PSG vs. RB Leipzig: Welcome to the Future of Football

Tonight in the Champions League, a Gulf dictatorship takes on a sports drink company for a place in the final. It's a symbol of a game that is losing all connection to the communities that built it.

Tonight, corporate wealth will face off against sovereign wealth for the chance to win €19m in prize money. Or to put it in more conventional terms, RB Leipzig will play Paris Saint-Germain for a place in the Champions League final. It is no exaggeration to say that it will be a football game unlike any other in the sport’s history.

PSG are owned by the ruling family of Qatar (via a state-sponsored investment fund), and are probably the wealthiest sports institution on the planet. Three years ago they bought the Brazilian star Neymar for €222m, a fee that didn’t just break the record for the most expensive transfer in history but more than doubled it. The Qatari state’s lavish outlay on PSG is generally recognised to be a soft-power project whose ultimate aim is to increase the country’s profile and political muscle in western Europe, and to polish a reputation tarred by a lamentable human rights record. 

Their opponents on Tuesday are a side project too, albeit of a different kind. Founded in 2009, RB Leipzig are funded by Red Bull, the imperial energy drinks company whose ever-expanding portfolio includes two Formula One teams, three football clubs and a huge array of extreme sports events.

RB Leipzig’s rise – from the German fifth division to the European elite in little more than a decade – has borne all the hallmarks of an aggressive corporate venture: a cunning strategy, huge early growth, and bucketloads of cash. It has also been accompanied at every stage by raging protests from rival fans, who see their existence as an affront to the notion of football clubs as community assets. The will go into Tuesday’s game as the plucky underdogs, but as Dolly Parton once said: “it costs a lot of money to look this cheap.”

While 22 players chase a football around on the pitch, what we’ll really be seeing is the meeting of two very modern ownership models: a propaganda project vs a marketing construct, state vs startup, Qatar vs Red Bull. Is this a window into football’s future?

How about a window into its present. After all, these two clubs are simply the most glaring examples of the sport’s gradual hijacking by the super-rich. Or to put it another way: if you have a problem with the corporate capitalism of Leipzig, then you should really take against every major club of the modern era, where cynical merchandising and endless sponsorship deals have become the norm, and where sporting success increasingly exists to feed commercial success rather than vice versa.

Likewise, if it’s the blood money of repressive regimes that bothers you, then you’ll have noticed that many of these countries (or their state airlines, same difference) have for some years now bestowed their names on football’s most famous shirts and stadiums, and that the next World Cup will be held in one of them. Indeed, the tactic is already so widespread that it has its own name: sportswashing. Besides, as any right-thinking Newcastle fan will tell you, it’s not only foreign wealth that’s morally tarnished. There’s plenty of dirty money closer to home.

And yet, Tuesday’s game does feel altogether new. Leipzig, for a start, are a truly unique case. Other major clubs may have become commandeered by corporate interests, but this is the first one purpose-built to serve them. Nor has any club shown such contempt for well-meaning regulations as Leipzig, whose formation exploited a loophole in German football’s “50+1” rule, a legislation ensuring that fans hold a majority of the ownership and retain voting rights, and exists to deter rich investors from treating clubs as personal property. Most clubs have many thousands of members; Leipzig has only 17 (all of whom are Red Bull employees or associates), and reserves the right to reject new applicants.

The one thing more hostile than actually breaking the rules is obeying them to the letter while corrupting their spirit, and Leipzig followed the same MO when deciding on the club’s name, which German football rules state must not carry any sponsorship. The prefix RB, then – which technically stands for RasenBallsport (“lawn ball sports”), although we all know what it really means – feels like a smirking two-fingered salute at the idea of football as sacrosanct from commercialisation.

And as such, two-fingered salutes have been among the friendlier gestures aimed at Leipzig from opposition fans over the years: in 2016 Dynamo Dresden supporters registered their disgust by throwing a severed bull’s head on to the pitch. The German football magazine 11Freunde sees RB Leipzig in much the same way that China sees Taiwan, which is not say: not at all. They have resolved not to give any coverage to Tuesday’s game.

PSG have not quite inspired that level of dissent, although the unbridled glee that has met their previous big-stage defeats says a lot about how they’re thought of. If their quarter-final tie against Atalanta – the high-punching Italian side put together on a relative shoestring – was seen as a battle for football’s soul, then maybe this game is best described as its auctioning-off. 

There is nuance here. Leipzig compete in a league where the same team, Bayern Munich, have won the title for eight years on the trot. German football is crying out for competition. Leipzig are threatening to provide some. And as far as sportswashing goes, well, it’s a two-way street. The involvement of these regimes in high-profile global sports has prompted scrutiny, which has in turn led to a certain degree of reform.

The issue of workers’ rights in Qatar, for instance, was put under the international spotlight because of the World Cup and in 2017, after mounting pressure, the country signed an agreement with the UN International Labour Organisation and has passed several pieces of legislation aimed at benefiting migrant workers (although it’s fair to say there’s plenty more progress to be made on that front). 

Then there’s the small matter of the fans. In Leipzig, the club has for the most part been adopted wholeheartedly by locals in a town that has been starved of high-level football for decades. They support the team the same way as any other set of fans and largely see the Red Bull corporation as a means to an end rather than the entity they’re cheering on.

Likewise, PSG fans will tell you that they support a club that existed long before football became a laundromat for tyrants. I have sat among the ultras in the Parc des Princes, where the air reeks of weed and whiskey, and it’s a deafeningly visceral experience. If you’re looking for proof of football’s creeping soullessness, you won’t find it there. 

On the one hand, this mitigates the self-interested shenanigans. On the other, it’s precisely the point. It’s these very fans – with their chants, their banners, their emotional investment – that provide football with the cultural capital being leveraged by the boardroom power-brokers. Sure, we detain, torture and disappear prisoners, but look at the joy we’ve brought to Manchester City supporters.

In the most generous view, the fans are simply collateral beneficiaries of schemes that, at heart, have very little to do with football at all. Less generously, they can be seen as the truly exploited party here: the people whose hardbitten devotion to the cause lends these cynical power-projects credibility – and all the while paying good money for the privilege.

The fans may end up having a good time, but don’t be fooled into thinking their interests carry much weight with the men in charge. It feels fitting, then, that tonight’s game will take place in front of no fans at all.