War on the Horizon: Italian Ultras Prepare to Take on Red Bull

After buying Salzburg and Leipzig and obliterating their identities, Red Bull could now expand into Italy by sponsoring Udinese. But the fans are against it – and they're ready to go to war.

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May 27 2016, 6:10pm

Image via Reuters, edited by Vice Sports

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

In Italy, football fans don't put up with any bullshit – especially not the more radical among them. The power of the ultra in Serie A is huge: if a club's policies aren't to their liking, the hierarchy is unlikely to last long.

Stories of wars between presidents and ultras are common in the country and the ultra movement has had an important role in the formation of Italy's collective imagination. Until now, however, the main players were usually local. Rarely did outsiders weigh in on club conflicts.

There are two crucial words there: "until now".

A few weeks ago, news broke that alarmed fans of Udinese, the second-oldest club in Italy after Genoa. Udinese is owned by businessman Giampaolo Pozzo, who made his fortune by manufacturing tools and whose family also own Premier League club Watford. Reports suggest he is negotiating with the energy drink giant Red Bull, attempting to thrash out a deal that could see the company sponsor Udinese's stadium, the Stadio Friuli (or the Dacia Arena, for current sponsorship purposes).

The news caused an earthquake among the ultras. Without thinking twice, they declared that fans would be prepared to go to war should negotiations continue with a company they consider to be the "cancer of sport."

Italian newspaper Il Gazzettino, which broke the story, said the club and the brand have already been in talks for a while. Udinese recently renamed its stadium after a well-known Romanian car brand; the club from Friuli have granted Dacia naming rights until 2020, but this does not mean that Red Bull cannot share sponsorship. In fact, the idea seems to be that Red Bull would gradually gain a foothold at the club, and eventually become a central player in the life of Udinese.

Red Bull's track record in football is not too endearing, however. One only has to look to what has happened at German club Leipzig, or (especially) Austrian outfit Red Bull Salzburg. The club from the home of Mozart, formerly known as Austria Salzburg, changed both its colours and crest when Red Bull bought it. A large number of their ultras still reject its new identity.

Jonathan Soriano, formerly of Espanyol and Barcelona, is one of the star players at Red Bull Salzburg // Image vía WikiMedia Commons

It is somewhat ironic that the energy drink giant has its eye on Udinese: the Friulian team's fans are twinned with those of Salzburg, so the anti-Red Bull connection is easy to establish. Many feel that Red Bull erased Salzburg's history and identity for commercial purposes; Udinese fans are obviously not going to allow this to happen in Friuli.

Unfortunately, however, Udinese are not having an easy time of it at the moment. While the stadium was completely renovated in 2015, the team have suffered a disappointing season and only ensured their Serie A survival in the final days of the campaign. The Zebrette ended the season in 17th position, just one point above the relegation zone.

Udinese – who have competed in the Champions League during the past decade – now face multiple problems on and off the pitch. The departure of their star player, the seemingly immortal Antonio di Natale, only adds to a crisis that has dragged on for several seasons. The promise of millions from the pockets of Dietrich Mateschitz, Red Bull's quiet billionaire owner, may seem tempting in these circumstances.

But perhaps not if those millions turn out to be a poisoned chalice.

The great Antonio di Natale will not play for Udinese next season // Image vía Imago

What would Red Bull gain, meanwhile, from the creation of a hypothetical Red Bull Udinese? The club's renovated stadium is of great value in itself: in a league with very few state-of-the-art grounds – Juventus are one of the few clubs with a truly modern stadium – the Dacia Arena is a blessing.

Then there's the location. Udine is in the north of Italy, less than 200 kilometres from Salzburg as the crow flies, and so close to the seat of Red Bull's footballing empire. If Red Bull can stamp their brand on Udinese, then they will have secured another club in the region of the Alps-Adriatic.

Add to that Udinese's excellent scouting system, and the Friulian club's true value starts to become apparent. Despite having less money than the big Italian teams, Udinese have managed to sniff out great attacking players like Alexis Sanchez – who then moved to Barcelona – and defenders like Cristian Zapata and Medhi Benatia in recent years. The club has an experienced group of coaches capable of predicting and anticipating a player's future potential. A strong scouting network behind the scenes is of great interest to a brand known for its preference for young talent, as a quick glance at their Formula One team shows.

The main reason Red Bull might want to set up stall in Udine, however, is to do with the current owners. As mentioned earlier, not only do the Pozzo family own Udinese, they also own Watford, and even had their hands on Granada CF until recently. In other words, Red Bull could open another door for their corporate interests – with the Premier League and La Liga as their ultimate goals.