One from the ACSOM Archive: Kevin Graham – Are Red Bulls really only elephants?

The following article originally appeared on ACSOM on 10 October 2018:

We need to deal with the elephant in the room. UEFA have dealt with it. Though, they dealt with it in their own nefarious way. Last year, the Red Bull Cousins, Leipzig and Salzburg, were on course to both compete in the Champions League (sic).

This would cause problems for UEFA and the capitalist cash cow that is the Champions League, as UEFA’s own rules state that no individual or entity can have decisive influence over more than one team in its competition.

Both teams made changes to their corporate structure but UEFA, like all good commercial partners, told them, confidentially, it wouldn’t be enough and Leipzig wouldn’t be allowed to compete in the competition.

Salzburg, the smaller franchise, made significant changes with a number of Red Bull employees leaving the club, and the company reduced their financial commitment to the Austrians, now being solely their sponsors until 2022.

Both clubs played in Europe with the small franchise reaching the semi-final of the Europa League and the larger franchise playing in the Champions League and reaching the quarter-final of the Europa League. Both teams lost to Marseille, a proper football team who just so happen to have an American owner, Frank McCourt, whose baseball team, LA Dodgers, were taken off him due to financial concerns during his divorce; a baseball team he could only afford to buy after he got a loan from the Fox Entertainment Group.

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Red Bull took over Austria Salzburg in 2005. The fans welcomed their involvement at first. This was a club who in 1994 had played against Inter Milan in the UFEA Cup final. They were a club with a proud history and were regarded as a pillar of Salzburg. The club was about to go bust. The carrot of sponsorship was welcomed but it was the beating from the stick that saw Austria Salzburg put out of existence.

It became clear that Red Bull wanted to change the club beyond just getting their names on the shirts. The colours and name became the corporate brand with the token offer of the goalkeeper’s socks remaining the club’s original violet colour. It was a gesture that was like a red rag to a bull and it was refused as fans deserted the club to form a new club in the lower divisions. They claim to be the original and the soul of Austria Salzburg.

After the success in Austria, the group turned their attention to Germany, looking for clubs outwith the DFB’s administrative reach. Leipzig was behind Hamburg, Munich and Dusseldorf as potential locations for the franchise but Leipzig had a willing club, SSV Markranstädt, and no Bundesliga club of its own or within 150 miles. Die Bullen was born and were easily the most hated club in Germany.

The formation of Rasenball Leipzig goes against everything that the rest of the world believes true about German football and its fan-friendly culture. The 50 plus 1 rule was there to stop franchises from happening but Red Bull found a way round it.

The protests against the club have been fierce. Dynamo Dresden fans threw a bloodied bull’s head on the park and the club has been faced with violence and boycotts. While understandable, the fact that other clubs like Bayern, Wolfsburg, Schalke and Hoffenheim – who also flaunt the 50 plus 1 rule – don’t see the same vitriol, is slightly hypocritical.

Comments on the numerous articles about the formation of these clubs orbit round the same gravity. There are those who just can’t see past the blatant commercialisation of the projects and the deaths of clubs they have taken over.

Fans of the new entities state that the clubs have a great ethos, promote young talent, whilst giving the two cities a safe environment to watch football, which wasn’t previously available to them.

These fans point to the opportunity to create new fan culture, free from the historical anchors of the previous clubs – more Salzburg than Leipzig – and creating a modern football club off and on the pitch.

Us Celtic fans have witnessed the Salzburg machine up close. It’s an impressive watch. Full of pace, power, technique and talent all bought from unheralded markets and coached to realise their full potential in the system they employ.

During our most recent 3-1 defeat, I commented that not one Celtic player would get in the Salzburg side. They are a club from a small league operating miles above that league’s status. It’s hard not to be jealous and envious of what they have achieved.

Red Bull have been cast as the villains of modern football. The question was raised about a Red Bull side playing in Britain one day. Britain has a lot of ailing football clubs and a history of franchise clubs being accepted as if nothing has happened. It could happen and, despite what would be loud protests, they would soon fade as soon as the team starts winning.

The Red Bull franchise and what they have achieved is the elephant in the room that is only blocking the door. That we are talking about the elephant is stopping us admitting that we are in that room anyway and that elephant isn’t the worst thing in the room.

All clubs are in the room with that elephant but it’s easier to shout at our new room guest rather than admit we are sitting on the couch watching our satellite subscriptions on the 52-inch plasma.

Our clubs make purely commercial decisions every single day and we accept it. We want to get into competitions for monetary gain. Clubs are fighting to scrap boundaries to create pan-European Leagues. We have owners who won’t stop until an elite league is created with the only criteria for entry being money.

Red Bull are no different to Chelsea, PSG, Man City, Liverpool, Man United, Juventus, Real Madrid or Barcelona. Their crime is they are only more obvious to the naked eye, leaving the bigger criminals to get on with the job at hand.

Kevin Graham

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