Red Bull have made their mark on football and are only growing in power and influence, but the key to their future may lie in the hands of a little-known project in Sao Paulo. Alex Jackson explores the history of Red Bull Bragantino.
Red Bull is a brand synonymous with sport. Formula 1, cliff diving, air racing, the novelty Flugtag and Soapbox Derby events, you don’t have to look far to see the charging bulls offering you wings.
Their most infamous operation is of course their football department. Red Bull owns several clubs globally: Red Bull Salzburg, New York Red Bulls, and most recently the German side RB Leipzig who, less than a decade after the energy drink gave them a boost, stand on the precipice of a Champions League final.
Like any major corporate backer, Red Bull have drawn their fair share of scorn from football fans.
The complaints levelled at them are numerous, but tend to be one of their circumvention of Germany’s 50+1 rule, their corporatisation of football, or their wiping of clubs’ identity so they can bear the Red Bull brand.
But these discussions tend to focus on Red Bull’s European operations in Salzburg and Leipzig. Red Bull’s football network is global, and a lesser known spoke of Red Bull’s footballing wheel lies on the other side of the world in football’s second home.
Red Bull Brasil were one of Red Bull’s older footballing operations, first being formed in 2007, younger only than Salzburg and New York.
Unlike many of Red Bull’s footballing projects, which involve buying an existing club or their playing rights, Red Bull Brasil was built from the ground up as its own club. The intention remained the same, however: ascend through the leagues and become a champion.
Unfortunately Red Bull’s executives in Austria didn’t foresee what they were signing up to by joining Brazil’s chaotic league setup.
Brazil’s footballing pyramid is unique. The national pyramid is composed of four divisions, Serie A through D, which teams are promoted and relegated between each season.
After Serie D however things get convoluted. When teams are relegated from Serie D, who replaces them is decided by the Brazilian FA. How do they determine who is deserving of these places? They look at the State Championships.
The Brazilian season begins in February with the State Championships, where each state of Brazil gathers its teams to play each other for local dominance.
It’s not too different from England’s county cups, and treated with as much respect by the top Brazilian teams as those are.
But for smaller teams State Championships are a shop window. Impress in them and you may be invited into the national pyramid. If not, you’re stuck playing state league for another year until the next championship comes around.
So the route to the top for Red Bull Brasil looked like this: impress in the State Championship, get invited to Serie D, work your way up to Serie A; mission accomplished. It would take a few years, but Red Bull wouldn’t have created a project from scratch if they wanted instant success.
The only problem was this project was created in the State of Sao Paulo, home of the Campeonato Paulista, arguably the toughest and most competitive of Brazil’s State Championships.
The Campeonato Paulista is composed of four divisions, and after early success Red Bull Brasil eventually found themselves stuck in the second tier. It took until 2014, seven years after their founding, to finally reach the top division.
In 2015 they took a pivotal step: a sixth place finish in the Campeonato Paulista got them the elusive invite to Serie D. The project finally seemed to be bearing fruit.
And once again, they got stuck. Serie D is cruel: unless you’re promoted, you’re not guaranteed to stay in the national pyramid. Qualification has to be earned through the State Championship.
Red Bull Brasil failed to take their chance, not making it out of the group stage. Another strong State Championship performance in 2016 earned them a second chance in 2017, whereupon they bowed out at the Group Stage yet again.
Then things really went south for the project. 2017’s State Championship saw a group stage exit, meaning there would be no Serie D campaign in 2018. 2018 rolled around, and the same fate befell them.
What had started as Red Bull’s project to tap into Brazil’s illustrious football market had turned into a catastrophic failure.
But if football has taught us anything: when things look difficult, just spend a lot of money to make the problem go away.
Clube Atletico Bragantino were a middling team for most of their history. Despite some early success in the early 90s they had spent the 21st Century bouncing between Serie B and Serie C, neither threatening the status quo nor skirting danger. They also happened to be based in Sao Paulo state.
Sure enough, in April 2019 Bragantino announced a merger with Red Bull Brasil. All footballing assets were handed over to the Austrian drink maker, and they set to work getting their project up and running.
This time there was no delay. Bragantino ended up finishing 2019’s Serie B in 1st place, gaining promotion to Serie A.
In 2020 the finishing touches were applied, with the two clubs’ names being merged to become Red Bull Bragantino.
In typical Red Bull Brasil style their maiden Serie A campaign has been hit with problems in the form of coronavirus, but regardless the initial goal has been achieved: get Red Bull Brasil to the top flight.
The question remains what the purpose of this project is. Red Bull’s escapade in Brazil has seen little media coverage, likely due to their lack of success compared to their European counterparts.
The most obvious theory is to provide a pipeline from the footballing powerhouse that is Brazil to their other teams. Should Red Bull Bragantino unearth the next Neymar they won’t have to be embroiled in squabbles with European powerhouse clubs to ensure they land in Salzburg or Leipzig.
It’s an open secret that Red Bull love to use a pipeline to feed their main projects. They first did it with Toro Rosso/AlphaTauri to feed their Red Bull Racing Formula 1 team. The same goes with football: of RB Leipzig’s current 24-man squad, seven have played for Red Bull Salzburg at some stage in their career.
Indeed, perhaps that pipeline is already in effect. Currently on loan at Red Bull Bragantino is 19-year old-Luan Candido. His parent club? RB Leipzig. Signed in 2019 from Palmeiras’ youth setup, he likely doesn’t have the experience to acquire a Schengen work visa and move to Europe.
Perhaps then Red Bull Brasil is not just a chance for these prospects to gain experience on home soil that will eventually allow them to earn a work visa in Europe, but also get them used to the style of play dictated by Red Bull HQ, so that when he can finally come to Europe he can slot in without issue.
Red Bull’s 15-year long football project has reached its highest height to date with RB Leipzig’s advance to the semi finals of the Champions League, and shows no signs of slowing down. Considering they are arguably the biggest threat to Bayern’s hold on the Bundesliga, their next step is no doubt domination of both their domestic league and continental competition.
As always, they will likely intend to do that by supplying their squad through their pipeline. Salzburg have served them well up to now and will likely continue to do so, but with their ascent to Serie A Red Bull Bragantino now gives them first dibs on some of South America’s brightest prospects.
Instead of paying hefty fees and fighting off the Barcelonas and Manchester Citys of this world, they now have a head start on the best Brazil has to offer, and no doubt at a fraction of the price.
The Red Bull Empire has only grown over the past decade, and with the Red Bull Brasil experiment having finally come to fruition do not be surprised if they take the next step in the years to come.