There are teams in this season’s Champions League that have waited longer than Red Bull Salzburg to sit at European soccer’s top table. There are teams with smaller budgets, and teams that have overcome greater obstacles. There is no team, though, that will relish its place among the giants in the Champions League quite so much as the perennial Austrian champions.
Christoph Freund, Salzburg’s sporting director, can laugh about it now, but only because he remembers how “painful” it has been.
For a decade, Salzburg has been trying to reach the Champions League group stages: the competition proper, the phase when it becomes the most exclusive, most glamorous and most lucrative club tournament in the world. And for a decade, it has been finding new and innovative and ever more crushing ways to fail.
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There was the year it was eliminated by F91 Dudelange, of tiny Luxembourg. It has lost qualifiers against Hapoel Tel Aviv, Maccabi Haifa and Fenerbahce, and it lost twice, in consecutive seasons, to Malmo of Sweden. It lost to one Croatian team, Dinamo Zagreb, in extra time in 2016, and to another, Rijeka, on away goals in 2017.
Perhaps the most excruciating defeat, though, was the most recent. In August 2018, Salzburg held Red Star Belgrade to a goalless draw in Serbia in the final qualifying round and then took a two-goal lead in the return leg. Its place seemed secure, its long wait over. And then, it wasn’t: Red Star scored twice inside a minute in the second half and Salzburg lost, again, on away goals.
At the final whistle, as visiting fans poured onto the field at the Red Bull Arena — one of them stuffing a player’s jersey down his shorts, to keep his prize safe — the cameras were drawn, naturally, to their celebrations. In the background, though, were Salzburg’s players, bereft, slumped on the turf.
At that point even Freund felt dazed. Salzburg’s chronic inability to clear that final hurdle, he said, “was quite hard to understand.”
A year later, on the eve of Salzburg’s debut against Belgium’s Genk on Tuesday, he is a little more phlegmatic about it. Salzburg’s place in the group stages of this year’s competition was confirmed early in May; there would be no need for another qualifying ordeal, no nail-biting, nerve-racking, late-summer playoff. Because both of last year’s finalists, Liverpool and Tottenham, had qualified for the competition by finishing in the top four of the Premier League, there was a spare automatic spot. It went to Salzburg.
If that sounds like a stroke of good fortune, it is not. Champions League spots are allocated by virtue of UEFA’s ranking system for national leagues, used as a gauge to discern which countries have performed best in UEFA competitions over a five-year period.
Salzburg qualified because the Austrian Bundesliga is now ranked as the 11th-best league in Europe, just ahead of Switzerland, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands. It is ranked that highly, largely, because Salzburg — despite its endless disappointment in the Champions League qualifiers — has shone in the second-tier Europa League over the last two years. In 2017, it reached the semifinals.
Salzburg kept stumbling on the direct route. Its reward came from a more circuitous path. “We have taken the hard way,” Freund said.
In doing so, he wonders if the club might have benefited from its failures. “Maybe it has been very healthy for us,” he said. Salzburg’s years of waiting have not forced the club to rethink its approach, to radically alter its vision, but instead to hone its methods, to polish its thinking. It has at least reached its goal not because it changed, but because it did not.
Since 2012, when the influential German coach Ralf Rangnick arrived at the club as sporting director, Salzburg has had a “crystal clear” idea of what it has to do, and what it has to be. It wanted to play, in Freund’s words, “aggressive, physical, fast, vertical football, not tiki taka.”
To do that, Salzburg developed a specific “picture” of the players it needed, and gave its youth coaches the task of producing them, and its scouts the job of finding them.
“The only way for a club like us, not in one of the big leagues, to get the best players is to find young, talented players and give them a chance to play in the first team,” Freund said. “The big clubs cannot do that. But we can give them that chance.”
Its record is remarkable. Salzburg’s most famous alumni — Liverpool’s Sadio Mané and Naby Keita — will return to Salzburg in the group stages this season as European champions, but they are just two of many.
Valon Berisha at Lazio, Duje Caleta-Car at Marseille and Mounas Dabbour at Sevilla all passed through Salzburg in recent years. There is a whole phalanx of former Salzburg players at RB Leipzig, the German arm of the Red Bull project (though one that Freund takes pains to say is entirely autonomous from his club).
Just as important, though, are the coaches. Rangnick, now sporting director across Red Bull’s three other clubs, and, later, Freund did not just emphasize the scouting of players. They also went looking for young, promising and unheralded managers who seemed to share their approach to soccer.
Rangnick found Roger Schmidt at Paderborn, in the German second division; he would go on to coach Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League, playing a superheated version of the pressing style that made Jürgen Klopp famous.
He was followed by the former Austria midfielder Adi Hütter — now busy turning Eintracht Frankfurt into regulars in European competition — who had been spotted while working at another Austrian team.
Marco Rose, who led the club to the Europa League semifinals, had first come across Rangnick’s radar as a player. Salzburg approached him while he was working at Lokomotiv Leipzig, the German city’s other team. Rose spent four years in Salzburg’s academy, working with its youth teams — eventually winning the UEFA Youth League, a Champions League for under-19 sides — before being promoted to the seniors. He now coaches Borussia Mönchengladbach.
“We search for people who have the same ideas as us,” Freund said. “We look for young coaches just as we do for young players. It is difficult for us to bring a big-name coach to the Austrian league. It is better to find coaches who want to play our kind of style. We want to develop together with them.”
The latest incumbent is Jesse Marsch, appointed last year after working at two other teams in the Red Bull network: as coach of the New York Red Bulls in Major League Soccer, and as Rangnick’s assistant while he was manager at Leipzig. It is not entirely surprising that it should be at Salzburg that he will become the first American to coach in the Champions League: it is not a club afraid to tread new ground.
“We know what we are searching for,” Freund said. “We have a clear identity, and as a club it is important to us to have a mix of people from different backgrounds, with different ideas.”
It is the way Salzburg has worked for years. For all the disappointments the Champions League has brought, for all the dispiriting defeats, for all those last-minute failures, it has never once wavered in its belief that its approach would, eventually, pay off.
Now, at last, it has. There are teams who have waited for longer to be in the Champions League than Salzburg, teams from smaller nations and teams with smaller budgets, ones not backed by energy drink behemoths. There is, though, perhaps no team that has suffered more heartache, that has conjured so many near-misses. And there is no team that has managed to think so straight, even on such a long and winding road.
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