ESPN’s lead Bundesliga commentator Derek Rae gets to the bottom of why RB Leipzig and Union Berlin — who lock horns on Saturday at 12:30 pm ET (stream live on ESPN+) — represent a relationship between opposites that has become ever more hostile.
Two football clubs based in the often-still-overlooked eastern part of Germany would, you might think, have some shared sense of place and culture. That might be true of teams from the former Deutsche Demokratische Republik, but considering RB Leipzig (as previously discussed in this space) didn’t exist until 2009, when Red Bull took over a fifth-tier side, a different perception applies. They might be in the East but are most definitely not of it, many will argue. Leipzig the city was simply a convenient staging post for the business of marketing an energy drink. RB Leipzig in this sense are distinct from the smaller but historically important clubs in the area, Lokomotive and Chemie.
Union, like them or loathe them, are a club rooted in a particular community, that of Koepenick in southeast Berlin. Think again if you imagine a team synonymous with the new, shiny, rebuilt part of Berlin. Die Eisernen (The Iron Ones) are local and unpretentious in their feel with a small, atmospheric stadium underpinned by the tradition of standing, requiring a pleasant walk through a forest en route. The irony is that this emphasis on localism has attracted new, international fans, who see the Union experience as something of a holy grail antidote to the most painful ills of modern football.
RB Leipzig and Union Berlin might be polar opposites, but a shared experience does come into play here. Much of the FCU-RBL tension has been fueled by occupying the same division, whether the 2. Bundesliga starting in 2014 or the Bundesliga itself since 2019, when Union, with a modest budget, stunned most observers by crashing the top-flight party against the odds, overcoming VfB Stuttgart in the relegation playoff.
Most of the initial needling came from the Union side: deliberately omitting the RB Leipzig logo from the matchday magazine and replacing it with that of forerunner club, SSV Markranstadt, or Union fans observing a coordinated atmosphere boycott in the first 15 minutes of matches against RBL , a habit that continues.
Last week, when Union, right before a DFB-Pokal match against VfL Wolfsburg, failed in their audacious bid to sign Spanish star Isco, RB Leipzig’s social media account somewhat provocatively asked about his absence from the starting XI. “Isco?” was met by a response from the Union account, “Tradition?” Ouch.
It’s true that not many members of the German fan scene have a fondness for RB Leipzig, although at executive board level, this feeling has moderated to a large extent. RBL have become part of the fixtures and fittings and to some, represent hope of making the competitive situation at the top of the Bundesliga more compelling.
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Union’s longtime president Dirk Zingler and his right-hand man Christian Arbeit have been conspicuous in not extending an olive branch to RBL, rather, if anything, stirring the pot and by extension, the drama.
There is unanimous respect for the Union football operation, though, run by the astute Oliver Ruhnert and for head coach Urs Fischer. Both have made a little go a long way in relative terms, and Leipzig’s new sporting chief Max Eberl has been especially conciliatory in acknowledging that undeniable fact.
Ruhnert consistently adds to his impressive list of signing hits while recording very few misses. Julian Ryerson, for example, was plucked from Viking Stavanger in 2018 to little fanfare. Last month he left for Borussia Dortmund, but not before Union received a transfer fee around 30 times what they paid for him. The signing of this campaign, meanwhile, has arguably been Dutch defender Danilho Doekhi, who has contributed with four goals in ten games.
Fischer may someday hear the siren call of a bigger club and respond to it, but for now, he’s living the coaching dream at a place where the Swiss tactician is truly appreciated.
Consider that Union are breathing down the necks of league leaders Bayern Munich, just a point behind. They’ve reeled off five successive wins in all competitions, the last couple thanks to late resilience. What’s more, the trend is Union’s friend when it comes to Leipzig with die Eisernen winning the past four league meetings. If they can make it five, they’ll be entering new territory in their own Bundesliga story against any one side.
Leipzig have their own impressive statistics, though, boasting an 18-game unbeaten run in all competitions stretching back to mid-September, and that includes the Champions League. Marco Rose’s team are currently having to do it without Christopher Nkunku and Dani Olmo, and on Saturday will likely be minus Willi Orban, who has been warmly applauded by everyone in German football for selflessly making a stem cell donation this week with the potential to save the life of someone else.
Leipzig pulled out all the stops to beat Union in the semifinal of last season’s DFB-Pokal in rousing fashion, en route to lifting their first major trophy. Yet that was hard work, as it frequently seems to be for them against Fischer’s dogged band of overachievers.
Get ready for an epic Saturday Top gamebut perhaps be circumspect if you want to dub it an Cheese duel (a duel between Eastern clubs). Not everyone views it that way.