Austria: Red Bull Salzburg on course for 10th consecutive title

WITH ONE game to go in the regular Austrian Bundesliga programme, four of the six places have been decided for the Championship play-off stage. Three clubs are vying for the last two spots: Austria Klagenfurt, Austria Wien and WSG Tirol. At the top of the table, Red Bull Salzburg have cemented their customary seat at the table and sit nine points clear of Sturm Graz, the only Austrian team to beat the champions this season.

Salzburg have won 17 of their 21 games and have lost just once, a 2-1 defeat in Graz. Similarly, they were beaten by Graz in the quarter-finals of the Austrian Cup. Graz face LASK in the semi-final on April 5, the other semi is between Rapid Wien and SV Ried. So, for only the second time in the past 10 years, Red Bull Salzburg will not be winning the double in Austria.

Salzburg’s hold on Austrian football shows little sign of abating, although the gap between the top two as they reach the end of the first stage is less than last season. Salzburg had a substantial margin to take into the Championship round in 2021-22, but the gap may be as little as five points this season. In the past three years, Salzburg’s title winning margin has ranged from 12 to 15 points. As in 2022, their nearest challengers should be Sturm Graz.

The crowds in Austria are at a 10-year high, the average in the Bundesliga is currently 7,226 compared to 5,052 in the regular season in 2021-22. Rapid are the biggest attraction with attendances of 18,300 while Sturm (12,500), Salzburg (11,500) and Austria Wien (10,800) are also in five figures. The Wien derby takes place on March 19, the last game for both clubs in the initial programme, which will mean another healthy gate.

Salzburg, as ever, have some bright young players who are attracting the attention of clubs in Germany and England. Slovenian Benjamin Šeško is just 19 but his performances have already marked him as a star of the future. The statistics underline the impact he has made – a goal involvement every 89 minutes and 0.76 goals per 90 minutes. He also has a remarkable physical presence. Another youngster, the 20 year-old Croatian Luka Sučić, is being touted as “the new Modric”, such is the impression he has made so far. And then there’s 18 year-old Dijon Kameri, who was nurtured from within the club’s youth system, a midfielder of enormous promise according to Salzburg watchers.

RB Salzburg’s so-called “player factory” not only ranks among the top three sources for “big five” league clubs, but also ensures that the club itself has the youngest average age (22.4 years) among Austrian Bundesliga clubs. They also have the highest percentage of foreign players (63.7%) in their squad. Salzburg have developed a strategy for recruiting youngsters in the mid-to-late teens and then selling them for handsome profits. Others are following this approach, but Salzburg’s big advantage is their ownership and the multi-club model in which they operate.

Austrian teams failed to make much progress in Europe this season. Salzburg were third in their Champions League group behind Chelsea and AC Milan and then lost to Roma in the Europa League. Sturm Graz were knocked out of the Champions League before the group phase and in the Europa League finished fourth in their group. Austria Wien were thrashed by Fenerbahce in the Europa play-off round and were bottom of their Conference group. Rapid Wien were beaten by Liechtenstein’s Vaduz of all people in the Conference play-offs.

Not many people would bet against Salzburg winning their 10th consecutive title this season. They have the resources and the strategy to ensure their squad keeps churning-out talented young players. Their transfer spend over the past 10 years has totalled € 167 million and their net market activity is a positive of € 373 million, which dwarfs the rest of the Bundesliga and is bettered only by Benfica, Ajax and Porto in Europe. This might not make them especially popular in their home market and doesn’t speak well for the overall competiveness of Austrian domestic football, but nobody can deny that they have created a model that is very effective.

Losers can be heroes, too

HOW often do you hear today, that somebody declares they deserve success because they want it so badly? Wanting something doesn’t mean you deserve to be rewarded, “want” is often a symptom of greed, of entitlement and more than a touch of arrogance. Success has to be earned and the problem for the aggressively-driven folk in society, they are up against similarly-minded people that also feel they “deserve” accolades because they crave the recognition. In a world where instant gratification, impatience and the need to win attention seems to dominate so many people’s lives, life has become a competition. It may have always been like that, but now we have the means to command and control that attention.

The Great Uncrowned can be bought here

Football is such a game of narrow margins that success balances on a tightrope. I always recall somebody, when referring to a club stalwart of an under-achieving club as a “born winner”. My response was, “how can he be, he’s played for this single club all his career and won nothing of significance. Don’t you mean, he wants to be a winner?”. Everyone in football wants to be a winner, from the humblest club to the behemoth that needs to win something every single season. It cannot be done, because one goal can change a match, a final, a season, a career. Simple fact: not everyone can be a winner, even if by making cup competitions more and more like leagues (a la Champions League) removes some of the uncertainty.

In recent times, we have seen two incredibly talented teams, Manchester City and Liverpool, slug it out at the top of the Premier League, thrashing minnows, winning game after game. It is Liverpool’s misfortune that City are that little bit better, hence denying them what would normally be a period of dominance. Although Liverpool haven’t won the Premier League more than once, their current team will be remembered forever as Champions League winners, but also as the team that ran City close.

It is getting harder and harder for “nearly men” to get the plaudits they deserve because the focus is on winning those prizes we deserve because we want them so much. This intense belief that only the word “success” will do extends beyond sport, where ludicrous expressions like “deferred success” are used to pacify and appease those that cannot reach the level they need. In corporate life, so often the real issues are kicked down the road because people just don’t want to tell someone they are not up to the task, they are underperforming or simply the wrong person for the job.

Somewhere we have lost the ability to see near-success as anything other than failure, the team that reached the final but ran out of steam or the over-performing side that just wasn’t good enough. Does losing the league title by one point or goal difference make the team that came top so much better? It’s true that league tables rarely lie, but they can also illustrate there is more than one very decent team.

Knockout competitions and World Cups are different, even if by making cup competitions more and more like leagues (a la Champions League) removes some of the uncertainty.

While leagues invariably deliver silverware to the best teams, cup competitions are exposed to the luck of the draw, the misfortune of the goalkeeper with oily gloves or the defender who slips up at a vital moment. A game of 90 minutes can change history – how would football have developed, for example, if teams like Austria 1934, Hungary 1954, Netherlands 1974 and 1978 and Brazil 1982 had triumphed instead of losing in heartbreaking fashion? The world wept with these losing sides, for they epitomised the beautiful game.

At Queens Park Rangers and Ipswich Town, clubs that have never had bulging trophy cabinets, their most revered teams are those that didn’t win the prize they coveted. Rightly so, for these teams played wonderful football that excited neutrals up and down the country.

Do we focus too much on winning and allow just a tiny fraction of teams onto the podium? Consider that there are 92 Premier/Football League clubs, a huge number. How many of these can be successful in any given season, and by that we mean, trophies and promotion?

If you count qualifying for Europe as a prize, and it should be, then 18 clubs of the 92 (20%) can look upon the 2021-22 season as a year of success. Others will consider staying in a division due to their circumstances as an achievement. Do we need more “winners” or does creating a community where, to quote the 1970s band Hot Chocolate, “everyone’s a winner, baby”, merely dilutes the essence of success?

The Great Uncrowned (ISBN: 9781801501774), published by Pitch Publishing, is the story of some of these footballing bridesmaids. It’s not meant to be definitive, although readers will recognise some of the very fine sides featured, but it is most definitely meant to be a tribute to the players and teams that should have been more decorated. To buy the book, click here