Saturday, August 13, 2011

Colours Clash: Red Bull and Austria Salzburg

Sociologists will no doubt have committed many a tree to the study of colours in social groups. In sport, they can be extremely important.

One of my rare moments of sporting success came at Primary school when my team, the Blue Team, beat the Red, Yellow and Green Team in the annual Sports Day. But the moment was sullied by the Deputy Head (who I will not embarrass by naming him) who announced the Red Team as the winners while handing the cup to the Blues' captain. While the error didn't spoil the moment it did illustrate that colours are both important and perhaps a little silly.

Many football supporters find colours an essential part of their club. Few clubs change them drastically and as the game continues to age and mature, the more established clubs would never countenance a change of hue. Colours, of course, should not be mixed up with brands which are a commodification of colours. Colours are social, brands are marketing and when the two clash, things get nasty. One of the most infamous examples of this is when Red Bull bought SV Austria Salzburg in 2005.

Those of you from a certain vintage may recall this club as Casino Salzburg who competed in the Champions League in the mid-nineties, however Austria Salzburg is the club’s original name and was founded in 1933. While not as big a name as its rivals in Vienna, the Salzburg club has history and no shortage of success. The Violet-Whites won three domestic titles and finished runners-up in the UEFA Cup in 1994, losing 2-0 to Internazionale over two legs.

Financially, however, the club have struggled and when the Austrian energy drink concern moved in, they were initially welcomed. However, once it became apparent that the club was to be made over in the style of the Red Bull brand, the supporters protested. The club changed its name to Red Bull Salzburg but the real sticking point were the strip colours. Austria Salzburg played in violet and white and not the red, white, blue and whatever else is going on there.

There were protests, negotiations, more negotiations and an offer from the club to change the colour of the socks to purple. In the end a large section of the supporters base decided to do one and form their own club. Later that year SV Austria Salzburg was formed and have been making their way through the lower leagues ever since. They now compete in the Regionalliga (Division 3).

While the Violet-Whites dream of a return to the Austrian Bundesliga, the Bulls continued with a new livery, a renamed stadium and success. Three domestic league titles followed, but what has eluded them, so far, is European glory.

The Austrian Bundesliga is not the strongest or most lucrative in Europe so you can imagine that Red Bull see the Champions League Group Stages as where the real money is. However, on the three separate occasions that they claimed the solitary qualification spot, they have failed to make it through the preliminary rounds, denied by Valencia, Donetsk and Maccabi Haifa respectively.

The Europa League has been a little kinder. Last season, FC Salzburg as they are known in UEFA competitions, managed to qualify for the group stages but finished bottom of a group they shared with Manchester City, Lech Posnan and a thoroughly disinterested Juventus, amassing two points, all campaign.

This year, Red Bull have appointed a new coach in the shape of Ricardo Moniz, a Dutchman who you may recall was caretaker for Hamburg when Bruno Labbadia was sacked in between the two-legged Europa League semi-final against Hamburg in 2010.

Their start to the 2011/12 Europa League campaign has gone pretty smoothly. The Bulls joined in the Second Qualifying Round and swept past Liepājas Metalurgs from Latvia, 4-1 on aggregate. The Third Qualifying Round was also pretty straightforward as that dealt with the Slovaks of Senica 4-0. The Brazilian striker Alan has scored five goals over the four matches.

This Thursday, the Salzburg club enter the Play-Off Round in, ahem, bullish mood. Their opponents are the tough but beatable Omonia. The Cypriots are experienced European campaigners but on balance the draw could have been worse for the Austrians. Qualification will be seen as progress from last year and another step foward in the development as a European force which will, one day, finally lead to the Champions League. Then Red Bull may start to get a return on their investment.

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