SALZBURG, Austria (Reuters) - Few soccer clubs can claim to owe their existence to a pair of socks but, as in so many other ways, Austria Salzburg are proud to be an exception.
This third-division club play in a tiny ground hidden behind a supermarket, yet are backed by a flag-waving, firecracker-brandishing band of ultras who would not be out of place at a top-flight South American stadium.
They have climbed from the seventh level to Regionalliga West — part of the third tier of Austria football — in successive seasons and everyone involved, from the players to the cleaners, is a volunteer.
More than anything else, the club, which boasts average home attendances of more than 1,000 in a league where 50 is more common, say they represent the determination of supporters not to succumb to what they see as excessive commercialism.
Like FC United and AFC Wimbledon in England, formed by Manchester United and MK Dons supporters defecting from their original clubs, Austria Salzburg are a splinter team set up by disillusioned fans.
For 52 years, Austria Salzburg were a moderately successful top-flight team which had won the Austrian league three times, the Cup four times, reached the UEFA Cup final in 1994 and taken part in the Champions League the following season.
In 2005, the club were taken over the Red Bull energy drinks manufacturer in a move initially welcomed by fans.
“Myself and thousands of Salzburg fans were happy when Red Bull arrived; we thought they could bring in some new players and rescue us from a difficult sporting situation,” said Walter Windischbauer, chairman of the new Austria Salzburg.
They were in for a rude awakening. “After a few weeks, we saw they had a different philosophy,” he said.
The team were renamed Red Bull Salzburg and, more dramatically, the club’s colours were changed from the traditional purple-and-white to red-and-blue.
The new owners also distanced themselves from the club’s history, at one point declaring that it had been founded in 2005 before being ordered to back-track by the Austrian federation.
When fans pleaded with Red Bull to keep the team’s old colours, they were offered one concession: the goalkeeper would wear purple socks at away games.
“For many, that was just a provocation which showed that Red Bull had a different type of philosophy and the fans said that wasn’t for them,” said Windischbauer.
Hundreds of fans decided to set up a new Austria Salzburg, playing in purple-and-white, even if it meant starting out in the seventh tier, the lowest level of the Austrian football pyramid.
The easy part was getting through the lower divisions.
“It’s relatively easy in the lower leagues if you have big ambitions,” said Windischbauer. “We were more motivated than our opponents and the home fans were another factor.
“We barely lose a home game thanks to their backing.”
Certainly, there is nothing like it at any other lower-division ground in Austria, or even in the top flight.
The high point comes in the 33rd minute of the second half of every home game when a shirtless Austria fan jumps on to the roof of the players’ tunnel and yells at the ultras, who let off firecrackers and shout back.
Thirty-three is a symbolic number for Austria Salzburg, as the original club was founded in 1933.
By contrast, the atmosphere at Salzburg’s top-flight club resembles an opera, Austria fans say.
“People applaud politely — even when the opposition scores a goal,” said Windischbauer.
Club sources admit there is a downside to this fanatical support as violence is not unknown and the ultras have a small far-right contingent. Some of Salzburg’s opponents, particularly from the rival state of Tirol, have complained about safety at the ground and threatened not to play.
Windischbauer said the team had now reached a crossroads. Winning promotion to the second division would require them to turn professional with a huge outlay, something they were not ready for.
So they have not applied for a second-division licence and will stay in the third division even if they win promotion this season.
“It would be too much, too soon,” said Windischbauer.
“There have been a few examples of clubs in Austria who have improved very quickly in sporting terms but were not ready for it off the field. They went bankrupt and had to leave the league.”
In the long run, however, Windischbauer, an Austria Salzburg fan for 30 years, is committed to seeing his club back in the Austrian Bundesliga and hopefully the dominant force in the city.
“It could take 10 years but my dream is that I will live to see this club in the first division,” he said.
Editing by Clare Fallon; To comment on this story email email@example.com