With the footballing world up-in-arms over of Red Bull (RB) Leipzig’s participation in the Bundesliga, it’s easy to forget that the city was once home to one of the most famous sides in Europe; whose fall from grace has been probably more well documented than any other in German history.
Lokomotive Leipzig used to play against Europe’s best. But in subsequent years they have become little more than a struggling pub side as their wealthier, but far less glamorous, neighbours grabbed much of the glory and gained most of the headlines – more often than not for the wrong reasons.
And unlike their new-found rivals, who only came to prominence in 2009 and have been accused of being nothing more than a marketing vehicle funded by global brand, Lokomotive have had to do it the hard way as they look to climb from the foot of the German footballing pyramid to rub shoulders with the game’s greats once more.
For those of a certain age FC Lokomotive Leipzig will always be regarded as a European football staple who competed in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, the UEFA Cup and UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, on the way to becoming a household name throughout the continent.
But despite their pedigree they have actually delivered very little. Established in 1896 as VfB Leipzig, they won the first German championship in 1903, only for two world wars and a fascist regime to come along stifle their progress, that’s before a string of financial problems came along and made things ten times worse.
VfB was unable to repeat their early success in the years between the two World Wars and, after something of a shambolic reorganisation of German football leagues in 1933, the club found itself languishing in one of 16 divisions. But whereas they achieved good results within their own league and won the German cup in 1937, they were unable to advance any further or climb up the footballing ladder.
Then came another hammer blow. The club, like many sporting organisations in Eastern Europe at that time, was dissolved by the occupying Allied authorities in the aftermath of the war and once again found themselves staring into the abyss.
But then came partitioning of the country, which, although unpopular, actually gave them a new lease of life after they were elevated to East Germany’s top flight, which allowed them to achieve modest playing against teams of a similar standard.
By the arrival of the mid 1960s and in the height of Communist rule football clubs were now seen as centres of high-level athletic excellence and it was during this period that Leipzig became known as Lokomotive Leipzig. Their new name even coincided with a welcome period of success as they won the East German Cup in 1976, 1981 and 1986.
Not content with domestic glory their cup wins and strong league standing also gave them the right to play in European competition against some of the continent’s elite and while never quite getting their hands on European silverware, their reputation these shores comes from a number of high-profile meetings with British sides.
During the 1973-74 season, Leipzig faced and beat Wolverhampton Wanderers and Ipswich Town on their way to the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup, before being beaten by Tottenham Hotspur. There were also encounters with Leeds United, Hibernian, Hearts, Swansea City and Arsenal around the same time.
In 1987 Lokomotive even reached the final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup where they faced Johan Cruyff’s Ajax. A piece of individual brilliance from Marco van Basten being the difference between the two sides as the Dutchman scored the decisive goal.
Beginning of the end
Butas always in their troubled history, just as Lokomotive appeared to be getting somewhere, yet another huge sociological shift would be the undoing of the club yet again. This time it was the reunification of Germany 1990 and a merger of the former East and West German leagues. With only a certain number of league places avaialable with twice the clubs vying for them, the side found themsleves playing in the newly formed Bundesliga 2.
But they FC Lokomotive were undeterred and even reclaimed the name VfB Leipzig in an effort to relive glories from a dim and distant past whilst also shaking off the shackles of the Communist regime.
It seemed to have an instant impact as a third-place finish in 1993 propelled them back to the top flight, but the optimism was short-lived thanks to a rock bottom finish which brought about a n abrupt return to the second division.
Over the next decade their demise continued. Successive relegations saw VfB slide down the divisions at an alarming rate and by 2004 they were bankrupted, their results annulled and the club disbanded. They may have survived the outbreak of two world wars a totalitarian communist regime and German unification but it seemed a lack of funds would finally spell the end for this once great institution.
— Matt Ford (@matt_4d) March 26, 2017
A new dawn
Not to be defeated a collection of the club’s supporters acted quickly to register the name Lokomotive Leipzig; meaning when VfB were finally wound up the club would once again be reborn.
But the name was all they had in common and the newly formed Lokomotive had no claim to VfB’s league place, meaning they were condemned to start the 2004/05 campaign in the third Kreisklasse – the 11th and lowest division in German football.
The club, who had been Germany’s first champions in 1903, won the German Cup in 1937 and who, in 1987, only lost to Ajax in the Cup Winners Cup final by an individual piece of brilliance from one of the best players in the world, would now be sharing park pitches on Sunday mornings with dog walkers and joggers.
It mattered not to those who cared most, however, and fans spent that summer fundraising and building a team for the future with more than 100 hopefuls turning up for trials in the beliefe that they could play for the new look club.
Their first game back was a national cup first-round clash with TSV Böhlitz Ehrenberg. Not quite the glamour of the European campaigns of the ’70s, but it coud be suggested that this was just as important a milestone. Only a few hundred were expected but in the end a crowd of nearly 4,000 turned up.
That first season saw average gates well into their thousands with a record gate of 12,421 being recorded for the game with Eintracht Großdeuben’s second side – as Leipzig looked to begin the long journey back to the top table of German football.
The club morphed once again when they merged with SSV Torgau, meaning the club were promoted to the German seventh tier in 2005/06 and, finishing as champions at their first attempt meant they qualified for the sixth tier as their seemingly unstoppable progress continued at an incredible pace.
The present day
In 2015 FC Lokomotive Leipzig employed the services of former Bayern Munich and Germany winger Mario Basler to be their director of sports and finished first in the southern group of the NOFV-Oberliga and returning to Regionalliga Nordost for the 2016/17 season – German football’s fourth tier. an incredible acheivement seeing how far they have come.
Fan ownership in Germany is the envy of many clubs around Europe but the phoenix like return of one of the nation’s oldest and most revered club has taken supporter involvement to a greater level than ever before. An irony really, seeing as Lokomotive’s cross-town rivals are seen by many as nothing more than a living, breathing advertising slogan for a globally famous energy drink company.