadium has an authoritarian look about it and is interesting to look at, but not much else.
There were sprinklings of Red Bull emblazoned games and inflatables in the concourse leading to the main road but, in December, PR staff and inflatables get the cold shoulder from most fans.
RB Leipzig have already submitted tentative enquiries about increasing the capacity of the stadium and it would seem that, for the most part, the expansion potential is there. The attendances have increased proportionally to RB Leipzig's success and it is now very difficult to get a ticket at all.
This is an unusual and interesting stadium, both for its history and for what it is now, that is often omitted when German stadia are discussed. For those seeking modern comforts inside an historic and unusual venue, watching an excellent and exciting team in an underrated atmosphere, all set in a beautiful city, Leipzig is an excellent choice. While this club will always divide opinion, its stadium and fans are worthy of a visit.
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Mädler Passage, Grimmaische Str. 2-4
Leipzig, Saxony 04109
+49 (0)341 - 21610-0
Leipzig, Saxony 04105
+49 341 5933385
Martin Luther Ring 4-6
Leipzig, Saxony 04109
+49 341 1230