Red Bull, Blue Moon
In April 2005, a club in Austria was taken over by rich new owners, with promises of success and high-profile signings. In exchange, the name of the club was changed, along with the badge and colour of the home shirt.
Austria Salzburg in their traditional colours…
And after their history was destroyed by Red Bull
In January 2014, a club in Australia was taken over by rich new owners, with promises of success and high-profile signings. In exchange, the name of the club was changed, along with the badge and colour of the home shirt.
Melbourne Heart in their original form…
…and Melbourne City FC after the takeover
The above gives you a very brief overview of the story of Red Bull Salzburg and Melbourne City FC. The clubs may be 9000 miles apart, but the dangerous messages they give about the ownership of football clubs could not be more alike.
Back in June 2013 I wrote an article on the success of RB Leipzig, stating that I believed that unless the world of football provided significant protest against Red Bull football, clubs being used as a marketing tool would become an established trend. While clubs in 2. Bundesliga (in particular Union Berlin and Fortuna Düsseldorf) have staged superb protests during their fixtures against RB Leipzig this season, the outcry against their football crimes has not been enough to significantly slow their progress. At the time of writing, RB Leipzig are just four points away from the promotion places and taking on the likes of Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Schalke next season.
These games would be broadcast all over the world and be seen by millions of people, giving Red Bull the ultimate advertisement for their product. Usually a company would have to pay a significant amount to advertise for a couple of minutes during such fixtures, but RB Leipzig would actually be making millions of pounds from the TV rights. Imagine that, not only do you get to promote your product to a captive audience for 90 minutes, but you also get paid to do so. It’s the kind of stuff that leaves marketing executives needing a cold shower from the excitement, and it should strike fear in to the heart of every football supporter.
Then we come to Manchester City. Having lived in Manchester for two years at one stage of my life, I saw a significant amount of good work being done for the city with their redevelopment and community schemes. The problem came about with the introduction of the Financial Fair Play regulations, which has prevented City from being able to throw the kind of cash around they would like. In England this is not a problem, with the blues getting their hands on every domestic trophy it is possible to win since 2011. The issues have arisen in Europe, with a series of spectacular failures in the Champions League, a trophy it is very obvious that Sheikh Mansour and co see as a top priority.
The people who own Manchester City are not stupid. If they were, they wouldn’t be the squillionaires they are now. So they’re not going to break the rules, but they’ll certainly bend them. First of all it was the Etihad sponsorship deal for an eye-watering amount of money, and now they are taking the franchise club path taken so successfully by Red Bull. Rather than risk the negative popularity and supporter unrest which comes from changing the club you own (like Vincent Tan at Cardiff or Assem Allam at Hull City AFC), they have done it to clubs thousands of miles away that most people in Manchester and indeed, England, couldn’t care less about.
But suddenly, Manchester City creating franchise clubs was not something happening thousands of miles away, but in the Premier League. In a move that literally everybody saw coming, New York City FC signed Frank Lampard on a free transfer, with the Chelsea legend swiftly moving to the Etihad Stadium on ‘loan’. A quick check of Lampard’s goals for this season show they have directly earned the club six points, with the assists probably worth even more (I like to go outside and have kissed a girl, so I’m not overly interested in assist statistics). With one of these goals coming against Chelsea, it was essentially worth another two points for City.
To continue the comparison with Red Bull, we look at a player called Jonathan Soriano. He is the star man for Red Bull Salzburg, having scored a frankly ridiculous 79 goals in 89 matches for the ‘club’. With Red Bull Salzburg currently looking on course to lift the title in Austria, there is strong speculation that Soriano will go and play for the Leipzig version of Red Bull’s marketing machine, in the hope of him finding some vital goals to aid the promotion push. Should this become a reality, then we are entering the era of ‘freelance players’, playing for whichever club their billionaire owner believes they can help to make richer.
Let us imagine for a second that Manchester City win the title or the European Cup as a direct result of Frank Lampard’s contribution this season. It would not be long until this FFP busting tactic was being used by every club that could afford it, with a fleet of copycat Real Madrids, Barcelonas, Chelseas, Bayern Munichs and so on across the continent. Not only would this ruin the history of many proud clubs, but also the integrity of the competitions that supporters love to watch so much.
To pick an example of a club that may be at risk, I present Italian side Torino. At one stage they were one of the very finest sides in the world, but have since moved into the shadow of dominant city neighbours Juventus. Imagine for a moment that the owners of Torino were offered a stack of cash to make the club Torino City FC, changing their kit to sky blue and an MCFC inspired badge. In return, they would be able to sign the players they need to finally win the Scudetto once more. With their last one coming in the 1975/76 season, it would be hard to resist for many.
Once Torino City have won the league, they end up drawing Manchester City in the European Cup. Knowing that their investment depends on keeping the big bosses happy, what kind of effort do you think their players are going to make to win the game? How motivated is the manager going to be to win, knowing that he risks losing all of his star players if the money men are upset?
I must add that this issue is not just an excuse to bash Manchester City. It is a football issue, not a Manchester City issue, and it could be any of the powerful clubs that make such moves to monopolise football talent and success. We could just as easily see Real Ajax, Bayern Lille, Red Bull Leeds or the Dresden Catalans. If UEFA is truly ‘for the game’ as they claim to be, and not ‘for money’ as they really are, action must be taken soon to prevent this kind of thing becoming the norm, rather than an exception.
Otherwise, we face a future where Diego Costa can score the winning goal for Chelsea in the FA Cup final, then two weeks later be scoring in the MLS Cup final, before finally jetting off to win the Europa League for Inter Chelsea. Meanwhile, Cristiano Ronaldo signs for Vienna United for 200 million Euros, before immediately signing a five-year loan with Manchester United. An extreme example perhaps, but it is certainly the way we are heading.
A football club is something you feel. It’s the bruised shins the morning after a 90th minute winner. It’s meeting a stranger who supports the same team as you and instantly making a friend. It’s drinking a flat beer from a plastic glass in Burnley before watching a 0 – 0 draw. It’s knowing that soul crushing trips like that are worth it, because at some day in the future you’ll experience a moment of pure joy that you’ll remember forever. This is the type of person the game used to belong to, before it was stolen away by greedy businessmen and sold to television audiences in Asia and the United States.
It has to stop, while we still have football clubs to support, rather than cheering for our favourite advertising brand, represented by faceless players who will be making the owner money somewhere else in a couple of weeks time. The magnificent supporters of Austria Salzburg should inspire us all to turn our backs on the inflated marketing speak which is used to sell the ‘matchday experience’ to us, telling us we are only true fans if we buy the club brand toothpaste, spend our money with a club brand credit card and buy a €70 replica shirt every year.
That’s not what football is. But if we’re not careful, it will be soon. It’s not too late to stop it happening. But it will be soon. It’s not your club it is happening too.
But it will be soon.