Against Red Bull Football
The Champions League Final in 2013 was a celebration of all things German, as the top two sides in the Bundesliga contested Europe’s biggest prize. 2012/13 was the season that football in Germany finally got the recognition it deserved, but just days after Arjen Robben won the trophy for Bayern, German football came together once more – to oppose the growing threat to the game which is Red Bull.
Top text reads “divided by the colours, united by the cause.” You can probably guess what the bottom bit says.
Fans from many different clubs all over the country came together to support Sportfreunde Lotte, the side taking on Red Bull Leipzig in the playoffs for a place in the third tier of German football. Despite several thousand fans from countless German clubs coming together to support Lotte against the corporate plaything of Leipzig, Red Bull eventually won 4 – 2 on aggregate after extra time. Following on from the proudest moment in German football history for many years, the promotion of Red Bull Leipzig served as a reminder that even the best league in Europe for fans has its problems.
Football clubs have been owned by the rich for some time, with Manchester City and Chelsea recent examples from England of investment leading to success. So what makes Red Bull football particularly odious, and why do they need to be stopped from expanding their football ownership further still? This is the story of how the energy drink manufacturer is helping to spread all that is wrong with modern football.
When looking at the inspiration for a Red Bull owned club in Germany, thoughts instantly turn to Hoffenheim, a largely unheard of side with few supporters which received a great deal of investment from software entrepreneur Dietmar Hopp. The money put in to Hoffenheim by Hopp resulted in the club achieving promotion to the top division and challenging for the Bundesliga title in their very first season. Demba Ba was one of the talented players who helped Hoffenheim top the table at the winter break, but a decline in form and a spate of injuries saw the newly rich side eventually finish seventh. Still, it had been proved that it was possible to perform well in the German top flight if you had backers willing to throw enough money around to promote their ‘brand’. The season Hoffenheim challenged for Bundesliga glory was 2008/09. RB Leipzig were founded in 2009.
RB Leipzig came into existence when the energy drink company purchased the license of SSV Markranstädt, a small team who played in the fifth tier of Germany. Red Bull announced that RB Leipzig were a completely new team and would be in the Bundesliga “within ten years.” A club created purely to make money and promote the owners, RB Leipzig averaged crowds of 7,401 last season, playing in a stadium capable of holding over 44,000. The money pumped into the club allowed Leipzig to rapidly climb through the leagues, overtaking genuine clubs with history and tradition. As you will see as I delve further into the murky world of Red Bull football, history and tradition are considered dirty words to the suits at RB Towers. For the true scale of what Red Bull are prepared to do to a club in the name of money and marketing, simply cross the border to Austria.
Red Bull’s Austrian invasion
Red Bull Salzburg are arguably the least likable club in world football, only rivalled on British shores by MK Dons. The Austrian Bundesliga side were purchased by Red Bull in the same way as their franchise in Leipzig, with the only part of the club the new owners truly cared about being the license to play. The violet and white colours of Austria Salzburg were replaced with a kit more suitable for the marketing of ‘the brand’, with supporters’ protests completely ignored by the clubs hierarchy. Also gone was the clubs traditional badge, once again replaced by a tawdry Red Bull infected logo without a shred of pride or passion. As supporters protested furiously for the return of Austria Salzburg’s soul, Red Bull’s offered a so-called compromise. “If colours are so important to the supporters, the goalkeeper can wear violet socks” said Red Bull. It was at this stage SV Austria Salzburg was born, a phoenix club in the style of AFC Wimbledon, a fan owned football team with the motto – Never changed passion for glory.
Red Bull also control three further teams in Austria, FC Anif, FC Pasching and FC Liefering, with these sides acting as ‘farm teams’ to the main marketing project in Salzburg. In 2013, third division FC Pasching won the Austrian Cup, defeating Bundesliga champions Austria Wien (known as Austria Vienna in English) 1 – 0 in the final. Normally this kind of triumph would have been embraced as “magic of the cup”, however it produced the same kind of reaction in Austria as if MK Dons were to win the FA Cup. With Liefering winning their division in the same season, 2012/13 was a very good year all round for Red Bull football, and very bad news all round for lovers of football tradition.
A worldwide threat
While Red Bull’s reach in Europe is so far limited to Austria and Germany, there are three further Red Bull clubs across the globe, with the New York Red Bulls the most well-known. How NY RB came into existence is a sadly familiar story, as the license to the New York Metrostars was purchased by the company, with a complete rebranding and renaming of the club an inevitable consequence. While the money pumped in to the New York Red Bulls has not yet seen them lift the MLS Cup (a 2008 defeat in the playoff final the closest they’ve come so far), it has allowed them to sign players such as Thierry Henry, Rafael Marquez, Tim Cahill and Juninho, players far beyond the reach of many other American clubs.
While American sport is accepting of the franchise model, any success for the New York Red Bulls is a success for all that is wrong in modern football. Red Bull Ghana were founded in 2008 to market the company in Africa, while not even footballs spiritual home of Brazil is safe. Red Bull Brasil currently play in the third tier of Brazilian football, having secured a couple of rapid promotions thanks to the money put in to the club as part of the corporate venture.
So with numerous Red Bull owned football clubs around the world and an ambitious marketing team always preparing new stunts, how long before an English side takes the Red Bull money and runs? MK Dons and Cardiff City have shown that franchising in English football is more than possible, all it would take for the next step is one greedy owner. This is not a slight on Coventry City, and I hope the comments section does not fill with rabid Sky Blues, but the recent problems at the Ricoh would make the club a prime target for a Red Bull revolution. In serious financial trouble and looking as though they may not even have a stadium, would investors be welcomed as heroes by some if they rode in not on a white horse, but a red bull?
For Coventry City, read Wolves, Stockport County, Portsmouth (before the fans stepped in to save the club) or Truro City. With Arsenal fans increasingly discontent at their lack of silverware and Tottenham Hotspur finding increasingly unlikely ways to fail at the end of a season, who is to say that Red Bull North London won’t be plying their trade in the Premier League in the coming years? All of this may sound like impossible scaremongering – but the precedent is there. With Red Bull football clubs tasting success and rising up through the divisions, a united stand against Red Bull like the one taken by German supporters is more important than ever.
Would you accept Red Bull sponsorship and rebranding of your club if success and financial stability came with it? If, like Austria Salzburg, you choose passion over glory, what can be done to stop the menace of Red Bull football? Football without fans is nothing, but football with Red Bull might just be worse.