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Old 7th May 2007, 10:22   #1
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Default Salzburg fans adapting to sour taste of Red Bull

Salzburg fans adapting to sour taste of Red Bull
Mark Wilson
The Herald May 07 2007

How would you feel if a major corporation absorbed your football club, obliterating its history, tradition, and even team colours during the process of producing by far the most successful side in the country?

Would you go along with the ride and cheer their heavily logoed glory, or would you react with indignation at the franchising of football and stick true to the identity your club once had?

Just such a conflict has been played out in Austria during the two years since Red Bull, the energy drinks manufacturer, took control of what was once SV Austria Salzburg. Little now remains of that past incarnation. FC Red Bull Salzburg stormed to the Austrian league title nine days ago, but that ascent has left some people feeling queasier than a long night mixing the company's fizzy product with large vodkas.

The opposition mounted by Manchester United fans to the takeover of their club by Malcolm Glazer in 2005 has found its echo in central Europe. Glazer, though, has displayed fairly minimal interference since assuming control at Old Trafford. Red Bull romped in with horns lowered.

Initially, there was almost universal enthusiasm when Dietrich Mateschitz, the Austrian billionaire president of Red Bull, announced in April 2005 that the club had been purchased. It ended a spell of financial uncertainty and promised a secure future within the hands of highly successful businesspeople.

The corporate rebranding was swift and, while distasteful to traditionalists, it's not so unusual for a team in that part of the world to change their name. Austria Salzburg had spells under the monikers of Casino Salzburg and Wustenrot Salzburg.

Yet the essence of the organisation, its heritage and support, always remained the same.

This is where Red Bull charged on to new ground. The violet and white colours long associated with the club, UEFA Cup finalists in 1994, were unceremoniously ditched. In their place came the red, white and blue scheme of the parent brand, with a super-size logo at the centre of the jersey. Sources were quoted as insisting this was "a new club without history." Austria Salzburg's 72-year existence was an inconvenience to be ignored.

Not surprisingly, long-standing supporters became alarmed and staged a series of protests, urging the return of violet to the team colours. The dispute became increasingly bitter and dialogue between the club and its disaffected followers broke down completely in the autumn of 2005.

Fans' groups were allowed to register the name SV Austria Salzburg and have since launched a new club playing in the 2.Klasse Nord, the seventh tier of Austrian football, which can attract attendances in excess of a thousand.

That's not to say that Red Bull Salzburg play to an empty Bulls Arena. Far from it. Capacity crowds of 16,000 are the norm as a new breed of consumer enjoys the full-scale razzmatazz that can surround each "event".

On-field dominance undoubtedly helps. This season witnessed a procession towards the club's first championship in 10 years, or first-ever if you take the alternative point of view.

The double managerial appointment last May of Giovanni Trappatoni, the legendary Italian coach, and Lothar Matthaus, the former captain of Germany, signaled a new level of ambition. It's a bizarre set-up on the surface but Matthaus' presence is secondary. Trappatoni calls the shots.

Players capped by Germany, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Japan feature within an expensively assembled squad that confirmed its supremacy with five rounds of league fixtures to spare.

Red Bull's annual budget - which at about £30m per year is 50% higher than those of their main domestic rivals - has room for three or four quality additions before they join Rangers in the second qualifying round for next season's Champions League.

Exposure at that elite continental level would provide suitable reward for the corporation's investment and develop Red Bull's association with sport in a different direction to its ownership of the Formula One teams Red Bull Racing and Scuderia Toro Rosso.

They already have a foothold in the emerging US football market, having purchased the former New York Metrostars franchise and rebranded it as Red Bull New York.

Success in the sporting arena undoubtedly will raise positive perceptions about their business. The argument that has raged in Salzburg is whether the history and soul of a football club should be treated as just another commodity.
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. Martin Luther King
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