THINK OF Salzburg and you immediately conjure-up images of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Romanesque and Baroque architecture and, of course, the Sound of Music. It’s not a city that you would normally associate with football passion, Austria is not a one of the seething hotbeds of the modern game, although it has played its part in shaping modern football. But if you were to determine the football capital of Austria, in terms of power, it is currently Salzburg and not Vienna, although the cultural heart of Austrian football remains in the capital city.
It’s hard for football to leap above the importance of tourism and the arts in a city that seems, on first glance, to be very sedate and well-heeled. It is, of course, the home of Red Bull, the controversial but extremely successful drinks company, and their influence can be seen all over the city, not least in its patronage of sport.
In almost every café and shop, there is evidence of Red Bull’s domination of Salzburg. Ask many of the tourists if they are aware of the local football club, and it is doubtful they would know that RB Salzburg are the Austrian champions, and have been so for the past five years, but ask them if they know what Red Bull is and they’d certainly nod in the affirmative – and possibly raise a can in your direction.
Red Bull Salzburg may be the most successful club in Austria at the moment, but they’re not the most popular. Purists in and around the city loathe the fact that Red Bull tried to wipe away the heritage of the city’s premier club, SV Austria Salzburg, by changing their strip from traditional violet to Red Bull’s red and white corporate colours and imagery. SV Austria Salzburg dated back to September 1933 but their first Austrian Bundesliga title came in 1993-94, a season that also saw them reach the final of the UEFA Cup.
When Red Bull took over in 2005, they made the tactless comment, “this is a new club with no history” – the owners clearly misunderstood the importance of football culture and local sensitivities. Unsurprisingly, when Red Bull rebranded the club, supporters established a new one that adopted the historic name – SV Austria Salzburg, playing in the original colours. However, this club is now playing in the Salzburger Liga after two consecutive relegations and in 2017-18, finished seventh. Finance has often been a problem.
It’s a long way from the Red Bull franchise or rather, Red Bull World, a store in the heart of Salzburg at Getreidegasse that sells all things Red Bull, including merchandise from Salzburg’s cousin club RB Leipzig. It’s hardly comparable to the traffic at a Bayern Munich fan shop, but there seems to be enough people willing to pay serious euros for a Salzburg shirt or baseball cap.
Red Bull Salzburg’s home attendances in 2017-18 dropped to the lowest level since the takeover by Red Bull in 2005. They average little more than 7,500 at the 32,000-capacity Red Bull Arena, half as many as attended in 2006-07. It’s not as if Salzburg’s success is diminishing, although they were run close the usual by Sturm Graz, who finished seven points behind them. Austrian attendances, generally, fell by more than 9% in 2017-18, but Salzburg still trail way behind SK Rapid Wien (19,000) and Sturm Graz (10,000).
Of course, most of Austrian football delights in Salzburg’s supposed lack of support, but if you consider that the population of Salzburg is around 140,000 then an average of 7,000-plus is not so bad. This is a club, though, that is bringing home silverware every season, but the Red Bull patronage doesn’t sit easy with everyone, particularly the portfolio strategy of Red Bull, which has seen a number of players flow towards Germany’s Leipzig, notably Naby Keita, who will play for Liverpool in 2018-19. Salzburg regularly get accused of being merely a marketing tool or a “test tube” club, most recently when Dortmund fans boycotted a game at the Arena.
Domestic success is one thing, but Red Bull founder Dietrich Mateschitz, who initially aimed to make the club a force outside Austria within five years, is still looking for Salzburg to make an impact in Europe. In 2017-18, they got agonisingly close, reaching the semi-finals of the Europa League, narrowly losing to Marseille. After being knocked-out of the UEFA Champions League early on, they entered the Europa and won their group, which actually included Marseille. In the knockout phase, they beat Real Sociedad, Borussia Dortmund and Lazio (an astonishing comeback) before losing 3-2 on aggregate after extra time to Marseille.
The real goal is to make the UEFA Champions League, which they have yet to do under Red Bull. There is a theory that Red Bull have shifted their emphasis from Salzburg to Leipzig, realising that Champions League exposure is more realistic in Germany. Salzburg are no longer “owned” by Red Bull after a restructuring of the club, but now are considered “sponsors”. That doesn’t seem to have affected Salzburg’s strategy of developing young talent that can be sold on. Current first team coach, who took over in 2017, the club won the UEFA Youth League adopting an attractive high-press approach. Salzburg, thanks to a strong scouting network, were able to finish ahead of clubs like Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Benfica.
Salzburg’s position in European football depends to a certain degree on player trading and their recent success has made players like Hannes Wolf, Valon Berisha and Amadou Haidara attractive to bigger names like Everton, Lazio, Tottenham and Southampton. Croatian defender Duje Caleta-Car, a member of his country’s World Cup squad, has left the club for Marseille for € 20 million.
After their fifth successive title and ninth in the Red Bull era, Salzburg (seeded) will enter the Champions League at the third qualifying round stage. On July 29, they kick-off their Bundesliga season with a home game with Linz. Meanwhile, Austria Salzburg start their Salzburger Liga campaign with an away fixture at Straßwalchen. Another Salzburg side, Salzburger AK 1914, also play in this league.
Austrian football, like many European leagues, has to compete with the “big five” and the financial clout of the big guns means that clubs like Red Bull Salzburg struggle to get a seat at the table. The big breakthrough will be a place in the Champions League group stage. It looks to be getting closer, but will Red Bull’s attention span run-out before that happens? And will the Salzburg public get behind a football club that divides opinion?