Red Bull charged in to a football club of great tradition and changed everything, but it doesn’t seem to bother too many people. Should we care?
Once upon a time, there was a club called Austria Salzburg. They were reasonably successful, albeit not at the levels of the two Viennese giants, having won three league titles in the 1990s and reached the UEFA Cup final in 1994.
By the early 2000s, the club had fallen on hard times, through the usual paths of mismanagement and over-speculation. There was a reasonable chance that they would go out of existence entirely, but in 2005 a sugary white knight appeared on the horizon, and they became the first football club to be brought into the Red Bull sporting empire.
Almost immediately, Red Bull went about the business of completely changing the club’s identity, from the basic step of the name, to switching team colours from the traditional violet to corporate red and white with yellow trim, to removing basically the entire management and installing their own. And then there was the rather dystopian attempt to claim the club came into existence the moment Red Bull arrived, and the previous 72 years of history had not happened.
The latter wheeze was quickly nipped in the bud by the Austrian authorities, but the rest remained. There was disquiet in some quarters, and a group of fans tried to negotiate with the new board over recognition of the club’s past, but the best they could manage was a vague promise that the Red Bull goalkeeper would wear violet socks as a nod to their old colours. Disillusioned, those fans formed a ‘phoenix’ club, SV Austria Salzburg, currently in the third tier.
“It reminds me a little bit of when you’re playing FIFA and you just edit a new team, give them a new colour, a new badge,” says Lee Wingate from The Other Bundesliga podcast. But of course instead of shifting some pixels around on a screen, this was changing the entire face of a community institution.
Instinctively, you would think that this sort of wholesale dismantling of a club’s identity would cause uproar, outrage, marching in the streets, or at least widespread dissatisfaction. But that appears to have dissipated over the years, if it was there at all.
Werner Renzl went to his first Austria Salzburg game in 1971 when he was 12-years-old. In a figurative and literal sense he grew up with the club, and still supports them to this day. You would think he was a prime candidate for outrage, exactly the sort of fan who would object to the corporate takeover.
Not so much. “Salzburg had no money at the time,” says Werner, about the 2005 takeover. “They had too much debt, and if it wasn’t for Red Bull there would be no professional football in Salzburg. The club could have disappeared. I had no problem with them changing the colours. It was never important to me.”
Instinctively it’s surprising to hear, on an emotional level. But thinking logically, Werner’s attitude obviously makes sense. From the brink of extinction 14 years ago, Red Bull Salzburg have dominated Austrian football, winning ten of the 13 league titles since the takeover and never finishing outside the top two. They’ve also won six Austrian Cups and reached the Champions League group stage for the first time this season.
This is unparalleled success, which is obviously intoxicating for fans of that club, but also for the country at large. “A lot of people realise what good they’ve done for Austrian football,” says Wingate. “They’ve made waves in the Champions League this season, they’ve got a great academy structure, they’re bringing some good players over here. Even among opposition fans, they’re quite well respected.”
Even the fact that they’re part of a vaguely sinister international football network, and are essentially a feeder club for RB Leipzig doesn’t seem especially perturbing. “For me it’s not a problem,” says Werner. “People in our supporters club are very sad if a player goes to Leipzig. But if he goes to another club he’s not in Salzburg anymore, and that’s it. The network I think isn’t bad: Erling Haaland would never be in Salzburg if there was never the possibility to go on to Leipzig.”
The strong whiff of anticompetitiveness that the Red Bull network carries – the idea of what must be fierce transfer negotiations being simply one man passing money from his left to his right hand as players like Naby Keita and Hannes Wolf move to Germany for very reasonable fees – has even drifted away.
Lee Wingate says: “With Erling Haaland, there have been newspaper reports that Leipzig have first refusal – that has been denied, but it just shows players are expected to move from Salzburg to Leipzig. At the start, people would say “how is this allowed?” But nowadays people shrug and say ‘well, he’ll probably end up at Leipzig now.’”
Ultimately, the rise and popularity of Red Bull Salzburg reinforces the point that not as many people care about what purists might call the ‘soul’ of football, as some of us think. Of course there is a core of fans who care deeply, both in theory and in practice, as the existence of the new SV Austria Salzburg club proves. There is plenty of underlying opposition in Austria to the whole concept of Red Bull and their network. And there are plenty who will hold their nose and watch Red Bull Salzburg, prepared to make the moral compromise but not particularly happily.
It probably goes without saying that it’s uncomfortable at best that a global corporation can manipulate the game as they have done, that they are allowed to simply change the colours of a team and deny their history because it makes for better branding. With every club that they take over a little more of the basic sport we all once loved is eroded, the more inescapable the idea that football is merely an advertising exercise, used to sell beer or oil or in this case a fizzy drink that tastes like medicine and makes you shake after three gulps.
And we probably should be worried that people are so easily seduced by success, that they don’t think too much about how this success has been achieved, something that applies across football, not just with Salzburg: given some of the unpleasant types that own football clubs in England, we don’t have much of a collective leg to stand on there.
But all that most fans care about is watching entertaining, successful football. Can you blame them for that? Maybe, if you’re in that sort of mood. But this season Werner Renzl has watched the team he’s followed since a boy – for most of that time a moderate side from a relatively minor footballing nation – compete with the best sides in the world. Possibly as you read this, he’s attending the UEFA Youth League game so he can watch the players coming through the ranks with paternal pride as they develop.
“I’m happier now,” he says. “Salzburg were a club in the middle of the table – we were champions three times in the 1990s, but most of the time we were in the middle. It’s better now.”
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