VIENNA (Reuters) - Austrian champions Salzburg were left to contemplate another botched attempt at reaching the Champions League group stage on Wednesday after falling in the qualifiers for a remarkable 11th time in a row.
Salzburg, with nine titles in 13 seasons, have dominated the Austrian Bundesliga since receiving financial backing from the Red Bull energy drink makers in 2005 but reaching the Champions League group stage has proved a Sisyphean task.
Not for the first time they were agonisingly close to fulfilling their dream on Wednesday when, with a 0-0 draw in the bag from the first leg of their playoff a week ago, they took a 2-0 lead at home to Red Star Belgrade in the return.
Instead, they threw it away as Comoros striker El Fardou Ben Nabouhane scored twice in quick succession to earn the Serbian side a 2-2 draw and an away goals victory.
Two years ago, Salzburg came within a minute of reaching the group stage when they led Dinamo Zagreb in the second leg of the playoff, but they conceded a late equaliser and went on to lose in extra time.
Two years before that, they led Malmo 2-0 at home in the first leg of the playoff, but hit the woodwork three times, allowed the Swedes to snatch an away goal in the last minute and lost the return match 3-0.
Red Bull’s influence over the club has not been to everyone’s liking and a decision to change the team colours from the traditional purple and white to a corporate white and red was particularly unpopular.
Fans pleaded with the club to keep the traditional kit but Salzburg’s only concession was to allow the goalkeeper to wear purple socks at away matches.
That prompted some fans to form a breakaway club named Austria Salzburg, who at one point reached the second tier but have since dropped back to the fourth after successive relegations.
On the other hand, Salzburg have won plaudits for their playing style and for developing young players who are eventually sold to bigger clubs abroad, such as Liverpool forward Sadio Mane.
They have also impressed observers with their high tempo pressing game and reached the semi-finals of the Europa League last season.
Wednesday’s exit was doubly disappointing as, unlike in some previous campaigns, Salzburg had succeeded in keeping together last season’s team with Croatia World Cup defender Duje Caleta-Car and midfielder Valon Berisha the only major departures.
“It’s a special story,” said coach Marco Rose, who also refused to be tempted away. “I have an immediate duty as coach of this team to take us further and set new targets.”
“Of course it hurts, but we will go on,” added Rose, who remembered how he narrowly missed promotion as a player with German side Mainz 05 on several occasions.
“You might have to give us a day or two to get up after such a setback. This team deserves to be in the Champions League group stage.”
Writing by Brian Homewood; Editing by John O'Brien