Both Red Bull teams allowed into Champions League
Under Uefa rules no entity can have a influence over activities of more than one club
The Red Bull Arena in Leipzig, Germany. Photograph: Getty Images
Next season’s Champions League could feature the first competitive meeting between RB Leipzig, the surprise runner-up in last year’s German Bundesliga, and its Austrian cousin, Red Bull Salzburg, after Uefa announced on Tuesday that it had cleared both clubs to take their places in soccer’s most exclusive club tournament.
Leipzig’s second-place finish in its first season in Germany’s highest division meant it qualified automatically for the Champions League’s group stage, while Salzburg’s eighth Austrian championship in 11 years guaranteed it a place in the competition’s final qualifying round.
The links between the clubs, however, had placed Leipzig’s participation in jeopardy. Under Uefa rules, no “individual or entity” can have a “decisive influence” over the activities of more than one club in its tournaments. Red Bull, the energy-drink company, holds a majority stake in Leipzig and has long been Salzburg’s primary sponsor. The company’s logo dominates both teams’ crests and jerseys, and its name adorns both teams’ stadiums. The teams also once shared some executives, furthering the impression that the clubs were linked.
Despite that, Uefa, European soccer’s governing body, which runs the Champions League, confirmed on Tuesday that its investigation had found no reason to believe that its regulations on the integrity of the competition would be breached by both teams entering the Champions League. It concluded that a series of “significant and substantial” changes made by the clubs ensured that they fulfilled Uefa’s eligibility criteria.
The issue has hung over the competition for months, potentially affecting not only RB Leipzig and Red Bull Salzburg but also several teams that stood to benefit financially from their inclusion had Leipzig been disqualified. Last month, once they had confirmed their places in the field, both Salzburg and Leipzig submitted to Uefa their applications to compete in the Champions League, complete with documentation detailing their ownership models. Those files were then passed to the Uefa Club Financial Control Body investigatory chamber for assessment.
Though Leipzig and Salzburg made some changes to their corporate structures to comply with Uefa regulations - while Red Bull owns Leipzig, it is officially only a title sponsor of Salzburg - they were confidentially informed on May 26th that not enough had been done to separate the clubs and that the case had been referred to the Club Financial Control Body adjudicatory chamber. The two chambers are independent entities, staffed largely by legal experts and judges.
Had the adjudicatory chamber reached the same conclusion as the initial review, Leipzig would have been barred; Uefa’s regulations state that in such conflicts, the team that has finished higher in its domestic competition takes priority. The teams won their appeal after a host of changes, particularly at Salzburg, allowed the clubs to convince Uefa that they were no longer linked. A number of Red Bull employees who held management positions at Salzburg departed, meaning there were no longer any individuals who could exert influence on both clubs.
Red Bull also reviewed and reduced the scope of its financial commitment to the Austrian club. The company is expected to announce an extended sponsorship deal - lasting until 2022 - on reduced terms in the coming days, a move that it successfully argued would diminish its influence over the team’s activities.
Those changes meant the adjudicatory chamber could find no legal reason to deny each team its place in the competition. The decision could be appealed by any club that stood to benefit from Leipzig’s absence: Hoffenheim, which would have been handed an automatic Champions League slot; Cologne, which would have been placed in the Champions League qualifying round; and Werder Bremen, which would have taken Cologne’s place in the second-tier Europa League.
Hoffenheim and Cologne confirmed on Tuesday that they had no intention of appealing the decision, and Uefa said it had not had contact from any other team indicating an intention to challenge it.