RB Leipzig may be the Bundesliga’s youngest club, but their fan base around the world is growing. bundesliga.com previously brought you the story of the RB fan club in Maputo, Mozambique, but this time we cross the Atlantic and make the 5,000-mile trip to Havana, the capital of Cuba for yet another fledgling Leipzig fan base.
On an island famed for its revolution, the population are beginning to take note of a club who started a revolution of their own in the Bundesliga with promotion in 2015/16, a ground-breaking second-place finish in 2016/17 and this season's UEFA Champions League campaign.
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The rise of Leipzig to the Bundesliga has brought a surge in support for the Eastern upstarts, and now the founding of another fan club on the other side of the world. In a country where baseball has been the people’s sport for so many years, football is beginning to take hold. Although satellite television is still a rarity in Cuba and internet connections are slow, Germany’s most popular sport, and the Bundesliga, are spreading like wildfire.
As was the case with Leipzig’s Mozambique fan club, the origins of the support in Havana go back to Cold War politics. Leipzig was the second-largest city in the former East Germany, which had a strong, comradely connection with Cuba under Fidel Castro. The former Cuban minister for industry, a certain Che Guevara, even paid a visit to Leipzig during his time in office.
The bond between the two nations took thousands of Cuban students to East Germany to attend university in a number of cities, including East Berlin, Leipzig, Rostock and Dresden. Those students are today behind the fledgling RB fan club in Havana.
Unlike many modern fan clubs, which tend to have younger memberships, the “Mei Leipzsch” club (named after the local Saxony pronunciation of “My Leipzig”), was founded by a group of men in their 60s who developed a connection with the city after their time in the former East during the 1980s.
One of the current members is 64-year-old Jesus Irsula, who took part in an exchange with Leipzig University, and spoke to bundesliga.com about the bond he has with the city, and now the club: “Cuba was not a football country at the time, but Germany was, so I began to follow the former GDR Oberliga. There were good teams, including in Leipzig.”
Roberto ‘Bobby’ Diaz was another to spend time in Leipzig and believes watching the Oberliga awoke an inner love of football in Cubans, who then developed a passion for their adopted city which has endured throughout the years.
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Both Jesus and Bobby were in love with Lokomotive Leipzig during their time in Germany and have seen a shift in sports back in Cuba. Baseball is on the decline with only one Major League Baseball game shown per week on television (not even live) as football is on the climb.
Live European football, including the Bundesliga, is shown on Cuban television. Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund are beginning to win over younger Cuban fans who have turned to football over baseball, but for the likes of Jesus and Bobby, their hearts remain in Leipzig.
They’ve always felt a sentimental link to the city that welcomed them and introduced them to football, and now they have the chance to combine their two passions in the form of Die Roten Bullen.
Jesus and Bobby have been marvelling at the swashbuckling, youthful style of RB on their rise to the Bundesliga's second-best team, with the likes of Timo Werner, Willi Orban, Naby Keita and Emil Forsberg delighting with their play.
“We always wanted to make a club of friends called ‘Leipzig’,” said Bobby. “It’s an idea we’ve had for over two decades, one to unite students and workers who spent time in East Germany so we can relive memories. The emergence of RB Leipzig gave us that new impetus to do so.”
The story behind the creation of the fan club was a rather simple one, as Bobby explained: “A friend of ours had studied in Leipzig but had friends in Dortmund, and he suggested starting a BVB fan club. But I told him ‘We have to support RB Leipzig’. Jesus agreed so we looked at how to go about things. We got in touch with friends of ours over there who are fans of RB, and with their help we were able to found ‘Mei Leipzsch’.”
Jesus, a German translator and interpreter, explained his affinity to the club promoted in 2016: “When you’re in a foreign country, you develop an affiliation with the area, which is why RB represents us. Our identity is in Leipzig. We don’t support Bayern or Dortmund, we’re Roten Bullen because that’s where we spent an important part of our lives.”
‘Mei Leipzsch’ was officially founded on 22 November 2017 at the El Centro Vasco bar in Havana, which has now become a hub for the fans. Jesus, who was elected president that night, explained, “Internet connections are slow here in Cuba, and not everyone has a satellite television to watch foreign football, so this bar has become our home for watching matches.”
The president also talked about the ceremony around the founding: “We had a friend visiting Havana from Leipzig and she brought us kits with our names for when we all met up at Centro Vasco.”
But as Bobby also explained, there’s much more to the shirts for these Cuban fans in a country where the average monthly wage is between just 20 and 30 US dollars. “Kits are really expensive for us. In Germany, a kit costs 90 euros. We can’t afford that, but luckily we have a lot of friends back in Germany who help us out. One is a banker in Düsseldorf who gets us kits. He’s brought us 12 already and we’ll get another 12 in February. They all have the No.12 on the back because we’re the 12th man.”
The Havana fan club continues to grow, as does support for RB Leipzig in Cuba as a whole. But it’s now not just fans of an older generation joining in but those much younger, too. Membership currently stands at 35, with ages ranging from 12 to 65.
“It’s united our children and friends. There are youngsters now who know more about the club than we do,” said Jesus. “The youth of Cuba will mean our club continues to grow. For example, when I spoke to the son of a neighbour, he knew more about the club than me!”
That young man is Alejandro Daniel Bencosme Castro, a 20-year-old who works as a taxi driver to pay for his studies. He began watching the Bundesliga as a teenager when it was first shown in Cuba, and he was astounded to see how a recently promoted club was able to put on such a show every game. He fell in love with RB, and the fan club was the perfect fit for him.
“Football isn’t the main sport here in Cuba, but I started to follow the Bundesliga when they started showing it on television. I was interested in Leipzig when they were promoted to the Bundesliga. One day Jesus asked me if I knew about RB because they’d created a fan club. I decided to join and now we’re like a family,” said Alejandro, who now manages the fan club’s social media.
For his part, Jesus is particularly impressed by the underdog story behind the club. “I like teams who climb their way to the top. What attracts us to them is that they’re a young team who made their way from the fifth tier to be Bundesliga runners-up. Bayern, Dortmund and Schalke have the history, but Leipzig have the story.”
Bobby speaks of the pride they and the people of Leipzig can feel in their team. “Lokomotive was the team when we were there, but they never broke through. For the first time, the city of Leipzig has a team fighting for the Bundesliga and competing in Europe. We think it’s admirable how the city has bounced back and created something great from a young team.”
The younger Alejandro admits he was a Real Madrid fan previously, but the rise of Leipzig has seen him have a change of heart. “Anyone who likes football will be aware of RB Leipzig. It’s phenomenal to see such a small team rise and compete with Europe’s best. My love for Leipzig is now forever.”
Much like the club they support, the members of ‘Mei Leipzsch’ are now out to seek recognition from those within the game, including from RB Leipzig themselves, as well as helping to consolidate football’s position as Cuba’s favourite sport.
“We’re in the process of receiving official recognition from RB. We have a connection back at Leipzig University, so we’re hopeful we’ll be made official soon,” Bobby suggested.
That recognition could be vital for the fan club and football in Cuba itself. ‘Mei Leipzsch’ are hoping to create links with the city many of them called hope some decades ago. Spokesman Bobby said: “We want to develop relations with the city of Leipzig and support youth football in Havana. We want to receive material and logistical help to develop football as it replaces baseball as Cuba’s national sport. We’d also like to offer German classes to members.”
President Jesus concluded with a look towards the future while maintaining a link to the past. “We’ve brought the link between Cuban and German sport back to life. We want people in Cuba to be aware of the team, especially young people. In the future we hope to see a small group of children sponsored by RB Leipzig and the club helping Cuban football. It won’t be an easy path but we can dream.”