Admired for their ability to develop raw talent into world-class players - but still Red Bull are among the most hated clubs in Europe. Is it fair?

7 January 2020

Red Bull
Photo: Getty Images Erling Haaland and Dominik Szoboszlai from Red Bull Salzburg celebrates the victory after the tipico Bundesliga match between FC Red Bull Salzburg and SK Rapid Wien at Red Bull Arena on October 27, 2019 in Salzburg, Austria.

They just did it again. Last week the Haaland transfer from Red Bull Salzburg to Dortmund showed everyone that it was not a coincidence the Red Bull machine also moved Mané, Keita and Kimmich on to bigger addresses.

Despite their proven ability to build up academies and a style of play that develops young footballers into Champions League material, the Red Bull teams are still hated among supporters of most other clubs.

Taking a closer look, offthepitch.com uncovers the story of how Red Bull built a football empire and found an owner who couldn't care less what other people think.

Svend Bertil Frandsen bertil@offthepitch.com

With five teams on four continents and two clubs doing extremely well in the UEFA Champions League, Red Bull, the energy drink manufacturer established in 1987, has established a global football empire, and did so in record time.

But while the general idea of the company's football venture was to raise the PR value and awareness of the energy drink, its global success on the pitch has come at a high price.

Red Bull's ruthless business methods, aggressive marketing and tight-lipped organisation have created a virtual tsunami of criticism against the Austrian company -  which has been rumoured to be extending its empire to England, where it might even find a more sympathetic reaction to the highly commercial approach.

Since the first can of Red Bull went on sale on 1st April 1987, Red Bull has always done things its own way - and some would argue that it was inevitable that an organisation of such size, and with a keen interest in promoting its brand via sports, would in the end also turn to football.

Today, Red Bull owns four clubs (RB Leipzig, Red Bull Salzburg, Red Bull Brasil and New York Red Bulls) but its initial move into the football market was engulfed in controversy.

In 2005 the company purchased Austria Salzburg and immediately changed the name to FC Red Bull Salzburg. All management and staff were dismissed and the traditional violet and white club colours were changed to red and white. In addition, a completely new club logo was designed, and Red Bull wiped away all previous results of Austria Salzburg, causing a riot among devoted fans.

Indeed, such was the discontent that fans quickly decided to form a new club: SV Austria Salzburg, currently in the Austrian fourth tier.

RB Leipzig fans can sign up to become members for lower ticket prices and other offers, but they cannot become voting members. This has made Leipzig undoubtedly the most hated club in Germany

The Danish women's national team coach, Lars Søndergaard, who was youth coach for Red Bull Salzburg between 2008 and 2009, and head coach of Austria Salzburg from 2001 to 2003, recalls the events at the club some 16 years ago.

"What Red Bull did to Austria Salzburg was a disgrace," Søndergaard told offthepitch.com.

"It was very disrespectful what they did. You cannot treat people like that, and I totally understand the frustration among the fans. They took away all the traditions and history of a club and put their big logo all over their new shirt. It's supposed to be clever marketing to make people buy more of their products, but when you create such antagonism in people, perhaps such a ploy has the opposite effect."

Bull's head thrown onto the pitch

Red Bull's subsequent plans to sow the seeds of success in the German Bundesliga by acquiring the league licence of fifth-tier SSV Markranstadt, located 13 kilometres west of Leipzig, was as effective as it was ruthless, inelegant and controversial.

Again, the company wasted no time dismantling the club to form a completely new identity for the club, which became known as "RasenBallsport Leipzig" as title sponsors were banned.

Red Bull
Photo: Getty Images Fans of RB Leipzig during the UEFA Europa League Group B match between FC Salzburg and RB Leipzig at Red Bull Arena on November 29, 2018 in Salzburg, Austria.

What attracted even further criticism was the way Red Bull went around the 50+1 rule. This rule ensures that clubs - and, by extension, the fans - hold a majority of their own voting rights, which guarantees that private investors cannot take over clubs and possibly push through measures that put profit over the wishes of supporters.

RB Leipzig only has 17 members, all employed either directly or indirectly by Red Bull. RB Leipzig fans can sign up to become members for lower ticket prices and other offers, but they cannot become voting members.

This has made Leipzig undoubtedly the most hated club in Germany and it is no coincidence that a bull's severed head was thrown onto the pitch during a bitter rivalry clash between Dynamo Dresden and RB Leipzig in August 2016.

Only interested in selling more energy drinks

The manner in which Red Bull has paved the way for expanding its organisation in Leipzig and Salzburg comes as no surprise to Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at Salford Business School.

"If you go back 100 years, football clubs were established on the basis of where people lived and worked," Chadwick told offthepitch.com.

"So, what you had was these socio-cultural institutions that were deeply embedded in their local community. European football is basically an old aristocracy based on history and tradition. But Red Bull have a disregard for history and tradition. Some might even argue that they are only interested in the Champions League for the fact that it will allow them to sell more energy drinks.

And I also think that signing well-known, established talent is not what the Red Bull brand is all about. The brand is all about youth, speed and high energy"

"For Red Bull to stay in the public eye, they have to be associated with football. But they haven't associated with football in the traditional way where you start a club right at the bottom of the pyramid and over years and decades you build that club and you build a history, you build a heritage.

"I can understand the criticism of Red Bull Salzburg and RB Leipzig because fans are brought up with their respective clubs, it's part of their identity and their history. And effectively what has happened is that their source of their identity has been commercialised and corporatised."

Encouraging words

To be fair, while Red Bull's football venture has mostly attracted harsh criticism, there are also encouraging words being said about part of the company's strategy.

For an organisation of such financial strength, most football experts would probably have expected Red Bull to put its faith in established stars - and that was undoubtedly the case in the early days of its campaigns for global recognition.

Back then, Thierry Henry and Youri Djorkaeff were brought in to boost New York Red Bulls, while players like Thomas Linke, Alexander Zickler and Niko Kovac, as well as coaches like Giovanni Trappatoni and Co Adriaanse, created added attention around Red Bull Salzburg.

Since then the overall recruitment policy of the Red Bull teams has undergone a significant change. Today there are no galactico signings in the squads. Instead, Red Bull relies on a finely tuned scouting system and a well-organised network of academies to spot and produce young talent.

Indeed, players like Joshua Kimmich, Naby Keita and Sadio Mané are examples of talented youngsters who were signed at an early age, groomed within the Red Bull academies, and then sold for vast profits. RB Leipzig and Red Bull Salzburg together made a profit of around £70 million from selling them to Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Southampton, respectively.

Red Bull Salzburg also cashed in big time last week when they sold Norwegian prodigy Erland Braut Haaland (signed from Molde FK in January) to German outfit Borussia Dortmund.

Change of strategy

"Historically, they have signed well-known, established players," says Simon Chadwick.

"However, they fairly quickly realised that signing aging stars, who couldn't be sold on for large profits, was bad business for them. And I also think that signing well-known, established talent is not what the Red Bull brand is all about. The brand is all about youth, speed and high energy.

"If you look at Toro Rosso (Red Bull team) in the Formula One as a point of comparison, they also don't sign established talent. They sign upcoming young stars. This is a different brand. It's got special features and characteristics to it. So, if you compare Toro Rosso to Ferrari, then Ferrari signs established talent. Ferrari is the old aristocracy and Red Bull is very, very different from that."

Lars Søndergaard also feels that fans and the media generally have been quick to jump on the bandwagon of criticism directed at Red Bull and forgotten about all the positive things which the organisation has done for football.

If you look at how they have established football clubs everywhere else in the world, I can certainly see a possibility for them in England as well"

"I think sometimes people have seen the image of the bull and seen red. It's understandable that the things they did in Salzburg and Leipzig created strong feelings in people. When people see the logo, they immediately get this picture of a big money-making machine.

"But some of the criticism is unfounded because they have also done something good for football. Look at the development of the game in Salzburg and Leipzig - football was virtually dead there but now they have, more or less, created a football mania there," says Søndergaard.

Red Bull in England

Whether a similar football boom could be created in England is questionable, but there have been rumours that Red Bull is interested in expanding its football empire to England.

How the company would be received in the country where football had its origin, a country where history and tradition perhaps mean more than anywhere else in the world, is difficult to answer - but the possibilities are there for Red Bull to develop, says Chadwick.

Red Bull
Photo: Getty Images Norwegian sensation Haaland celebrating yet another goal.

"If you look at how they have established football clubs everywhere else in the world, I can certainly see a possibility for them in England as well. They are looking for the big population centres and the clubs that are easily accessible.

"You can imagine teams along the M4 motorway leading out of London, Swindon, Bristol, Reading, etc., because essentially what you have there is a transport corridor and they are large population centres with people who are used to commuting.

"The only thing they are interested in is competing in the Champions League, so that is likely to be at least a ten-year project. A possible issue would be price because English clubs are usually more expensive than elsewhere, and there is an issue with how fans will receive it, not to mention the possible ramifications of Brexit, and then there are transfer fees and salaries.

"All those things would be possible stumbling blocks for them for an English project. But as we have seen with the likes of Leicester City and Sheffield United, I wouldn't say that it would be impossible for a Red Bull club to challenge for Champions League spots in England, but like I said, it's an enormous project."