Soccer City: Salzburg

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.

Photo: slgckgc CC-BY-2.0

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.

Violet is the colour Photo: Nicolai CC BY-NC 2.0

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 merchandise at Red Bull World Photo: GOTP

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.

Photo: Ungry Young Man CC-BY-2.0

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.

On the ball…Photo: GOTP

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?




Football Media Watch: Opportunity knocks for France

FRANCE may have gone wild with delight in response to the country’s second World Cup win, but there were still some dark clouds to contend with as Didier Deschamps and his players danced in the rain. CNN said France’s World Cup victory, with a team made up primarily of black and Muslim players, “may have been perceived internationally as a collective celebration of an ideal of social mobility and racial equality, but that vision is deeply contested”.

Over half of French people believe that Marine Le Pen, leader of the far right in France, represents a “nationalist and xenophobic” party. Worryingly, a lot of folk look to her idea of “nationalism” as the way ahead. CNN added that if French nationalism needed a focus for its inspiration, starlet Kylian Mbappe fits the bill. “He is, in many ways, the embodiment of the ‘French dream’.” Writer Myriam Francois warned, though that, “in today’s France, it simply isn’t enough to hope this victory can plaster over the cracks”.

Back in 1998, when France won the World Cup on home turf, the team was nicknamed, “génération black, blanc, beur (the black-white-Arab generation)”. This “rainbow team”, led by Zinedine Zidane, of Algerian descent, was supposedly the future of France. The Guardian’s Andrew Hussey commented that, “this moment did not last long and since then French society, under threat from terrorism and its own internal problems, has undoubtedly become more splintered than ever”.

MOSCOW, RUSSIA – JULY 15, 2018: France’s President Emmanuel Macron (C standing) celebrates a goal as FIFA President Gianni Infantino (L) looks on at the final match of FIFA World Cup Russia 2018 between France and Croatia at Luzhniki Stadium. Alexei Nikolsky/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS

Another Guardian writer, Iman Amrani, said France squandered the unity created by the 1998 win. “The World Cup wasn’t enough to fix the underlying problems and, 20 years on, France has the same ingerdients of terror attacks, the far right – and a diverse, winning national football team.”

She added: “The fact is that, as wonderful as football is as a sport, the jubilation of a World Cup win can only be ephemeral, so long as politicians don’t build on the energy it creates. This national win could only be a catalyst for change if Macron decides to act on it.”

Bloomberg reported that while the feel-good moment of a World Cup win can bring the nation together, it won’t necessarily translate into a sustained economic boost. Nathalie Henaff of Limoges University, said:“The victory will clearly impact the social cohesion in France: It brings people together, it creates a sense of national community. French people will consume differently, spend more time outdoors to celebrate, change behavior for some time, so we will witness a transfer of consumption. For the economy, it will be marginal. It’s a wash.”

Hermes’ Ludovic Subran forecasted the success may add 0.1 percentage points to France’s GDP. The economy expand 1.9% instead of 1.8%. France’s finance minister, speaking before kick-off in Moscow, said: “A World Cup victory gives French people confidence. There is a part of irrationality in economy, that thrives on confidence, desire and enthusiasm.”

Meanwhile, the Independent wrote that French president, Emmanuel Macron, is hoping for a popularity boost following France’s triumph. He was conspicuously in the limelight throughout the competition and staged a dramatic celebration in the VIP section as France won. Truly, he recognised that football is the game of the people!

Photo: PA