Sunday 10 May ~
It’s the climax to the Austrian season today, though don’t get too excited. With four games to go, Red Bull Salzburg can clinch the title if they win at second-placed Rapid Vienna. Even if Rapid reverse that outcome, they will still have a four-point gap to close in three games. So Salzburg look set to take their second championship in the four years since they were taken over by the “energy” drinks company Red Bull, the company that rebranded the team and its stadium in its own name and declared that the club’s 72-year history was obsolete.
In pure domestic footballing terms, Red Bull’s takeover of Salzburg has been a success that followed years of mediocrity and money problems. In the other two seasons since the Red Bull coup the club finished second, and when they took the title in 2007 it was by a margin of 21 points. In the two seasons prior to New Salzburg, Rapid and Graz respectively had won the Austrian league by a single point. But it was always Red Bull’s intent to create a dominant giant that would walk the league and regularly compete in the Champions League group stages. A sort of Bayern Munich lite, and indeed their close northern neighbour in Bavaria has served as a sister club, sending down decent players they no longer need such as Alexander Zickler and Niko Kovac. At one point Salzburg even talked about outgrowing Austria and joining the Bundesliga (sound familiar, Old Firm fans?).
Salzburg certainly succeeded in making themselves a team that the rest of Austrian football, and many beyond, could love to hate. Even more gratifying for those detractors, the talked-about Champions League group stage participation has failed to happen, thanks to third qualifying round exits at the hands of Valencia (2006) and Shakhtar Donetsk (2007). Red Bull has discovered that pumping lots of money into a sports team can only guarantee success up to a certain point. It’s easy to win the Austrian league when you can afford players like the aforementioned Zickler and Kovac, or Swiss international Johan Vonlanthen. But how are you going to attract a higher class of player who, if Champions League qualification fails, will spend the rest of the season getting motivated to take on Ried, Pasching and Altach? Even a quality Austrian player is unlikely to stay – striker Marc Janko, who has scored a staggering 37 goals in 30 league games this season for Salzburg, is expected to move abroad this summer, with Tottenham, Blackburn, Everton and Celtic all reportedly showing an interest (watch out, Marc, that last team could be a familiar set-up).
The fan-run SV Austria Salzburg, wearing the old club’s violet colours and original logo with the founding date of 1933 prominently displayed, meanwhile continue their climb up the Austrian league pyramid, mostly filling their 1,200 capacity ground. The team is about to secure its third successive championship to take it into the fourth tier. Back in 2005 after the Red Bull takeover, a group of Salzburg fans held months-long talks with the company in an attempt to preserve some of the team’s history, but finally gave up and founded the new team when it became clear that Red Bull was not interested in the past. Now Red Bull owns a reviled team that has already hit the roof of a European middle-tier league’s ambitions. For the Violet-Whites, there’s still plenty of scope to rise, unencumbered by the foul taste of Red Bull.
It’s an interesting contrast to Red Bull’s other foray into football, the New York team in Major League Soccer, which it took over in the middle of 2006. Although there were a couple of banners among US fans expressing solidarity with the Violet-Whites back in 2005, few in the American game questioned Red Bull’s investment in an ailing team that had won nothing but derision and debt since it was founded along with the league in 1996. Any firm putting money into MLS is welcomed by a league that needs every dollar it can get in order to continue surviving in a tough sports market. Next year the team’s Red Bull Arena will open in Harrison, New Jersey, and will immediately become the country’s best association football stadium. The club has still yet to win anything, but they did reach the MLS Cup final last autumn, albeit somewhat fortuitously. Even if you object to a team with a corporate name (and we do), the Red Bull lesson for firms looking to stamp their brand on a team may be that you should be very careful about the market you choose. In MLS, just as in the Austrian fourth division, there’s plenty of room to expand, in every respect. Ian Plenderleith