Drinks company bending the rules
7 June ~ When FC Pasching became the first third-division club to win the Austrian Cup last Thursday, you would have expected most neutral fans to have been delighted for the underdog. Based in a municipality with only 6,591 inhabitants, the Upper Austrian minnows had eliminated the "big three" of Austrian football in order to lift the trophy. After away wins at Rapid Vienna and Red Bull Salzburg, Pasching defeated newly crowned League champions Austria Vienna 1-0 in the Ernst-Happel-Stadion thanks to a goal from Daniel Sobkova.
Yet celebrations in Austria were muted. Between 80 to 90 per cent of the team's budget comes from Red Bull, whose cynical rebranding of Austria Salzburg in 2005 removed all vestiges of the club's illustrious past. Their financial backing enables Pasching to train at a much higher level than their rivals in the mainly semi-professional Regionalliga Mitte. Coach Gerald Baumgartner was therefore hardly surprised at his team's success: "We're a professional team too and train every day," he observed after the cup final.
The fact that Red Bull's name is nowhere to be seen on the club's website indicates that their investment has more to do with pragmatism than marketing. A couple of years ago reserve teams were banned from playing in the Austrian second division, which meant that Red Bull Salzburg Juniors were forcibly relegated. Red Bull promptly got round this rule by investing in struggling third-tier clubs such as FC Pasching and using their considerable funds to propel them into the second division.
But although FC Pasching narrowly failed to gain promotion this year, Red Bull were leaving nothing to chance. The energy drink manufacturer doubled its chances by also sponsoring FC Liefering, a team from a different regional third division. Although legally a separate club, Liefering play in the same stadium as Red Bull Salzburg, wear the same kit and 17 members of their squad used to play for Red Bull Salzburg or their reserves.
Liefering secured promotion to the second division on Thursday by defeating LASK Linz, whose coach Karl Daxbacher was unsurprisingly displeased that the regulations on reserve teams had been flouted so blatantly. "I find it extremely disturbing that Liefering are allowed to go up at all," Daxbacher said. "I simply can't understand the Austrian Football Association [ÖFB]."
It is unclear whether UEFA will be as generous as the Austrian league in their interpretation of FC Pasching's ownership status – their cup success means that they theoretically have a place in the play-off round of next season's Europa League. Yet as Red Bull Salzburg could also end up in the same competition if they get eliminated in the Champions League qualification rounds, UEFA will have to decide whether the close relationship between Red Bull and Pasching breaches statute 3.01 of their Champions League regulations, which states that "no club participating in a UEFA club competition may, either directly or indirectly, hold or deal in the securities or shares of any other club participating in a UEFA club competition". Pasching chairman Martin Hengstschläger remains unconcerned, however: "We've been checked twice already by the ÖFB and aren't afraid of any UEFA test."
With Red Bull's German marketing trinket, RB Leipzig, also gaining promotion to the third division of the Bundesliga this week, there's a growing sense of frustration that the company's circumvention of ownership rules in both countries is not being challenged by football authorities. After all, if you can't bring yourself to support the underdog in a cup final, then something is clearly wrong. Paul Joyce