Austria Salzburg refuse to play second fiddle to Red Bull 18 years after split

<span>Photograph: Dpa/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Dpa/Alamy

Before kick-off at the MGG Arena, south of Salzburg, a banner went up among the fans in violet and white. In block white capitals, it read: “For you only success and money count, you characterless bull-swines!” As the smoke rising from the flares behind the home goal made the stands look like a cauldron, a deafening chorus of anti-Red Bull chants echoed around the ground. Austria Salzburg fans’ pre-match tifo showed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the city’s most famous son, decked out in violet and white, bringing his instrument crashing down on the head of a bloated red bull. Underneath it, supporters displayed another banner, which read: “In Salzburg, we play first violin.”

Austria Salzburg fans’ animosity towards Red Bull can be traced back 18 years to the company’s takeover at the Stadion Wals-Siezenheim, now known as the Red Bull Arena, after which disillusioned supporters broke away and set up a phoenix club, which on Tuesday met Red Bull Salzburg for the first time. The origins of the feud made it hard not to view this as a clash between corporate power and fan power, cash and community, and two fundamentally different visions of the game.

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When, in April 2005, Red Bull bought Austria Salzburg, some fans were optimistic. The energy drink giant, despite being a vast multinational company, was also a highly familiar brand given it was founded locally and had headquarters in nearby Fuschl am See. After years of struggle, fans hoped that Red Bull’s financial might would help restore the club, Uefa Cup runners-up and three-times Austrian Bundesliga champions in the 1990s, to former glories. Instead, the new owner attempted to erase the club’s identity and remake it in its own image.

While changing name was not unprecedented – the club had been called Casino Salzburg during a long period of sponsorship by an Austrian casino company, for instance – that was only the start of the Red Bull Salzburg relaunch. The club’s badge was made to resemble the company’s logo, fans were told they were watching “a new club” with “no history” and the team’s traditional violet-and-white kit was switched to red and white to reflect Red Bull’s branding.

Changing the club’s colours was widely seen as crossing the line, alienating a swathe of supporters so profoundly that, after trying and failing to negotiate with Red Bull via the umbrella group Initiative Violett-Weiss, they decided they had no other option but to go their own way. Fans still bitterly recall the point of no return when, in what was perceived as a calculated insult to those campaigning to protect the club’s heritage, Red Bull offered a few minor concessions including the possibility of violet goalkeeper socks.

Supporters had to start from scratch, resurrecting Austria Salzburg in the 2.Klasse Nord A, the seventh tier of Austrian football, before winning four promotions on the bounce and eventually clambering up to the second division. Their first foray into professional football ended badly, with the club falling into debt and going through a period of crisis, and they are back in the third tier. More important than their league position is the fact that Austria Salzburg are answerable to their fans, fierce custodians of their traditions, and able to wear their historical colours with pride. It took the draw for the second round of the Austrian Cup for them to meet Red Bull Salzburg for the first time.

Austria Salzburg’s reaction was testament to the enduring anger over the events of 18 years ago. They avoided addressing Red Bull by name through official channels, replacing their logo with a black circle containing the letters “RB”, and have since referred to them as “Konstrukt” (“Construct”) or not at all.

Austria Salzburg fans often draw parallels between the way Red Bull effectively usurped their league position, leaving them to do the hard work of starting at the bottom and working their way up, and the history of AFC Wimbledon and MK Dons, with “Construct” echoing Wimbledon fans’ use of the disparaging nickname “Franchise”. Similarly, despite the momentous nature of the game, it felt wrong to call this a derby: for many Austria Salzburg fans, that would run the risk of legitimising their nemeses.

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There was little doubt as to which club was the neutrals’ favourite. Red Bull, having won the past 10 Bundesliga titles, are much resented by fans of the league’s former powerhouses. When Rapid Wien hosted Sturm Graz on Saturday both sets of supporters displayed anti-Red Bull banners, with the home fans hoisting one which read: “In Salzburg, only Austria.” There were also messages of support from Germany – no surprise, given the deep unpopularity of Red Bull Salzburg’s sister club RB Leipzig – and England, with FC United of Manchester, kindred spirits who have twice met Austria Salzburg in friendlies, among those to wish them luck.

Even with so many hoping for an upset, however, it wasn’t to be. Austria Salzburg, having conceded early, clung on doggedly for an hour before their opponents added three goals as the second half wore on. Ultimately, the vast gulf between the two sides proved unbridgeable. Last week, Red Bull beat Benfica away in the Champions League; at the weekend, Austria Salzburg drew with VfB Hohenems in the Regionalliga West.

For many Austria Salzburg fans, the result was relatively trivial. “This was a game of a team from the third division against one that wins games in the UCL,” says Stefan Schubert, a board member. “We held up pretty well. Also, just existing, still being there, loud and proud, that is a victory in itself. I could not be more proud of everyone involved. The atmosphere was electric and the boys played their heart out.”

As the Austria Salzburg players lined up after the final whistle to applaud their fans, and vice versa, there was little to suggest they had been beaten. After the match, many supporters will have been reminded of a popular slogan during the early days of their fight against Red Bull: “Die Austria wird euch alle überleben!” (“Austria will outlast you all!”)