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RB LEIPZIG: RED BULL IN A CHINA SHOP

Severed bull heads, censorship, and all-round shit-housery mark the tale. Joe O’Neill deciphers how Die Roten Bullen made it to football's top table. 

Pitch Stories of Modern Sport
Writer: Joe O'Neill
Photography: Red Bull Content Pool

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"Is the purpose of football to serve the people who love football or to serve something else?"

Red Bull’s influence in sport has increased exponentially over the last decade or so, expanding from its Formula One dominance to a diaspora of football clubs spanning across four continents. But is this simply a Billionaire Boys Club or a triumphant passion project?

The journey began in 2005 with the purchase of Austria Salzburg. The next step was to make the world’s most popular sport synonymous with Red Bull.

At first glance, the energy drink’s takeover seems to stem from the company's desire to plaster its logo everywhere and anywhere it can. But success on the field proves otherwise. May 2023 saw RB Salzburg posing as the poster boy for franchise success, the side winning its 10th Austrian Bundesliga in a row. 

The club was renamed – to the disappointment of its fans, and advocates for creative expression – to FC Red Bull Salzburg. In the time since the company has absorbed the aforementioned Rasen Ballsport Leipzig, New York Red Bulls, Red Bull Brazil and FC Liefering. 

Outside of the Bull’s Austrian homeland, RB Leipzig retained the German domestic DFB Cup. With products of the conglomerate to thank (Christopher Nkunku and Dominik Szoboszlai) that recent surge in silverware acts as a testament to the monopoly being a success.

Each side forms one cog of the metaphorical Red Bull wheel, one part of a global network united by shared ownership and consistently brilliant principles. The system promises productive youth development and profitable transfers without sacrificing domestic success.

Players are free to move around – loaned in and out, up or down the existing hierarchy – mediating a swift and efficient process between franchised clubs. 

And generally speaking, the model of football implemented at the clubs is one of aggression and high intensity. A style synonymous with the brand. A style that has proved fruitful for its European counterparts with silverware coming thick and fast in recent years. 

The European rap sheet features two German DFB-Pokal, one trip to the Champions League semifinals, 14 Austrian Championships, nine Austrian Cups and one UEFA Youth League. From there, Leipzig has seen its home attendance multiply by a factor of 20, taking an average of 2150 in 2009 to 45,559 in 2023 as the side has risen from the depths of the German fifth division to the country’s top tier. 

But that influence spreads much wider than Austro-Germanic shores. Two of the main proponents of the Red Bull model – Ralph Hasenhuttl and Jesse Marsch – have been hired and subsequently fired in recent years from Premier League roles at Southampton and Leeds respectively. Another flag-bearer, Ralf Rangnick, shared a spell – all be it a difficult one – as Manchester United’s interim manager last season.

It is the players that boast the greatest success. An exodus good enough to trouble any league in the land. The likes of Sadio Mane, Timo Werner, and the seemingly invincible Erling Haaland top that list. A frightening front three that would rival the best on the planet. 

Whilst all may seem hunky dory on the field, the ownership off it tells a wholly contrasting story. The German tale is perhaps the most controversial. The club seemingly hated in the land. Made so by their exploitation of the 50 plus one rule. The rule dictates clubs – and, by extension, the fans – have the ultimate say in how they are run, not an outside influence or investor akin to the conglomerate’s current model. 

Eintracht Frankfurt refuse to show the energy drink’s logo anywhere in the ground – even when the Bull’s are in town. Football lifer and Frankfurt board member Axel Hellmann and proponent of this move raises the question: “Is the purpose of football to serve the people who love football or to serve something else?”

Outside of the board room, severed bulls’ heads exist as the worst of it all. Enraged Dynamo Dresden fans were the masterminds of this protest in 2016. A less than subtle, yet fairly intimidating approach from their neighbours in Saxony.

But beyond the sponsorship and rule bending, the reason behind this hatred stems from the fact that they are frighteningly good. Turning a minnow in SSV Markranstädt into one of the best teams, in the greatest football-playing country in the world. 

Since promotion into the Bundesliga, Leipzig have finished below third place only once. In 2020, they made it all the way to the Champions League semifinals. Losing that time to eventual runners-up Paris Saint-German. 

That journey to the final four exists as physical proof that this model works. For the last 10 years, Red Bull’s footballing conglomerate has succeeded in large because they were willing to commit to something different. An approach so widely successful that their aggressive practices are adopted across the highest levels of the sport.

Put simply, they have an identity. Built around pressing and lots of it. Playing in a 4-2-2-2 formation, the style prioritises getting athletes in space. Vertical passing, lots of running, and plenty of high-risk defending. 

Red Bull aren’t interested in beautifully orchestrated sideways passing, but in lots of energy, lots of goals, and an undeterred appetite to push forward. Unsurprisingly, that is a message the energy-drink company can get behind. 

The next decade promises to pose a new challenge for one of the noisiest franchises in the world: What happens when everyone else starts to do the same thing?

*Other energy drinks are available. 

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