A CERTAIN ENERGY DRINKS COMPANY ARE NO STRANGERS TO CONTROVERSY. A maiden foray into football ownership, assuming control of SV Austria Salzburg and subtly re-branding them to Red Bull Salzburg, brought about a near-domination in the Austrian league.
Five of the eight available Austrian Bundesliga titles since the takeover have gone to the also subtly named Red Bull Arena, besides the only two Austrian Cups in an 81-year history. Is it obvious Red Bull is the entity behind the Salzburg experiment?
Money and success failed to unify relations between the boardroom and terraces. Split factions emerged within the fan base and the Violettes, those hoping to preserve Salzburg’s traditions, staged waves of protests as Red Bull powered through with investment plans. Scores of fans walked out of a home game with Austria Vienna and subsequently formed a breakaway club, adopting the club’s original name of SV Austria Salzburg.
Last season they finished top of the third-tier’s West section but agonisingly suffered defeat in a promotion playoff, ensuring a two-league gap between themselves and their imposters in the Austrian Bundesliga remains. Any solace lay in two wins over a relegated Red Bull Salzburg II team, compromising mostly of youth players. Even those fixtures have proved to be typically fiery affairs, setting a clear precedent for an emotionally charged match destined to take place between both first XIs sometime in the future.
The purchase of Salzburg’s biggest club and subsequent acquisitions of New York, Brazilian and Ghanaian-based outfits barely reached major sporting headlines, though the rapidly moving project of Germany’s RB Leipzig threatens to attract considerable negativity, particularly as they undermine the country’s much-cherished 50+1 ownership system.
Traditionally a perennial lower-league club, SSV Markranstädt attracted the interest of Red Bull after a failed takeover bid of nearby FC Sachsen Leipzig. Violent demonstrations thwarted that takeover effort and non-violent protests jeopardised the Markranstädt deal, with fans spreading weed killer across the pitch at Stadion am Bad. DFL (German Football League) restrictions on team names ensured Red Bull would never be ingrained in the name but it failed to deter clever executives, who named the club RasenBallsport Leipzig, translating as ‘Leipzig lawn ball sports’ – shortened to RB, a tenuous but recognisable link to the sponsorship.
Once ratified, it was a deal that could change the face of modern day German football ownership.
Red Bull’s project is akin to a global franchising experiment. All five sides play in a re-branded Red Bull Arena; have an identical or extremely similar badge involving the infamous bulls; have RB incorporated into the team names; are nicknamed Die Bullen (The Bulls), and sport matching kits.Their clear aim is to associate the brand with success across the globe, hence pumping millions of euros into each club to achieve such triumphs – exactly what most German fans detest and fiercely oppose. An exploitation of the 50+1 ownership structure is fundamental to their hopes of glory in East Germany.
50+1 is the notion of fans retaining a majority interest in respective clubs. Fans can become members of their chosen team for a nominal fee, receiving a vote in the day-to-day operations in return. With seats for fan representatives on the club board, those on the terraces are heavily involved in decision-making processes, from setting tickets prices to electing a club president.
In essence, fans have controlling votes and thus halt any advancing commercial investments without the club’s morale obligations at heart. Advertising and other revenue streams remain open for corporations but unsustainable capital spending from an oligarch would never pass through, such is the loyal nature of supporters towards their team.
Though not breaking the rules per se, RB Leipzig are stretching the boundaries of the 50+1 system to opportunistic lengths. A compulsory membership system is in place and the club has 11 members, all of whom paid a start-up fee of €100 and a staggering yearly fee of €800; Borussia Dortmund recently exceeded 100,000 members paying €62 each and are inundated with 2,000 new requests every month. RB’s paltry figure only provokes alarm bells – and the club can reject a membership request without any explanation. Considering all members are employees of the drinks company, it remains a damaging anomaly to standard practice.
Calls for the DFL to disprove the membership system ahead of their 2. Bundesliga promotion proved ineffectual and big clubs are starting to take notice, with Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge speaking out and calling upon DFL to revisit its’ licensing decision. Even if it has been rejected, the soft drinks corporation would almost certainly have taken them down a lengthy and expensive litigation route.
With no traditional fan base to hold the board accountable, a heavy injection of finances and infrastructure contributed to an enigmatic rise, encompassing three promotions in a five-year history which leaves them handily placed one step below the Bundesliga. Stadion am Bad was ditched after a year as the club upped sticks and moved eight miles towards central Leipzig, becoming tenants in the previously empty Zentralstadion (now predictably known as Red Bull Arena). Renovated for the World Cup in 2006, its vacancy provided an ideal platform for an ever-expanding club, who duly increased their available capacity by approximately 39,000.
Increasing success, growing crowds and larger transfer fees are not mutually exclusive events so summer spending before a maiden 2. Bundesliga campaign was to be expected, but the sheer extent of their expenditure is alarming for a second division club.
No signing better represents their financial clout than Ante Rebić, a Croatian international striker signed on loan from Fiorentina. The 21-year-old starred in the 2014 World Cup but a lack of action for La Viola last season instigated loan move, albeit to an unlikely destination that seems far removed from his fledgling standard.
If Rebić’s signing seemed peculiar, another player transferred in and subsequently shipped out highlights serious pitfalls of one entity controlling a number of clubs. When Red Bull Salzburg announced ex-Anderlecht midfielder Massimo Bruno’s arrival at the club, no details of his detour were explicity stated; RB Leipzig paid a handsome fee for his services (a reported €9 million) and immediately loaned him to their partnered club. An attempt to surreptitiously disclose the finer details does little to appease critics.
Marcel Sabitzer, one of Austria’s brightest talents, made a similar move in even more acrimonious circumstances. Once a striker at Austria Wien, a title rival of Red Bull Salzburg, his buyout clause of €2 million was only applicable to foreign clubs; RB Leipzig duly paid the fee and sent him packing back over across the border to Salzburg on loan.
According to respected website Transfermarkt, RB Lepzig’s outlay this season alone eclipses €19 million, with nothing received for players who left the Red Bull Arena. It is remarkable that a club of Leipzig’s standing can fund such activity and afford to release €11 million worth of players as soon as they stepped foot at the club. Once their long-term aim of Bundesliga football has been reached, even larger fees and wages can tempt big-name footballers to East Germany and their assault on Germany’s top division will begin.
Conglomeration and synergism between related parties is damaging in a transfer system and no other 2. Bundesliga club could dream of such activity in the current ownership system. In the eyes of German fans, Die Bullen are bending the rules so far they may as well be breaking them.
Other club’s supporters are making a stand, albeit a futile one. Fans of RB Leipzig’s first ever 2. Bundesliga opponents, VfR Aalen, boycotted attending the fixture at the Red Bull Arena, citing a refusal to fill the coffers of a club many viciously oppose. Any visiting support on RB’s turf tend to shower the hosts with abusive chants but it fails to deter the hierarchy, who rejected the notion of being a traditional club ever since its inception.
The man overseeing Red Bull’s project has been here before. Ralf Rangnick, an experienced manager with a wealth of knowledge on German football, was charged with managing the rise of TSG 1899 Hoffenheim from third-tier obscurity to Bundesliga challengers. Dietmar Hopp, a local millionaire, bankrolled Hoffenheim towards their current spot in the Bundesliga and set a blueprint RB Leipzig aim to replicate, so why not recruit the man who masterminded the on-field business?
Rangnick departed Hoffenheim in 2011 after Luiz Gustavo’s sale to Bayern Munich and eventually joined the Red Bull revolution as sporting director in 2012 – working for both RB Leipzig and Red Bull Salzburg. The 56-year-old has a unique role in recruiting players and sending them to whichever club he sees fit. As Red Bull continue to pump millions into RB Leipzig, Rangnick and an open chequebook could be a brutal force in future Bundesliga campaigns.
For every negative, some positive naturally comes from SSV Markranstädt’s transformation from debt-ridden club to Bundesliga hopefuls. The Saxony region has been bereft of top-class football and Red Bull’s intervention provides residents of Germany’s 12th largest city with a glimmer of sporting hope.
RB Leipzig may be indicative of how a majority of modern football clubs function but Germans are keen to preserve tradition; the same values that brought envious looks from leagues around the world and produced integral components of the recent World Cup win.
In effect, the DFL are powerless to resist RB Leipzig’s rise; they must hope the experiment somehow collapses and discourages others from exploiting the same loopholes. Any prolonged success could see others to follow suit and Germany’s 50+1 system may crumble down amidst trophies, greed and, ultimately, money.
By Luke Bidwell. Follow @luke_bidwell