Red Bull Bragantino: How the energy drink giant is conquering Brazil
It was November 16, 2019, and dusk had fallen on a late spring day in Braganca Paulista. As might be expected for the time of year, the burning sun had given way to a tropical deluge in the late afternoon.
Rainwater gushed down the potholed streets outside the angular, idiosyncratic main stand of Estadio Nabi Abi Chedid, an overhanging, unsteady looking pile of steel girders, bare bricks and mismatched colours.
Despite being soaked to the bone, people still milled around on streets that bubbled with the warm glow of returning glories.
Inside the Nabi Abi Chedid an hour or so prior, those people had watched on as the captain of their team, Clube Atletico Bragantino, thrust the Campeonato Brasileiro Serie B trophy into the air, cutting through the rain that teemed from the heavens.
From the start of 2020, Braganca Paulista, a city of 170,000 people an hour’s drive from São Paulo, was set to have its team in Brazil’s top flight for the first time since 1998. Except it wouldn’t be Clube Atletico Bragantino playing in the 2020 Serie A. Not exactly, anyway.
I waved to a taxi driver as he squinted to spot me through the rain. Like the people on the streets, he seemed delighted. Yet as we drove to the coach station, he told me that he’d never been an avid Bragantino supporter.
My cabbie’s wife was a fanatic, though. She was at the game, he said, working in the ticket office like she always had. He was happy for her and the club and the other fans. But most of all he was happy for the city.
“Football isn’t my sport, but people need something to adore,” he said. “It brings back pride to the town. It generates a lot of money too.
“They’re going to build a new arena. The [construction] jobs are only temporary, but it will boost the economy, it will help restaurant owners and taxi drivers. Being in Serie A will also bring people to watch the games.”
“They”, the cabbie said: “They’re going to build a new arena.” But who were they? They were new, that’s for sure. Not from around here, either.
Braganca Paulista is a quiet place, famous for its sausages and, well, just the sausages really. An exciting Saturday afternoon out might involve strolling around the lake in town observing the capybaras, which, if you’re not familiar with capybaras, are sort of docile, pitbull-sized, semi-aquatic hamsters.
But “they” had come to Braganca Paulista, they meant business, and they had money to burn. They were the Austrian energy drink megalith Red Bull. And it was Red Bull that had, after so many years, propelled Bragatino back into the top flight.
So, it would not be Clube Atletico Bragantino in Serie A in 2020. Instead, the badge would change, the name would change and the Nabizao, as the rickety old ground is known, would play host to Red Bull Bragantino.
Like most things Red Bull has done in sport, none of this happened by accident.
Clube Atletico Bragantino, despite coming from a sleepy town, had a proud history. For years, the club was controlled by the Chedid family, who made their money in buses and then took control of local politics.
Nabi Abi Chedid was club president for 40 years until the 1990s, state deputy for the region of Braganca Paulista from 1962 until 2002, president of the Sao Paulo football federation from 1979 until 1982 and vice-president of the Brazilian Football Confederation from 1986 until 1989.
Nabi’s brother, the 83-year-old Jesus Adib Abi Chedid, is currently serving a fifth term as mayor of Braganca.
With the family’s money and Vanderlei Luxemburgo in the dugout, Bragantino won the Sao Paulo state championship in 1990 before finishing as runners up in the national top flight in 1991 under Brazil’s 1994 World Cup-winning manager Carlos Alberto Parreira.
As the sums required to keep a football club on top increased, however, the Chedids’ investment in Bragantino, with its small ground and modest fanbase, became unsustainable. They dropped down the leagues, flitting between the second, third and fourth tiers.
At the start of 2019, Bragantino had secured their place in Serie B for a second successive season. But money was tight. Relegation was on the cards. Red Bull smelt an opportunity.
For a multi-club football group seemingly intent on world domination, Brazil seems an obvious port of call. And Red Bull has had a presence in the country since 2007. But, for a decade, Red Bull Brasil – the original club, based in the city of Campinas, 40 miles from Braganca – mostly drifted.
The academy produced players – most notably Bernardo, who went on to play in both Salzburg and Leipzig before being sold to Brighton – but only sporadically. And the first team seemed not to follow a clear strategy, struggling to get beyond the state league system and into the national divisions.
The Brazilian league ladder at a national level is exceptionally hard to climb, and as much luck as judgement is needed to get beyond Serie D. Just four of 68 teams are promoted after a group stage and five knockout rounds. Red Bull were never among them.
Yet by 2019 they had assembled a strong team at Red Bull Brasil, one capable of putting together a serious challenge in the top tier of the Sao Paulo state league against giants like Corinthians, Sao Paulo, Palmeiras and Santos. But with no national division to play in, players would be lost and Red Bull’s investment wasted come the end of the state campaign, which occupies the first third of each season.
That was when they decided to change tack. In April 2019, Red Bull agreed a “partnership” with Bragantino president Marco Antonio Chedid, son of Nabi Abi.
To all intents and purposes, it was a takeover. The kit, badge and name would remain unchanged for the meantime, and Marco Antonio, better known as Marquinho, would remain as honorary president.
But the entire Red Bull Brasil playing squad was immediately transferred to Bragantino, as were the coaching staff, led by manager Antonio Carlos Zago. New directors and other staff were parachuted in by Red Bull’s global hierarchy.
A press conference was called to announce the “partnership” and Marquinho was asked why he had ceded control.
“We took this decision to eternalise Bragantino,” he replied. “That is the main objective. My father was in football for 50 years, when he was in ITU, one, two days before he passed away, he asked a favour of me, he asked me not to let Bragantino die. I am keeping that promise.”
While Marquinho may not have kept Clube Atletico Bragantino alive in the manner his father desired, he has undoubtedly kept top-level football alive in Braganca. Indeed, as 2021 draws to an end, it has never been more alive.
After promotion, Red Bull Bragantino got off to a slow start. Zago left to take over at Japanese club Kashima Antlers and replacement Felipe Conceicao struggled. Halfway through the season, they sat in the relegation zone.
Red Bull did not wait. Conceicao was sacked and the arrival of 40-year-old former Flamengo manager Mauricio Barbieri in early September turned Bragatino’s fortunes. By the end of the season, they sat 10th and had secured qualification for the second-tier continental tournament, the Copa Sudamericana.
In 2021, that good form has only improved. With more new signings – all brought in following Red Bull’s strict buy-young-and-develop model – this season has been spectacular. They led the way early on and have not dropped out of the top six since.
It is in the Copa Sudamericana where real success has come, though. On Saturday, November 20, they will play fellow Serie A club Athletico Paranaense in the final at the Estadio Nacional in Montevideo, looking to win Bragantino’s first international silverware and the first major title since Red Bull seized control.
But what does Red Bull’s arrival mean for the city of Braganca, the people who have long followed the club and Brazilian football as a whole? Is this the overwhelmingly positive development that the club and the taxi driver at the beginning of this tale would have you believe?
Anyone who has not been hiding away under a large rock for the past 15 years will have heard something of Red Bull’s sporting project and, most likely, of their involvement in football. But we must recap, to put the Bragantino project into context.
After first sponsoring extreme sports in the 1990s and moving into motorsports in the first years of the new millennium, the energy drink giant first acquired a football club in 2005. That club was SV Austria Salzburg, in the homeland of the man behind the brand, Red Bull’s billionaire founder Dietrich Mateschitz.
Like Clube Atletico Bragantino, Austria Salzburg had a proud history. They had won three Austrian Bundesliga titles in the 1990s and in 1994 reached the UEFA Cup final, where they lost to Inter Milan. But, like Clube Atletico Bragantino, they had fallen on hard times.
Stefan Schubert grew up a fan of the Violet-Whites, as Austria Salzburg were known, and says: “The club itself, when we were still kind of independent, was in financial disarray.” Red Bull grasped the opportunity, buying holding company Salzburg Sport AG and wresting power away from club members.
The idea of a business sponsoring and even exerting significant control over the club was not alien to Austria Salzburg fans. In 1978, the team had been officially renamed SV Casino Salzburg after an Austrian financial services company that invested in the club.
Some were initially positive about the wealthy new investor. But things soon turned sour. As Schubert says: “The deal about Red Bull is they’re not a partner, they are an owner.”
Soon, Red Bull announced that the club’s name would now be Red Bull Salzburg, the badge would be replaced by with pair of wings and the club’s colours would change from violet and white to the company’s preferred red and white. In the words of Mateschitz, this was “a new club with no history.”
Their identity had been stripped. Fans objected and attempted to negotiate with the new owners. But, Schubert adds, “They let the people who were not fully on board know that they wouldn’t need them.” Schubert and other hardcore Austria Salzburg fans broke away, forming a phoenix club with the original name and colours that now plays in the third-tier Regionalliga.
Red Bull marched on with scant regard for dissenters. These were the heady days before Financial Fair Play and cash was splurged. Players were signed, and in 2006 Giovanni Trapattoni and Lothar Matthaus were brought in as head coach and assistant. In the 2006-07 season, they won the Bundesliga.
But, Schubert says, it was all a bit haphazard: “They had no idea about football. No idea at all. Before that, they organised cliff diving, cycle racing, stuff like that. They actually asked if they could extend the halftime to 25 minutes so it would fit their show schedule better.”
Despite the early missteps, Mateschitz ploughed on, soon plunging his sticky digits into other footballing pies.
Red Bull purchased MLS franchise New York MetroStars in 2006, founded Red Bull Brasil in 2007, and set up the now-defunct Red Bull Ghana in 2008. Then, in 2009, they purchased the playing licence of German fourth-tier club SSV Markranstadt, which would become RB Leipzig.
It seems they had learnt something front the Salzburg debacle, too, following paths of less resistance.
In New York, Red Bull changed the kit and the name, but they were careful not to disown the MetroStars’ history. In the other countries, they either set up from scratch or, as in Germany, took over a lower-league club with no established fanbase in a region with no other traditional big clubs.
More money was invested and success came, at least in Europe. RB Leipzig shot up through the divisions and Red Bull Salzburg won the Austrian Bundesliga thrice more, in 2009, 2010 and 2012. Yet they were still doing things without a great deal of purpose or strategy.
That was until 2012 when Mateschitz met Ralf Rangnick – the godfather of Gegenpressing, modern German football’s visionary, the man who had taken Hoffenheim from the bottom to the top of German football and sent swashbuckling Schalke into the last four of the Champions League.
Mateschitz asked for Ranginck’s advice on his football project and Rangick told Mateschitz that he would “change almost everything.”
Rangnick wanted to mould a new approach, one which would cast aside big names and replace them with young, hungry, talented footballers, playing a front-foot, high-pressing game.
Erling Braut Håland is a SERIOUS talent 🔥
He scored a first-half hat-trick on his Champions League debut 🤩
Already his fourth hat-trick of the season and he's only 19 😳 pic.twitter.com/WqC9mX14ss
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) September 17, 2019
“This is an aggressive, proactive kind of football, which is never boring,” Rangnick told the Financial Times in 2020, which, as he continued, is a “perfect fit to the [Red Bull] brand.”
Mateschitz was sold. After all, Red Bull’s investment in sport – be it freerunning, Formula 1 or football – is, in essence, a hugely elaborate, very expensive but also wildly successful brand-building exercise.
Rangnick was brought in as the director of football of both RB Leipzig and Red Bull Salzburg and gave Red Bull’s football project wings.
In Salzburg, the haphazard early success was replaced by ruthless domination. They have won the title every year since 2014 and have played in the Champions League group stage in each of the last three seasons. In Germany, Leipzig reached the Bundesliga in 2016 and went as far as the Champions League semi-finals in 2020.
All has been achieved while playing football true to Rangnick’s high-octane vision and acting as a springboard for young players. Sadio Mane, Naby Keita, Timo Werner, Dayot Upamecano, Ibrahima Konate and Erling Braut Haaland have all been brought in at low cost and sold for substantial fees.
“We created market values of players of more than a billion euros,” Rangnick told the FT.
Not that it has been uncontroversial. The reaction to RB Leipzig in German football, which has been documented in detail elsewhere, has been overwhelmingly negative, opposition mostly arising from the manner in which Red Bull brazenly circumvent the 50+1 ownership rule that is such a pillar of German football culture.
Mateschitz’s political views have also drawn opprobrium, even from sections of the RB Leipzig support.
In a 2017 interview with Kleine Zeitung, he criticised the Austrian and German governments for allowing refugees to enter the countries at the peak of the Syrian crisis in 2015 and employed Trumpian rhetorical refrains, criticising political correctness and “so-called international elites”.
Red Bull also owns the Austrian television channel ServusTV, which has given a platform to some of the most notorious voices of the German extreme-right.
“Football is dying in Leipzig”.
In protest against RB Leipzig’s ownership model, Union Berlin fans staged a ‘funeral march’ on the way to #RBLFCU earlier today.
— DW Sports (@dw_sports) January 18, 2020
Nothing, though, was enough to derail their success – in Europe, at least. Elsewhere, progress has been slower.
Red Bull’s Ghanaian venture, which comprised a professional team and youth academy, was abandoned in 2014, the youth academy element merging with a pre-existing Feyenoord-backed project.
In the US, the Red Bulls have won the Supporters’ Shield – awarded to the team with the most points at the end of MLS’s regular season – three times. Yet they have never won the more prestigious MLS Cup.
And before 2015, they were left to act without adhering to the Rangnick methodology. Ageing stars like Thierry Henry, Juninho Pernambucano and Tim Cahill were signed to add glamour and experience.
Since 2015, that has changed, however. They have been brought in line with the European operation and have contributed to it, acting as a stepping stone for current RB Leipzig coach and former Red Bull Salzburg coach Jesse Marsch to move to Europe and sending academy product Tyler Adams to Leipzig.
Brazil, it seems, is the final important piece of the jigsaw. And Red Bull have recently been working hard to put that piece in its place, shifting the focus from Red Bull Brasil’s original base in Campinas to their new one in Braganca.
According to Rodrigo Seixas, who reports on Red Bull Bragantino for the Correio de Atibaia, the original project was always destined to fail. Campinas, he explains, has two well-established clubs, Ponte Preta and Guarani, adding: “Campinas is big, but it couldn’t sustain a third club, especially a club that was created from nothing by a foreign company.”
So in 2019, Red Bull decided on that move. Their new home had to be within the state of Sao Paulo, Seixas says, but not in its homonymous capital city. The state is Brazil’s economic engine room, accounting for 31.8% of national GDP in 2019, and has the best transport links and infrastructure. But the capital was too full – home to Corinthians, Sao Paulo and Palmeiras.
“Most Brazilian clubs are non-profit associations,” Seixas explains. “They’re sports clubs with presidents who are voted in. But Bragantino had the Chedid family that was in control, so it was easy to buy Bragantino and they were in Serie B.”
For Red Bull’s Brazilian Head of Football Operation Thiago Scuro and his team, it was the perfect combination. Red Bull Brasil still exists as an academy and feeder team, but Bragantino has become the centre of the operation.
The lessons Red Bull had learned from previous incarnations were applied to a greater degree this time. At first, Clube Atletico Bragantino remained Clube Atletico Bragantino. The badge was unchanged. The traditional white shirt and black shorts remained.
The only major difference was the stamping of that famous logo across the shirt and all around the Nabizao – oh, and the addition of the energy drink to the sausage-heavy menu of the cafe under the main stand. It was a takeover by stealth.
Their first objective was to make the team as competitive as possible. “We had to invest in players, technical staff, technology and equipment to improve the football operation,” Scuro told Red Bull‘s official media channel.
The effects were immediate. Zago’s team took the lead after the seventh game of the Serie B season and did not relinquish it.
Renan Lima is a member of the Guerreiros do Leao (Warriors of the Lion), a group of dedicated fans – a torcida organizada in Brazilian parlance – who have supported Bragantino through thick and thin. Aged 22, Lima had seen his team struggle for most of his life.
“We suffered,” he says. “We supported for the love of it because if we were looking for results, for victories, we didn’t find very much.
“The stadium would only fill up only when we played Corinthians, Sao Paulo, Palmeiras. Then it would be full, but unfortunately with their fans. There were midweek night games where there were 80 to 100 fans in the stadium.”
He was worried when he first heard of Red Bull’s involvement, believing that they may rip the club from its home and his, Braganca Paulista. And though things quickly changed – the Guerreiros can no longer rock up at the training ground and demand to speak to the management, for example – his fear turned to acceptance, then outright positivity, even after the badge and name changed in 2020 and red shorts were added to the wardrobe.
“There are [still fans who don’t like Red Bull],” he continues, “Especially the more nostalgic fans, the older ones. They say, ‘It’s not Bragantino, Bragantino don’t wear red.’
“I would love Bragantino to have had the ascent they’ve had using the lion as the symbol. But we have to be realistic and understand that it’s not possible. Without the support of Red Bull, we wouldn’t have managed it. So, any mistrust has to be left behind.”
Lima believes 90% of Bragantino fans share his viewpoint. Journalist Seixas adds that pre-and-post pandemic-related restrictions, attendances have skyrocketed too. Despite the odd banner, flippant comment or derogatory chant, there has also been very little backlash towards Bragantino from fans of other clubs.
All of which begs the question: why are things so different from Austria and Germany? As well as the more delicate approach Red Bull have taken to performing Bragantino’s identity transplant, there are other factors at play.
Like Seixas explained, most Brazilian clubs are non-profit associations with members who vote for a president. But the model is not sacrosanct like 50+1 in Germany. In fact, it is increasingly seen as an unwanted relic of a bygone era.
Incompetent amateur presidents, in order to get reelected, often spend far more than they should, drowning clubs in debt.
Cruzeiro are the clearest example of many. Once a dominant force in Brazilian football, they will spend a third consecutive season in Serie B in 2022. In 2020, their total debt was 897million Brazilian Reals, more than eight times their income, a financial hole as deep as the Mariana Trench.
To this problem, the idea of the clube-empresa – a club run as a private enterprise, like Red Bull Bragantino – is sometimes presented as a silver bullet. Whether it truly is or not is almost beside the point. The belief that there might be a magic cure is enough for fans to pin their hopes on the idea and with the success of Bragantino, it gains traction.
Head of Football Operation Scuro also exudes the air of a man who believes himself to be the saviour of Brazilian football. He proclaims his belief in the clube-empresa model in interviews, publicly analyses the financial decisions of other clubs and has talked about how he and Red Bull are “creating a new culture” and “rescuing the credibility of Brazilian football”.
Success has duly continued, thanks to the input of Red Bull’s cash and highly professional international operation. Like any club that becomes part of a larger group, Bragantino suddenly had access to advanced statistics, tactical and training methods, scouting networks and endless contacts.
They have brought in dozens of players already, mostly youngsters who weren’t getting a chance at Brazil’s traditional big clubs, but also players from Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, Uruguay and Argentina. The young men are enticed by the facilities on offer, the promise of playing time and the idea that they will be in the shop window for European sides.
“This is part of our strategy as a club and as a group,” Scuro told the in-house media channel. “We want Red Bull Bragantino to become a talent centre for South America.”
They have already created one success story following Red Bull’s buy-develop-and-sell model.
Claudinho, a Corinthians academy product, was brought in and was the standout player in Serie B in 2019. In 2020, he won the golden ball as Serie A’s best player and in 2021, just after winning Olympic gold, was sold to Zenit St Petersburg for €15million.
This year, things have gone from strength to strength for Mauricio Barbieri’s team too, even with Claudinho departing.
“They want to play with intensity, a team that presses high,” Seixas says. “They’re the team that wins most balls in the attacking third, a team that’s offensive.”
As well as being competitive in Serie A, they have progressed to Saturday’s Copa Sudamericana final, beating traditional big clubs along the way. Rosario Central were dispatched 5-3 on aggregate in the quarter-finals and Libertad of Paraguay were beaten 5-1 in the semi.
Artur, scorer of two goals against Libertad, has been the standout player. A winger with quick feet and a powerful shot brought in from Palmeiras for around €5million, he is now being linked to Barcelona in the Spanish press.
⚽️ Gol do Red Bull Bragantino!
Artur | Bragantino 1×1 Flamengo pic.twitter.com/f0e11EiGLR
— Futebolizei (@FutebolizeiNews) October 7, 2021
Bragantino, Seixas says, “have a wage cap of 280,000 [Brazilian Reals per month] which is low compared to other big clubs in Serie A. Bragantino do have big bonuses for wins and achievements, so often the players’ salaries are more. [And] they do spend on transfer fees. But if those players play well, you can sell them for a higher price.”
Nobody knows quite how much they’ve spent, however – not on transfers, nor on infrastructure or the takeover itself. Brazilian clubs are legally obliged to publish a yearly balance sheet detailing their spending. Red Bull have found a loophole that allows them to provide an extremely superficial overview.
Football finance expert Rodrigo Capelo wrote on Globo Esporte in 2021: “In the Brazilian first division, they are the only club to adopt such a practice in relation to transparency.”
Not that fans mind. “In the era when it was just Bragantino, you rarely saw people walking around with the shirt on,” Lima says. “Now you’ll see five or six people a day with the club’s shirt.
“Red Bull have promoted blood donation, they’ve promoted [a programme to] care for the forests in the region, they put on events… Red Bull has managed to bring the team closer to the city.”
Should they beat Athletico Paranaense on Saturday, that relationship will become even cosier. And whether they do or not, more success feels inevitable. The promised new stadium, so far delayed by the pandemic, will come. And it surely will not be long until Bragantino lift a Brazilian league or cup title, or possibly even a Copa Libertadores.
But is accumulating silverware the ultimate goal for the suits back in Europe? Rangnick’s words from 2019 suggest not. “It is important for RB [Leipzig],” he said, “to ensure in the next few years that more players are developing in locations like New York or Brazil, who qualify as reinforcements to us.”
Lima says that obvious hierarchical relationship and buy-to-sell ethos makes him uncomfortable, but, he adds, “I think there’s not much you can do. We know that Bragantino is now an important team in Brazil, but it still doesn’t compare to playing in Europe. We have to accept it.”
That resignation feels a little sad. But Bragantino’s situation is not all that different from any other club in Brazil. Or any other outside Western Europe’s top leagues. With Red Bull, the relationship is formalised, but if the moneyed elite come knocking at any door, it is nigh-on impossible to say no. It is football’s new world order.
As more and more clubs across the world become subsumed in the slurry of investment from states or multinational companies, of marketing blather and corporate hogwash, more fans will have to deal with the dilemma to which Schubert and Lima have provided very different answers.
In football, what truly matters, identity or success?
By Joshua Law