End of history in Leipzig

JUST as Bill Hicks’ sadly abbreviated life was getting going came his realisation that what he was doing almost certainly wasn’t worth the effort. “Bear with me,” he’d say with a sigh. “While I plaster on a fake smile and plough through this shit one more time.”

Tell me about it. Four years after conceiving the most detestable side in the Austrian league, three from repeating the trick in America (plus the one in Brazil it’s easy to forget about) and two years after objections from fans and authorities thwarted attempts to buy Leipzig’s FC Sachsen, Red Bull has returned to the city eyeing more vulnerable prey on its impoverished football scene.

zentralstadionDieter Mateschitz’s latest attraction is a fatal one for the few hundred regulars at suburban fifth division outfit SSV Markranstädt,who he recently acquired with a fraction of the 100m euros he’s pledged to buy Bundesliga football “within 8 years” for the club’s new home, Leipzig’s 45,000 capacity Zentralstadion. The stadium, underused since its construction for five 2006 World Cup fixtures, will get the full Red Bull treatment but for its new tenant there lies in store the biggest contrivance the German game’s seen since Sylvester Stallone saved a last-minute penalty.

Prevented by German football law from owning and rebranding the club outright, a sleight of name will see SSV Markranstädt’s league place taken by Mateshitz’s “RB Leipzig”. That’s “RB” not for “Red Bull” you understand, but “Rasenball Leipzig”. In English? Grassball Leipzig.

Grassball? Riiight. Tell you what, Dieter. I don’t care if you shit Bundesliga titles out of your arse on cue. Just do me a favour: listen to Bill and leave the rest of us to get on with following our football, not fighting it.

The emperor’s new clothes

THEY may well be a nation of Tetley’s-thieving bastards with lager they’d only cook with if they were capable of preparing a single dish of culinary note, but centuries spent staring into dancing flame on dark winter nights means that the Danes know a bloody good yarn when the hear one.

After our old friend Schützei had welcomed them to Salzburg, their cameras returned to hear a familiar tale about a rich man who bought an expensive new outfit that would separate the clever from the stupid.

Dieter Mateschitz’s intention upon purchase of Austria Salzburg in 2005 was to see his rebranded club compete regularly in the Champions League. Come next season, the chances are that he’ll find himself, once again, with nothing on.

svas072svas073As long as Austria Salzburg’s progress befits their fans’ inspirational drone, it’s that little bit easier for supporters of the club whose history, colours and tradition Red Bull binned to remain sanguine in the face of the local firm’s arrogance.

Once the formality of defeating Adnet on Saturday was realised, their most gruelling season yet got its fairy tale ending with two games to spare. Fans lit the celebratory fuse, and talismanic centre-forward Oliver Trappl rocked the mic before seeing in a third successive league title the only way he knows how.

Prost!

For Pete’s sake!

HE’S got a lot to answer for, has that bloody Pete Winkelman. Had he not relocated, renamed and rebadged hard-up Wimbledon to Milton Keynes in 2002, there would have been no need for its fan led off-shoot, meaning supporters of Austria Salzburg might have embraced the stench of Red Bull’s Pepé Le Pew-style advances on their club and this blog, dear reader, might never have existed.

mkdons01Also, had his “footballing frenzy waiting to happen” not staged the final act in a month of defeats for Gary McAllister’s Beckfordless line-ups, Leeds United’s path may have differed from the one that has the potential for us to sink our hat-pin of history into his ballooning bastard brainchild.

Play off pain for MK would leave the protection of just a single division from AFC Wimbledon. Their footsteps may not yet be audible to Bundesliga leaders Red Bull, but Austria Salzburg are also marching on their oppressors with quickening pace.

svas069svas070Despite the necessity to squeeze in the odd midweek match (die Englische Woche, they call it), form since the winter break has been nothing short of what we’ve come to expect. Berndorf and Oberhofen were mercilessly thrashed by seven and nine goals, and two was all it took to snuff out Kuchl’s challenge before a last-minute third nicked a slapstick affair fit for Plainfeld’s shambolic surroundings.

Last weekend’s retributional 5-1 flailing of Bürmoos – the only side to inflict them with defeat this season – means that when second-placed Grünau visit on the final day in four games’ time, the odds are that a third successive title trophy will be brimming with cold Stiegl and draped once more in violet and white.

Illusion of democracy

IN A recent address at the Supporters’ Direct Annual Conference, author David Goldblatt quickly got down to brass tacks.

What is a football club? It sure as hell isn’t the stadium, because you can move. It’s not the players, because increasingly none of them are bound to clubs for very long. Managers come and go, directors come and go, coaches come and go.

What actually remains at the core of these institutions that gives them life over a period of time are their fans, but above all it is the common culture that these fans have generated.”

Too true, but rather than being the source of great strength for football supporters, this cultural currency is more often used by clubs against them. Bottled, diluted and flogged back to fans, it’s unwrapped with the same fervour they used to create it in the first place.

Take Leeds United for example. The Members Club, Yorkshire Radio and LUTV are the equivalent of a blanket thrown over a birdcage; all they do is confirm that with ‘You are free… to do as we tell you’, Bill Hicks was right, as usual.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Following Goldblatt to the stage was Hamburg SV supporter Oliver Scheel with a smack in the chops for anyone who believes that a good membership scheme amounts to little more than discount merchandise and a magazine subscription. He supports a club which offers all the usual platitudes plus something infinitely more desirable.

hamburgEach of Hamburg’s 57,000 members has the right to attend the club’s AGM, not only to grill its board of directors, but also to participate in a democratic process which enables a fan to join them at the top table, a seat Scheel presently occupies.

‘Bah, Hamburg!’ you might say. ‘It’ll never work over here.’ And you’d be wrong. Thanks to Supporters’ Direct, we have 45 supporter-directors, as well as 14 fan-owned clubs. Since 2000, the organisation has swelled its ranks to 120,000 members and overseen almost 150 supporters’ trusts, 100 with shareholdings of some sort.

Austria Salzburg are run along similar lines, although one individual who stands – often literally – head and shoulders above the rest achieves his status in a more unorthodox fashion. The man known only as ‘Schützei’ once bounced agelessly before me singing ‘Super Leeds!’ at the top of his voice as if that’s what he always does – because, well, it is.

svas068Schützei’s as big a part of the Austria Salzburg experience as the Ultras’ megaphone, except he requires no amplification whatsoever. From a lofty position (a fence will do, or once – it being Austria – the slopes of a nearby mountain) he commands second half silence from violetten young and old before delivering a bizarre scat-like proposition to a which a hearty ‘AUSTRIA!’ is the unanimous response.

Before they all skidaddled off for der winterpause, the apples of Schützei’s eye swatted rock-bottom St. Georgen to lead the table at the half-way stage, two points above that pesky Kuchl and four clear of Grünau. Suspended until late March is a fascinating three-way struggle for promotion in Austria Salzburg’s most gruelling season yet on their noble ascent from the country’s 7th division.

Until then, the Alpine weather means they’ll somehow have to get by on a measly diet of futsal, safe in the knowledge that they may well be indoors, but they’re certainly not in the dark.

If it ain’t fixed, don’t break it

IN THE grand scheme of things, back-to-back draws aren’t much of a reality check. But on the way to their latest stalemate, Austria Salzburg’s supporters took in the village of Fuschl am See, where lies the corporate nerve centre of a company which, in 1984, adapted a Thai stimulant of which they now sell more than 3 billion cans a year worldwide. In 2005, the same firm bought their ailing football club and placed it in the ranks of other heavily-branded non-entities bearing their drink’s name and colours.

fuschlThose who chose to support 11 of Red Bull GmbH’s 4,000 employees have discovered that habitually topping Austria’s Bundesliga is scant consolation for routinely failing to secure salient European exposure for their brand. Those who didn’t have found the path from the country’s basement league, unlike the winding road to Fuschl am See, to be straight and true.

This season, however, the real Austria Salzburg are experiencing some resistance to their progress, with recent draws at Grünau and Strobl and an uncharacteristic away defeat at Bürmoos. Nevertheless, with just Saturday’s home date with as-yet winless St Georgen to go before the winter break, they’re tucked neatly behind Kuchl in second place and alle ist gut.

Since the Austrian fizz magnates unfurled their template in New York with the fanfare ‘We’ve changed the name, now we’re changing the game’, they’ve learned that, just as in Salzburg, old habits die hard and the team formerly known as MetroStars are still the league’s longest-running joke.

When two of their players were recently suspended for doping, one of the deputising soft drink adverts, rookie goalkeeper Danny Cepero, scored an 80-yard free kick on Giants Stadium’s hallucinogenic pitch and football entered new realms of synthesis.

But how ‘real’ is football anyway? If a recent spate of accounts are anything to go by, Eastern ingenuity distorts the game in more than just Salzburg and New York.

In his book, ‘The Fix’, Canadian journalist Declan Hill tells of meetings with Chinese-Malaysian fixers at the 2006 World Cup, focusing on Ghana’s 3-0 loss to Brazil and, hilariously, the failure to fix England’s game with Ecuador because Sven Goran Eriksson’s side weren’t considered good enough to score twice.

zenithMore recently, a Spanish judge’s taped Russian boasts that Zenit St Petersburg’s UEFA Cup semi final second leg defeat of Bayern Munich was bought, as well as suggestions that the final – in Manchester, against Rangers – was also compromised, preceded suspicious half time Asian betting patterns on a Championship match at Carrow Road in which Derby goalkeeper Roy Carroll was dismissed and subsequently dropped.

The rise of in-running betting has not only lead to the presence of ‘spotters’ in UK grounds exploiting the momentary gap in TV transmission to China by informing syndicates of what’s unfolding by mobile phone, but also the violent Newcastle murder of a Chinese couple known to be recruiting others to beat the Asian bookies.

The object of such obvious market appeal would have to be pretty robust to withstand the temptations money can bring, and we know how flaky the Premier League can be. If it didn’t come over all light-headed around the folding stuff, ‘Grand Slam Sunday’ would be a once in a lifetime event instead of occurring twice a season, West Ham would’ve been relegated for Carlos Tevez’s illegal registration and the likes of Thaksin Shinawatra and Arcadi Gaydamak wouldn’t be allowed to hold stakes in its precious member clubs.

newcastleunitedSeeing Garry Cook’s ‘Virgin of Asia’ became the latest side to benefit from Rob Styles’ over-assertive manner in the box, made me wonder what effect the boom in the Premier League’s overseas finance, aided by lax application of the fabled ‘Fit & Proper Persons Test’ and other excuses for governance from Richard Scudamore, has on its integrity.

Was the Professional Match Game Officials Board unprecedented last-minute wholesale changes to so-called ‘Select Group’ appointments recently an indication that whatever familiarity breeds, it ain’t good? And what’s happened to Mark Clattenburg, suspended days before the season fresh from having an expensive-looking hair weave?

Is it really appropriate that in Sky, the Premier League has paymaster, broadcaster and bookkeeper? How can they talk about the global appeal of the Premier League when there’s empty seats when its teams go on tour? Is the real reason that Game 39’s still on the agenda to tap into massive overseas gambling markets, extending Scudamore’s working relationship with those he really ought to be protecting the game from?

Don’t have nightmares, do sleep well.

Keep it real

HAD Albert Camus been around today, it’s safe to say his life would have taken a very different path. Tuberculosis wouldn’t have put an end to his goalkeeping career, meaning his best-known novel, L’Étranger, would probably have explored the difficulties of adjusting to life after a big money move abroad. Almost certainly, it would have been the wreckage of his luxury motor, and not his publisher’s, from which their bodies would eventually be pulled.

albertcamusInstead, amongst the many things he leaves behind is as succinct an expression of what makes football tick – real football, not what the likes of Garry Cook and Richard Scudamore talk about – as you’ll find: “All I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football”

To lovers of a game now so pervasive that to follow it – to watch, to consume, even to accept it – requires faith bordering on nihilism, Camus’ expressions of life’s absurdities are a breath of fresh air.

He was big on co-operation, solidarity and effort, was our Albert. He advocated persevering in the face of pain, sticking up for your mates and what you believe in, even if to say so’s fucking boring and there’s no point.

To followers of three-times league champions Austria Salzburg, when the morality of their club was compromised by a hostile takeover from Red Bull, their obligations were obvious. Offered no choice but to go it alone to preserve their club’s name and colours, they embody Camus’ assertion that in life, the pursuit of meaning is the meaning.

svas065Back-to-back promotions mean that those who, almost 15 years ago, wore their violet and white colours to a two-legged UEFA Cup Final against Inter Milan, now don them with comparable pride in Austria’s fifth division, the 2. Landesliga.

Just three weeks after celebrating their latest title with a Spanish holiday, coach Miro Bojceski’s new-look line up opened the season in front of the most magnificent support in non-league football with their first draw in almost two years.

Not the anticipated start, but the recruits quickly gelled; Bosnia-Herzegovinian forward Mersudin Jukic scoring the first in a four-goal win at St Georgen, then setting up each goal in the 5-1 defeat of Golling.

Last season’s top-scorer Mario Schleindl then chipped in with a hat-trick in a 7-1 rout of Plainfeld before Jukic got back in on the act. He scored in consecutive 3-1 wins, over Thalgau and Berndorf, before grabbing four in the 5-1 away drubbing of Oberhofen which saw Austria Salzburg share top spot with Kuchl, who were the next visitors to Maxglan.

svas066svas0671,600 turned up for the top-of-the-table clash and to celebrate Austria Salzburg’s 75th birthday in the only way they know. Fittingly, it was another birthday boy, Nico Meyer, who pierced the tension with both strikes in a 2-0 win which earmarked Kuchl as the biggest threat to violet dominance.

So, eight games in and three points clear, the script of Austria Salzburg’s ascent at the first time of asking looks, this time, like it might take us to the final curtain. But this is football – real football – not theatre. When pushed on which he preferred, Albert Camus spoke for us all when he replied: ‘Football, without hesitation.’

Hosts, and champions

AS ANTICIPATED, both Euro 2008 hosts got underway with defeats, although only one looked out of its depth – and it wasn’t Austria. Written off in most quarters as the tournament’s ‘punchbag’, the onus was on them to come out fighting on Sunday, and what a scrap it was.

Stunned into life by a fourth-minute sucker blow from the penalty spot, Austria went the distance against Croatia, all for nothing but the knowledge that they must follow knocking out Poland on Thursday with something miraculous against the Germans next week.

Salzburg takes centre stage today, as the competition rolls into the city for the first of its three matches featuring defending champions Greece. Don’t be fooled by the broadness of UEFA’s brushstrokes, FC Salzburg’s Stadion Wals-Siezenheim is none other than Red Bull’s glimmering monument to the paradoxes of corporate football, the Bullen-Arena. €60m down the line and still only the second best side in Austria, they supply as many players to the national squad as they do to rival nations, including Croatian captain Niko Kovač.

svas063Meanwhile, in nearby Maxglan last weekend, Austria Salzburg’s kultverein bade farewell to sixth division football with victory over Elixhausen before a Meisterfeier drew another near-perfect season to a close. With the final word on the club’s 75th term which ended, fittingly, three points shy of the available 78, here’s the unique perspective of lifelong Leeds United fan and Austria Salzburg’s English-language website fangler-in-chief.

A year in tyranny

IT’S NOT that long since the regular reader of this thread will have raised an incredulous eyebrow at a situation in the Austrian Bundesliga which saw final league positions decided in court.

Two clubs, Sturm Graz and Grazer AK from Austria’s second city, unsuccessfully contested the deduction of a combined total of 41 points on grounds of, amongst other things, insolvency. Today, the glare will be reciprocated twelve-fold by Austria’s vast legions of Leeds United fans, just 360 days after we ourselves filed for administration.

Let’s allay, right now, any fears that the Austrian game faced meltdown. I’ve checked, and it’s still there – but its most decorated boss isn’t. Going from Trapattoni to pony and trap, Giovanni packed his bags for Dublin after a 3-2 win for Bauwelt Koch (selling building and, erm, cooking) Mattersburg over Red Bull (vodka mixer for twats) Salzburg handed Rapid (washing powder, probably – oh, hang on a minute, that actually is their name) Vienna the title and a crack at next season’s Champions League.

To alleged heart-attack in a can magnate Dieter Mateschitz, it’s the most coveted shelf space in the whole shop, and much like love, money can’t buy it for his side.

svas060svas062But if this week’s proved anything, it’s that Austria’s basements are where all the action is. Should Austria Salzburg follow tonight’s anticipated win at Taxham with another against Obertrum on Saturday, they may have just enough daylight to secure back-to-back promotions on home turf with a handful of games to spare.

Bracketing 4-0 wins over Union Hallein and Abersee with a ruthless 7-1 demolition job at Abtenau under new boss Gerhard Stöger (seen above sending his team to face supporters after only putting two past whipping boys Lamprechtshausen), the country’s fifth tier beckons for the club which snubbed Mateschitz’s millions.

With a run of impressive higher-league scalps also under their belts, they find themselves in the semi-finals of a regional cup competition which, should they clinch it, would put them into the hat for next season’s Austrian FA Cup 1st round proper. What price a premature Salzburg derby in the house that pop built?

The show about nothing

THERE’S an episode of Seinfeld in which Kramer accidentally gets a job whilst merely passing through an office block. Unqualified for the position, he’s promptly fired after a couple of days even though he never really worked there in the first place.

It’s easily done. I didn’t go to New York seeking employment, but sometimes an opportunity arises which is just too good to miss. “Most jobs take energy,” the ad said. “This one gives it! We have an exciting opportunity to join Red Bull New York as a Marketing Manager.” Now, I didn’t need to read any further. I knew I was the enthusiastic and goal-orientated person they were looking for. I’m committed to the sports industry, and it’s true – I’m deeply concerned about the growth of New York Red Bulls.

rbny009I found myself standing in a cheap suit in front Red Bull New York’s top brass before you could say Einstürzende Neubauten and, to my surprise, they set me on and I got to work. During my very first morning, I spent a whole year’s advertising budget on a piece of shit hoarding featuring striker Jozy Altidore kicking a red bull right up the arse (above).

It was well into the afternoon, around the time I was changing the club’s official anthem from The Rapture’s ‘Whoo! Alright, Yeah… Uh Huh’ to Edelweiss’ ‘Bring Me Edelweiss’, when they realised their mistake and hauled me over the coals. There was just enough time before I had to clear my desk of cracker crumbs to do a big shit in a plant pot and sign off a photoshoot of Juan Pablo Angel missing a bull’s arse with a banjo.

trapattoniIt’s just my rotten luck, as well, that another Red Bull opening has been filled: in May, the Salzburg job will be taken by ex-AZ Alkmaar miracle-worker, Co Adriaanse. Never liked him anyway. With one mad eye on shortly joining Ireland, Giovanni Trapattoni used the other one to watch a matadorial Rapid Vienna strike five deadly first-half blows upon his charges, before mercilessly twisting the blade twice in the second.

“It was not a defeat, it was a catastrophe,” Trapattoni said. ‘DEAD BULL!’ exclaimed the Austrian press, and it scarcely mattered to Austria Salzburg that their spring season opener at Taxham fell to wintry weather, because they were too busy guffawing to notice. In fact, they still haven’t stopped.

Too cold for ducks

As a sideswipe at the phoniness of fame and fortune, The Catcher in the Rye is so persuasive that its author, J. D. Salinger, hasn’t left the house since writing it in 1951, and Mark David Chapman shot John Lennon dead on its perceived say-so 30 years later.

But just because you enjoy the infectious cynicism of protagonist Holden Caulfield, doesn’t mean that you, too, will end up trembling in a Manhattan side street clutching an autograph book and a concealed weapon. No, you can cheerily share his concerns, such as where do Central Park’s ducks go during winter, without giving a damn about what happens to the rest of New York city’s wildlife. But I’ll tell you anyway.

The Red Bulls are on a pre-season team-building break with their Salzburg equivalent, where they probably spend their days rehearsing some crumby rap or other about what fun it is to work for an energy drink, and, with bladders brimming with the stuff, their evenings locked in lousy dormitories crying themselves to half an hour’s sleep on saturated mattresses.

rbny008Only joking. They’re just familiarising themselves with the surroundings, for not only do Red Bulls New York and Salzburg share a badge and colours, they will, from 2009, share grounds. Despite lying in different continents, you’ll be forgiven for thinking that their ersatz homes – Red Bull Park and the Bullen Arena – are one and the same; on television at least, which, for a global brand, is all that really matters. I mean, look at New York training in Salzburg (above) – or is it the other way round?

While David Beckham prepares once more to flog Major League Soccer to prime-time TV audiences, the league’s salary cap bypass for individuals of merit – the ‘Beckham exception’ – is snaring little else of note. Well, unless you count Juan Pablo Angel, that is. And that Mexican bloke that kept jumping the ball past awestruck defenders three World Cups ago.

It’s true that the face of MLS is being transformed, but it’s largely thanks to the league’s relaxed approach to sponsorship. Introduced to welcome a pair of charging bulls to New York’s jerseys, it will enable half the clubs to kick off this season advertising the usual shit, leaving the rest with a few phone calls to make. In a sportscape where the club is king, branded shirts are most un-American to the fan’s eye. Unless, of course, they’re unfortunate enough to support a club that is the sponsor, and vice versa.

Anyway, there’s a corner of the world where such lily-livers are frowned upon, where Coca-Cola is mixed with red wine because it alone doesn’t get you pissed, and not even an alpine winter stands in the way of what really matters.

svas058svas059Indoor football bridges the gap between autumn and spring in Austria, and it was Austria Salzburg’s pleasure to accept an invitation to get right in the faces of some of Bundesliga’s professional billboards on live TV at Salzburg Arena’s Hallencup.

Okay, so the side which heads the sixth division lost all their matches on the squeaky stuff, but that’s hardly the point. 1,500 violetten raised the roof for tussles with the likes of Cashpoint Altach and Josko Reid (boldly representing the worlds of betting and double glazing, respectively) while only a few hundred witnessed Altach’s loss to Linz in the final. ‘Goosebumps,’ proclaimed the press of Austria Salzburg’s good, old-fashioned ultraism, ‘enthusiasm one would wish for at every football ground.’

In the tournament’s afterglow, the overseer of Austria Salzburg’s re-emergence, Moritz Grobovschek, stepped down and a swift ballot ushered in Gernot Blaikner. A local businessman who worked with the club shortly before Red Bull’s takeover, it is hoped that their admirable principles retain their lustre and that, just like the ducks in Central Park, they eventually prove that some absences are only temporary.

Austria Salzburg’s brand new English language official site is here.