Austrian Cup brings together the record champions and the club whose heritage they stole
There are grudge matches and then there are grudge matches. When Austria Salzburg face Red Bull Salzburg in the Austrian Cup on Tuesday evening, September 26, it’s the Alpine equivalent of AFC Wimbledon vs MK Dons.
Taking place at the neutral ground of SV Grödig outside Salzburg, deep in cornfields and farmland, the clash between Austria’s most successful team of modern times, a promotional vehicle for the world’s most popular energy drink, and the original fan-based club they usurped, is the first time the two have met since the schism.
“Memorable football festival or sporting nightmare?” proclaimed local paper, the Salzburger Nachrichten in its lead story. “Eighteen years have passed since the ideological division of Salzburg’s football soul,” continued SN, which has been waiting just as long for this moment to happen. “…18 years since the club was taken over by the global corporation Red Bull and the re-foundation of Austria Salzburg initiated by fans in 2005. For 18 years, there has been no sporting activity at competitive level…”
For their part, Red Bull Salzburg, by now a club whose 14 (!) title wins since 2007 have allowed its followers to experience the footballing bearpits of AEK Athens, Fenerbahçe and Levski Sofia, gave this advice concerning travelling to Grödig: “Tickets include a shuttle bus from the Red Bull Arena directly to the away sector in Grödig and back. We urge you not to travel independently to Grödig!”
When Red Bull took over city flagship SV Austria Salzburg in 2005, it polarised local support and changed domestic football forever.
In fact, it wasn’t so much the takeover as the whitewashing from history of whatever came before. 2005 was Year Zero – name, team colours and tradition all went out the window.
It didn’t have to be that way, still argue loyal followers of the Violets, whose breakaway, phoenix club uses the original name of Austria’s title winners in 1994, 1995 and 1997. True, by the early 2000s, Austria Salzburg had lost their way slightly and were struggling financially.
Initially, much like Newcastle fans embracing the Saudi arrival, supporters were delighted for any injection of cash into their beloved club, even if it meant the introduction of a sponsor’s name – after all, wasn’t it Casino Salzburg who reached the final of the UEFA Cup a decade or so before?
But that’s not how it worked out. Today Red Bull is a global football brand, with interests in Leipzig, New York and São Paulo – and the first step was right here in Salzburg, where the red, white and blue kit was launched. With such plans for world domination, violet wasn’t in the colour scheme.
In the end, it came down to socks. As a sop to the angry Austria Salzburg faithful, the incoming management suggested that the goalkeeper’s socks could be violet. Uproar.
Seeing red, and unable to reach agreement with the new owners on retaining at least something of their club’s 60-year history, hard-core fans set up SV Austria Salzburg, AFC Wimbledon-style. This moral continuation of the original club formed in 1933 rose through the lower ranks to play in the Regional League West, Austria’s third tier.
In a way, bizarrely, both groups got what they wanted. Red Bull Salzburg soon dominated Austrian football, notching up a comprehensive string of league titles, breaking the Viennese monopoly and bringing managers of the quality of Giovanni Trapattoni, Co Adriaanse and Huub Stevens to Mozart’s birthplace.
They also operate a conveyer belt of blooding young talent in the relatively docile Austrian Bundesliga, then selling on to a richer club or, ideally, one in the same family. The classic example is current Liverpool star Dominik Szoboszlai, who made his professional debut at 16 with Red Bull Salzburg’s nursery team, FC Liefering, moved up to the main club and then up the company ladder to RB Leipzig in the German Bundesliga.
Austria Salzburg, meanwhile, can justifiably occupy the moral high ground, although it’s been quite a bumpy climb up. In 2014, they made the play-offs for the second flight but lost out to FAC Vienna. Then, in 2015, the unbelievable happened. With a memorable late goal in Kitzbühel, Austria Salzburg gained promotion to the second flight. In 2015-16, the Violets stood one campaign from the Austrian Bundesliga – and Red Bull.
What followed, however, was relegation to the third tier. Then came worse. The phoenix club had soared too high, too soon, struggled to pay its licence fees in the higher echelons of the Austrian league network, owed creditors €1.4 million and was docked six points.
At no point, must it be said, did anyone go cap in hand to Red Bull…
The six points wouldn’t have been enough to sink Austria Salzburg but bankruptcy meant a drop another level to the Salzburg league and amateur football. A harsh lesson learned, and with a restructuring of the third and fourth tiers, the Violets now occupy the third level, broken down into three regional divisions.
In fact, Austria Salzburg currently sit top of the Regionalliga West, undefeated after nine games – but none of the 1,000-plus gathered every home game at the Max-Aicher-Stadion wishes for a repeat of 2016.
What they can look forward to is a completely rebuilt stadium of 5,000 capacity with residential apartments attached, underlining Austria Salzburg’s role as a community club. Earlier this year, Violet fans turned up in serious numbers with flags and flares to support the under-7 team.
For Munich entrepreneur Aicher, due to celebrate his 80th birthday in 2024, this is a legacy project, a chance to give back after decades dealing in steel and real estate. His involvement began in 2019 with sponsorship of the Austria Salzburg stadium, over in the far west of town near the airport.
Only 2km but a world away, the Red Bull Arena is close as the crow flies, at Wals-Siezenheim west of town, walking distance from the German border.
On Tuesday evening, followers of each club will be heading the 10km south to Grödig, Violets in celebration, having waited 18 years for this moment and survived, followers of Red Bull climbing somewhat trepidatiously into those supporters’ shuttle buses.
Grödig’s 4,000-capacity MGG Arena, the other side of the motorway from a sleepy market town of 7,000 people at the foot of the Berchtesgaden Alps, is as unlikely a location for a showdown as any.
Austria Salzburg-Red Bull Salzburg, Austrian Cup, MGG Arena, Grödig, September 26, 8.45pm.