Exploring Red Bull’s football legacy after Dietrich Mateschitz’s death

On 22 October 2022, Dietrich Mateschitz, an Austrian billionaire businessman, passed away. Born in Nazi Germany, he studied at the Vienna University of Economics and Business and worked in marketing for Unilever and Blendax.

On one of his trips for Blendax, in Thailand, he bought a bottle of Krating Daeng, a local energy drink, and, sensing a business opportunity, he struck a deal with the company’s owner, Chaleo Yoovidhya, effectively becoming co-founder of what has now become Red Bull.

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A whole world lies between the brand’s launch in Austria in 1987 and its present day influence on the energy drink market as well as on extreme sports, Formula 1 and of course, football. In light of the mourning of his passing, accompanied by the many touching tributes from several corners of the sporting world, we take a deeper look at the effects that Dietrich Mateschitz and his Red Bull brand have had on the world of football and where the economic empire of the Red Bull Football Group could be heading in the future

Red Bull’s ambitious attempt to defy the limits and expectations of development in world football began in 2005, when they bought the ownership rights of SV Austria Salzburg, a mildly successful Austrian team which had even reached the UEFA cup final in 1994, losing it to Inter. The club was completely revamped; its name was changed, the Red Bull image appeared on the kits and on a brand new badge and the traditional violet colour was fully erased, with the red and white taking over. Mateschitz himself declared the now FC Red Bull Salzburg as a “new club with no history” and a new era in the team’s and the world’s history had begun. Success quickly followed, a common theme within the development of Red Bull clubs, as 13 Austrian Bundesliga titles have been won so far in the Red Bull reign, with the club never finishing lower than second since their overhaul in 2005.

A year later, in 2006, another club followed, as the New York MetroStars were bought and rebranded to the New York Red Bulls. The same treatment ensued as their colours, kits and badge as well as their name were altered to conform with the Red Bull image. The club’s first three Supporters’ Shields came in 2013, 2015 and 2018 while they still await their first ever Major League Soccer (MLS) Cup, having come close in 2008 when they lost in the final.

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Red Bull Brasil was founded in 2007, but with them failing to reach the Série A, the Brazilian top flight, Red Bull Bragantino followed in 2019, with the former acting as a feeder team for the more successful and established Bragança Paulista side. A Red Bull Salzburg feeder team was also established in 2011: FC Liefering. In 2008, Red Bull Ghana was founded, arguably Red Bull’s only failure in the world of football, with the club being dissolved in 2014 after only managing to reach Ghana’s second flight.

Then came Red Bull’s most ambitious project, the one that would put them on the world map if it succeeded. In 2009, the playing rights of then fifth tier German side SSV Markranstädt were purchased, after numerous teams from the second tier down had rejected Red Bull’s proposal. Once again, the club was completely transformed, becoming RasenBallsport Leipzig due to rules set by the DFB forbidding the corporate name to be used. The goal was to have them playing in the Bundesliga within a decade. Seven years and four promotions later they had achieved that goal, having been promoted from the Zweite Bundesliga in the 2015/16 season. Their rapid rise to success didn’t stop there as they finished second in their first ever top flight season, qualifying for the Champions League less than ten years after their founding. Seven years on from that first Bundesliga season and RB Leipzig have won one DFB-Pokal and have reached the semi-finals of both the Champions League and Europa League, while they are still in search of their first ever title.

Red Bull in football though has always been regarded as the evil, the enemy of the people. Hate is always a strong word to use, especially when one is talking about football. However, it seems to be one of the few words that can describe the feelings of affected fans towards Red Bull and their actions. The reasons, though, are not all very clear. One, and probably the first source of this deep hatred came immediately, in 2005. SV Austria Salzburg was founded in 1933, making it a historic, even if not incredibly successful, club. Yet Red Bull came along and effectively wiped them out completely, emphasized by Mateschitz’s comment quoted earlier and by the club’s claim that they had been founded in 2005.

Fans were rightfully outraged and were further humiliated when the club offered them to display their violet colour on the goalkeepers’ away socks. The traditional supporters, known as the “Violet-whites” protested, along with other fan groups from clubs around Europe seeing it as a fight against the growing commercialisation of the sport. But with the protests having no effect, a new club was formed, successfully registered with the original name of SV Austria Salzburg. So far, however, they have not made it back to their old heights, playing in the third tier, without yet having made a comeback appearance in the top flight in their 17 years of existence.

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Although this had an effect on European football, the slightly lesser importance of the Austrian Bundesliga meant that the problems of the scheme and the hate towards Red Bull were not yet mainstream. The ambitious and incredibly successful project that took place in Leipzig, however, would cause a much greater stir. Red Bull were interested in investing into German football as early as 2006, but, as already stated, they found it hard to attract clubs to the idea, mainly because of the thriving fan culture that controls most German clubs. And this is not by chance. The 50+1 rule states that investors can’t have more than a 49% stake in the club, meaning teams in Germany are, effectively, controlled by the members.

Red Bull wanted control though, so they found a loophole: to control the club they had to control the members. All seven founding members were employees or agents of Red Bull and since then, the cost of membership has risen to a crazy 1000 euros a year, with the already existing members having the power to reject any applications. And with each club in the Bundesliga needing a minimum of 20 members, it doesn’t come as a surprise that RB Leipzig have just 21. Whether the hate of other German fans towards RB Leipzig is justified is another question, but it’s clear to see why the sentiment is present. Essentially, RB Leipzig goes against all the values and standards of German fan culture, having become a corporate organization, run entirely by Red Bull and standing for everything that German football hates.

Looking beyond the negatives is hard, especially when the ever-present Red Bull image acts as a constant reminder. Yet, by setting one’s pride aside, the benefits to world football of this wide scale project spring to the eye. By no means do the positives cancel out the black pages in Red Bull’s history, but they add to it, counterbalancing the hatred with accomplishment. A good place to start is to look at one of the project’s main goals, apart from brand exposure: the development of football through the sharing of knowledge throughout their wide network. Having created an intricate web of clubs from different parts of the world, Red Bull formed the first of many partnerships that have helped develop the sport we love. This has mainly been done through the training of young talents to prepare them in advance for tougher challenges and the scouting of possible future prospects in more obscure areas of the globe.

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It has to be said that Red Bull’s insistence on trusting talents within first team environments is unrivalled and although this is made easier by the availability of feeder clubs and excellent academy setups, no other team or group of teams has consistently produced young players of the same calibre that the Red Bull group has. Think of Erling Haaland, Sadio Mané, Joshua Kimmich, Dayot Upamecano, Ibrahima Konaté. The list goes on and every year a new batch of talents gets given first team opportunities and exposure they would get nowhere else in the world. Of course, lots of money is spent in the process to get to this stage, which could anger fans who believe young players should work their way through the ranks to earn first team experience at their club, but the key role that Red Bull teams have played in the development of so many great young talents makes you question whether a great deal of them would have succeeded had they stayed put.

The positive effects of the Red Bull philosophy have not only been seen in the development of players but in the development of football in itself too. Over the years, the Red Bull way has become known for a very distinct style of play that has inspired and matured numerous young coaches. Red Bull teams play creative, aggressive, attractive and high-energy football, putting great emphasis on building up from the back and regaining possession by pressing high and intensively. Through their excellent recruitment and player development they’ve always managed to have young squads consisting of players capable of coping with the demands of said style while constantly shining within the system that aims to showcase their immense talent.

Red Bull’s determination to impose a positive and innovative playing style on all their teams has allowed them to find young and promising coaches that think in parallel and agree with the ideas put forward to them by the clubs. The likes of Ralf Ragnick, Ralf Hasenhüttl, Jesse Marsch and Julian Nagelsmann have been formed by the Red Bull school of thought, with countless other young coaches having passed through Red Bull clubs to then go on and have successful careers. The influence that Red Bull has had on football and the way it’s played today, especially in Germany and Austria, is massively downplayed. However, the ideas live on, with new minds being shaped every season, shown by the fresh batch of exciting young coaches coming through, spearheaded by RB Salzburg’s current coach Matthias Jaissle.

With the passing of co-owner and big investor Dietrich Mateschitz, all of those within the Red Bull footballing sphere are unsure of what the future holds. What set the Austrian billionaire apart from the others was his enthusiasm in sport and his hands on approach regarding his many teams, something that made him just as, if not more hated than the actual brand within German football. Much will depend on who inherits control. His son, Mark Mateschitz could well be that person, although the other half of the company, being the Yoovidhya family, also needs to be considered. Them cashing out and leaving the sports, or at least the football landscape is a course of action that can’t be excluded as is the company investing even more to expand its network and further boost its success. What is known, is that without the father and guardian of the Red Bull football clubs, things will not stay the same and changes will come in the future, whether benefiting to the sport or not.

The Author

Lorenzo van Aaken

Football enthusiast and diehard Roma fan

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