13 November 2016. Leipzig, Germany. 

The Bundesliga might be taking a week off for the international break but on a crisp, bright Sunday morning, police in the eastern German city of Leipzig are preparing for their biggest security operation of the season.

While RB Leipzig sit level on points with Bayern Munich at the top of the Bundesliga, the city’s two traditional sides, BSG Chemie Leipzig and 1. FC Lokomotive Leipzig have been drawn together in the quarter-final of the regional cup – the Sachsenpokal.

It’s the first time the two rivals have met in a competitive match under their current names since 1985 and police have erected a ring of steel around Chemie Leipzig’s Alfred-Kunze-Sportpark in the north-eastern suburb of Leutzsch. 

2,000 officers in riot gear, a water cannon, a helicopter and armoured vehicles have been deployed to keep the peace in one of the most notorious derbies in German football.

Anybody found in the area surrounding the stadium who is not in possession of one of the 4,999 match tickets will face arrest, while the two clubs, in cooperation with the local authorities and police, have issued 150 banning orders for known football hooligans.

It’s an unprecedented security operation for a match between two semi-professional sides (‘Lok’ play in Germany’s fourth tier, Chemie in the fifth), the necessity of which goes some way to explaining the controversial arrival of RB Leipzig in the city.

Back in time – Slow decline

Successful in the former German Democratic Republic (Chemie won the old East German Oberliga twice while Lok reached the final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1987, losing to Ajax), the two clubs struggled to adapt to the free-market Bundesliga system following German reunification in 1990 and joined the likes of Dresden, Rostock, Magdeburg and Chemnitz in a rapid descent down the pyramid. 

In the ‘real and existing socialism’ of the GDR, ‘amateur’ footballers were delegated and assigned to clubs at the behest of the ruling SED party. When the Berlin Wall fell, top East German players and managers headed West on highly disadvantageous contracts negotiated by economically naive eastern clubs for whom the utopian ‘amateur’ football of East Germany quickly became ‘real and existing’ amateur football in the lower leagues.

Attendances plummeted accordingly. Having once attracted crowds of over 100,000 in the 1950s (the two Leipzig clubs hold a German attendance record which endures to this day) Lok and Chemie quickly found themselves playing in front of a few thousand fans each. 

Football wasn’t the only area of East German life which suffered following reunification. Formerly state-owned industries and businesses also relocated westwards and thousands of East Germans, whose employment and income had been guaranteed by the state for fifty years, suddenly found themselves jobless in a strange, new, capitalist economy.

Despite substantial government support, which still causes some resentment among West German tax payers, unemployed East Germans found the vacant spaces on their cities’ empty football terraces to be an ideal platform to express their increasingly extreme politics.

Leipzig was no exception. Regardless of what league the city’s clubs played in or the names they played under, meetings between Lok and Chemie in the 1990s and early 2000s were frequently marred by politically-motivated violence and hooliganism. 

Regular football fans opted to stay away and support Bundesliga teams from afar instead. A visitor to Leipzig in the early 2000s was more likely to spot fans wearing Borussia Dortmund or Bayern Munich jerseys than those of Lok or Chemie.

2009 – enter Red Bull 

Into this sporting vacuum stepped Austrian energy drink manufacturer Red Bull in 2009. Wanting to expand their portfolio of football franchises, they first enquired about a takeover of Chemie Leipzig. When the club refused, Red Bull purchased the playing license of another local fifth tier side, SSV Makranstädt, instead, renaming them RasenBallsport Leipzig (brand names are banned in German football) or RB Leipzig for short.

The team plays in the same red and white colours as its sister franchises Red Bull Salzburg, the New York Red Bulls and Red Bull Ghana, and moved into the city’s historic Zentralstadion – renamed the Red Bull Arena. Chemie play in green and white, the colours of the state of Saxony, while Lok play in blue and yellow, the colours of the city of Leipzig.

Despite the unashamedly commercial nature of the entire Red Bull venture, which has attracted vicious criticism from fans of more traditional clubs across Germany, it’s not hard to see the attraction given the security operation surrounding the derby between Chemie and Lok.

Speaking to locals in the centre of Leipzig the evening before the match, many said they were pleased with the presence of RB Leipzig, since the city now has a Bundesliga team to support.

“Lok and Chemie are both great, historic clubs but I can’t be bothered with all the nonsense that goes on off the pitch anymore,” said one football fan, who used to watch both clubs in his younger years. “I just hope tomorrow goes off peacefully.”

“RB fans come across as more serious in comparison to the Lok and Chemie fans, who still behave like children,” opined another, while others were quick to mention the potential for violence. 

Chemie and Lok are well aware of the problems which have plagued their clubs – issues which drove both into liquidation in the 2000s before being resurrected by loyal supporters.

“To an extent, we only have ourselves to blame,” admits the Lok president Jens Kesseler. “We underestimated the violence and right-wing extremism surrounding the club and didn’t act against it as rigorously as we do now.

“The image of Lok as a right-wing club, a Nazi club, as we were called, was obviously hugely damaging and we underestimated the extent to which that image had taken hold in the city.”

Lok games were long considered unsuitable environments to take family members or children to watch football. On one occasion, right-wing fans organised themselves into the shape of a swastika on the terrace while hooligans unveiled a banner at an away game reading: “We are Lokists, murderers and fascists.” Regular supporters understandably stayed away. 

“I’ve heard so many people say: ‘I used to go to Lok but then all the violence and right-wing chants and banners started,’” recalls Kesseler, “so they stopped going and now they go to RB.”

Now, while Chemie aim to join their neighbours in the fourth tier, Lok are aiming for a return to professional football in the third division by 2020. Both have been dragged back up to their current positions thanks to the selfless efforts of volunteers who believe in their clubs and simply won’t let them die.

Kesseler, who himself drifted away from Lok in the 1990s as a result of the increasing violence but returned as treasurer and has been president since 2015, has presided over an upturn in fortunes at the club. 

“We’re now much more positively received in Leipzig,” says Kesseler. “Our image is improving, we have next to no incidents in our stadium and we have a passionate, lively, independent fan culture. We’re moving forwards.”

09:00. -3°C. Derby day. 

At 1. FC Lok Leipzig’s Bruno-Plache-Stadion, just south of the city centre in Probstheida, the away supporters begin to arrive. Dressed predominantly in black and sporting blue and yellow hats, scarves and other accessories against the cold, they huddle around sipping coffee and beer as they await the arrival of the buses which will ferry them across town under police escort.

The mood is tense. In the absence of Bundesliga football, the match is a chance for both Lok and Chemie to show that peaceful, normal football is possible in Leipzig without Red Bull. Any semblance of trouble would be a financial and PR disaster for both clubs. 

Lok have handed out over 100 banning orders to known hooligans in recent years in an effort to improve the club’s image and it’s unlikely that any of them have been able to access any of the 750 away tickets. There’s little more the clubs can do and, as events leading up to the derby have shown, any trouble is likely to take place away from the stadium. 

Back in January last year, hooligans claiming to be associated to Lok were among the neo-Nazi thugs who smashed up shops in the alternative Leipzig district of Connewitz, while left-wing Chemie supporters besieged a Lok fan in his flat, demanding his scarves and other club memorabilia before assaulting him. 

The week before the derby, approximately 100 black-clad Lok ultras filmed themselves breaking into Chemie’s Alfred-Kunze-Sportpark before posing on the main terrace with a banner reading “Good night green-white”.

The following week, commuters spotted green effigies bearing the letter C hanging by their necks from various bridges across Leipzig as tensions were stoked ahead the game. Police announced that Lok fans will not be permitted to stage a march to the match since they could not guarantee that ticketless or banned fans would not be present.

Lok had initially requested that the game be moved into the Red Bull Arena but Chemie refused to relinquish home advantage. The costs of renting the stadium would have been around €70,000 – a huge sum they could not afford, despite the prospect of increased ticket sales. Privately, Lok reckoned that they alone could have sold up to 10,000 tickets for a match of such magnitude. The modern arena would have been easier to police, too.

“It would have been a great football festival [in the Arena],” said Lok manager Heiko Scholz, who played as a striker for both clubs back in the GDR before spells with Bayer Leverkusen and Werder Bremen in the 1990s. “We could show everyone that Leipzig has so much more football to offer than just Red Bull.”

President Kesseler agreed, saying: “We would have had a lot more fans backing us but I can understand why Chemie want to play at home. On a better pitch and in such an atmosphere, they would struggle more than us.”

As the convoy of buses crosses the city, bemused Sunday morning walkers stop to stare and take photographs. “Yes, it’s us, the evil ones!” joke the Lok fans, before discussing what the onlookers must be thinking to themselves. 

“But we’re in the Bundesliga now, aren’t we? We’re the top of the league, aren’t we?” The fans emphasise each repetition of the word “we” – they clearly don’t believe it’s an appropriate pronoun to use in connection with RB Leipzig, a club which boasts a grand total of 17 members, all of whom are employees of the Austrian firm. “Scheiß RB!” are the shouts as the convoy passes the old Zentralstadion, now kitted out in red and white Red Bull advertising.  

1300 – Kick-off

The buses reach their destination and the fans are escorted into the away end well away from the home fans. A police water cannon pulls up behind them but the 750 remain peaceful, doing their best to make themselves heard against the 2,000 home fans packed onto Chemie’s towering Norddamm terrace behind the opposite goal – Chemie’s “Diablos” ultras have clearly been boosted by a visit from their friends at Eintracht Frankfurt.

“BSG Chemie Leipzig” reads the home choreography displayed ahead of kick-off, before the huge sheets are reversed to taunt the visitors with the phrase “Gruppo Anti-Lok”. But aside from a few provocative banners and chants, the atmosphere remains peaceful. 

On the pitch, however, both teams fly into tackles right from the start. Chemie are not the first cup team to try to wind up higher ranked opposition but it works, as Lok struggle to impose their technical superiority on a hard, uneven pitch in the beautiful old stadium.

“Most of their players are local lads and Chemie fans who will be really up for this,” says Ramon Hofmann, a Lok midfielder who hasn’t made the squad following his return from injury.

“A lot of our players have been brought in from other clubs. They understand the meaning of the derby but they mustn’t let themselves get agitated.”

But that’s exactly what happens midway through the second half as the Lok defender Steffen Fritzsch sees red for a late challenge on the Chemie captain Stefan Karau. Nevertheless, the hosts are unable to make their advantage count and with the score still 0-0 after 90 minutes, the 99th Leipzig Derby goes into extra time. 

The Norddamm gets louder and Chemie come close three times – including a thunderbolt free-kick which flies back off the post. Finally, with a minute to play, the ball falls to Lok’s Japanese playmaker Hiro Watahiki on the edge of the Chemie box and his shot is helped into the back of the net by the goalkeeper Markus Dölz. The away end erupts.

There’s barely enough time to restart the game before the final whistle goes and the Lok players sprint towards the away end, jumping onto the fences to celebrate with their ecstatic supporters. The defeated Chemie players remain on the field to thank the home fans, whose songs get louder still in appreciation of their team’s efforts.

“The fans have been absolutely impeccable today,” said the Chemie manager Dietmar Demuth afterwards. “Respect to both sides.”

“It was a unique atmosphere, I’ve never experienced anything like it,” added the Lok defender Robert Zicker. 

“The most important thing is that everything went peacefully – that means a lot,” said the Lok manager Heiko Scholz before adding, almost as an afterthought: “Obviously, we’re delighted with the result too because we hadn’t won in six matches. But it was so important to send a message today and to show that another football is possible in this city.”

The Lok president Kesseler was also relieved at the result both on and off the pitch.

“There was certainly tension beforehand,” he said. “Firstly, from a sporting perspective because it’s so hard to win here. Chemie are strong at home and it showed. It was a real battle between two evenly-matched teams.

“I really hoped that both sets of fans would be sensible because there are a lot of people in this city who were just waiting for something to happen. That would have been disastrous for both clubs.

“But I think everyone understood that today and, with the help of the police, we had an emotional, hard-fought, riveting derby. It was a real throw-back to the old days when over 100,000 would watch these matches!

According to local broadcaster MDR, 200,000 watched live on television. Over 300 ticketless Lok fans followed the match on a big screen at their own ground. 

“It’s incredible how many people watched the game and it shows how well-known this derby is,” said Kesseler. “The fact that we were able to win is a huge boost.”

The future

Chemie recovered to win their next match 2-0 and promotion to the fourth tier remains a realistic aim. Lok won three of their next five games to solidify their position in mid-table and will be confident of securing a third successive season in the Regionalliga. 

“Our vision is still to reach the third division by 2020,” said Kesseler. “It won’t be easy but we’ve started to put measures in place to boost income and give us a bigger playing budget. There are a lot of good teams in this league with good players and a lot more money than us. We have to be able to compete.”

A favourable draw in the cup means Lok are now favourites to make the final – where they would enjoy home advantage against either Chemnitz or Zwickau, both professional 3. Liga sides. The cup winners are rewarded with a money-spinning place in next season’s DFB Pokal.

“We desperately want to be in that final,” says Kesseler. “The chance to win the cup at home would be a huge sporting highlight for our club and a huge financial boost too.”

Off the pitch, things are finally looking up for Lok. Since promotion in 2015, membership has grown to over 2,100 and Lok are keen point out that this technically makes them the biggest football club in the city.

“Our fans have a completely different philosophy to Red Bull, where people just go to experience an event. At Lok, our supporters can directly influence the way their club is run. I think this is important because sports clubs have a social responsibility to spread communal values and educate young people.”

For Kesseler, it’s this fan culture and feeling of belonging to a club which distinguishes Lok from RB. 

“We want passionate, authentic football in a club which has a life of its own and isn’t dependent on an external company. Lok is pure football – and not just an event. That’s the difference.”

For too long, both Lok and Chemie neglected serious issues within their clubs and allowed themselves to become embroiled in a vicious circle of extremism and violence. Leipzig’s traditional clubs must shoulder some of the blame for making their city such an attractive location for Red Bull’s latest venture.

But November’s derby showed that when both clubs act sensibly and take their responsibilities as football clubs seriously, another football is possible in Leipzig. 

“We want to rebuild something that was once legendary in Leipzig,” said Kesseler. “There is room for three clubs in this city.”