FC Pinzgau was founded by Christian Herzog, Siegi Kainz and Herbert Bründlinger on 23 May, 2007, the club just weeks away now from celebrating its 13th year of existence.
A real community club, and one that has brought the locals together as one, the trail to actually forming the Saalfelden-based club has blazed quite the journey. Despite a sometimes bumpy ride, the insistence of Messrs. Kainz and Bründlinger initially, and latterly Herzog, to seek a higher calling out of what was previously a heated rivalry, has largely contributed to the dawn of the FCPS ‘Fan Owned Club’ era we embark on today.
“Our roots are two traditional clubs in Saalfelden: Saalfeldner SK (est. 20 May, 1947) and ESV Saalfelden (est. 1952), teams led by Siegi Kainz and Herbert Bründlinger,” Christian Herzog said. “Both were very successful. SK Saalfelden was the club of business people, whilst ESV Saalfelden were the club of the workers. So there was quite a rivalry between the two, and in the last years before the founding of FC Pinzgau in 2007, both clubs faced a sporting crash.”
It was precisely those events, in 2004, that forced the two teams to consider their options. As beautiful a region as Saalfelden was, the difficulty in getting youngsters in the area to focus on football in any event was acknowledged, particularly in the winter when the more traditional sports such as skiing would take centre stage. If football was to remain as a focal point there, then differences had to be put to one side. Ultimately, it was a shared goal which united Saalfelden.
“The two small clubs in Saalfelden no longer had a future on their own,” Herbert Bründlinger remembers. “The idea we had was to bring them together in one club because the most important thing was to get the kids to do sports!”
Delivering on hopes and dreams
After some weeks of talks as to exactly how things would work, the cornerstones were laid for the new project. The name of the club would be SG Saalfelden. The youth teams would play on the old SK Saalfenden pitches in the centre of the city whilst the first team would have the ESV Stadium, the current Saalfelden Arena, as their home. The first coach of the senior side was Wolfgang Feiersinger, a well-known footballer from Saalfeden who had won the Champions League with Dortmund, with Christian Herzog joining the board in 2005.
“I came to the club and we started to build up a new organisation. Saalfelden had a long football tradition, but at that time Zell am See was still the No.1 team in the region. We wanted to change that, to develop a good club for the young players and become the biggest soccer club in the region. It was difficult at the beginning and there was also some criticism, because we quickly took over the supremacy in the region and were eventually looking to include the region’s name ‘Pinzgau’ into what would become our new organisation.”
With a clear desire in mind, the owners set about delivering on their hopes, and at the beginning, it’s fair to say that not everyone was impressed. As with any new venture, some people embraced it wholeheartedly and immediately saw the bigger picture, whilst others, reticent to change, looked for any number of reasons to be critical. Crucially, that criticism could not deflect the owners from their aim.
“We had 250 children at the club initially,” Herbert Bründlinger continued. “Our plans were to get the senior team up into the Austrian third tier, the highest amateur league in Austria. The name FCPS – FC Pinzgau Saalfelden – was very daring, because we were using the name of the entire region (Pinzgau). The purpose of so doing was future-oriented, but in the region our beginnings were being observed very critically by many.”
Although it was clear that all three owners wished for consistent and ever greater success for the newly-formed FC Pinzgau Saalfelden, keeping the club as an amateur concern suited the trio. Being the best part-time team in the area, year in and year out, initially was a pipe dream, eventually a reality. But taking the team into professional ranks, whilst never completely ruled out, wasn’t initially a discussion point.
“Our long term aspirations were to get the first team to play in the third tier, the highest amateur level in Austria. We also wanted our players to mostly come from the region and our focus was on the youth. Originally we intended for FCPS to remain part-time, but of course we were open to professional status, even if we were unsure as to how that may happen,” Siegi Kainz noted.
Quickly building up a reputation for bringing through quality football players, and as a club that did things the right way, it wasn’t really any surprise that FCPS would achieve their dreams over the course of the few years. Klaus Bodmayer was the first manager to have a crack at improving the club’s league position, and a 10th placed finish in the Salzburger Liga, Austria’s regional fourth tier, saw him replaced for the start of the 2008/09 campaign, by Hannes Rottenspacher.
An immediate upturn in results saw FCPS finish fourth that season, and they would repeat the feat in 2009/10. Importantly, goals scored had improved, and goals conceded had decreased. Rottenspacher was clearly on the right track, and the club’s first ever promotion to the Austrian Regionalliga West, one of four regional leagues in the third tier of Austrian football, was theirs after winning the title in the 2010/11 campaign. Twenty-four wins, three draws and just three losses, with a goal difference of +50, was an incredible performance by all concerned.
An 11th placed finish in their first campaign after promotion was a reasonable enough return under Rottenspacher. Eleven wins, five draws and 14 losses gave the team something to improve upon, and gave the three owners a more accurate idea as to the standard of competition at the higher level. One of their decisions at that time was to replace the coach with Michael Steiner, however, relegation followed a year later, with a bottom-of-the-table finish certainly not in the plan. Steiner was given the chance to resurrect things in the 2013/14 campaign, and that decision by the owners was proved to be the right one as they again won the Salzburger Liga title.
Sensing that the size of the task post-promotion would again prove beyond Steiner, Markus Fürstaller was installed as the coach at the beginning of the 14/15 season and would stay in the position for four years. During his tenure, the team would finish 12th, 8th, 12th and 15th. By no means awful, as the team continued to play good football, mid-table mediocrity wasn’t a long-term existence that appealed to the owners.
It was around this time that a rather serendipitous moment in the history of the club occurred. Mark Ciociola, an American looking for an entry point into European football as an owner, had become aware of FCPS, and pitched an idea to the Austrian owners. That idea was to take the club to an even higher level. To go professional and to become ‘fan owned.’
“When Mark told us about his idea for the first time, we were initially surprised why he chose a small club in Austria for it,” Christian Herzog said. “Of course there was also some skepticism at the beginning, but the longer we talked and the more we learned about the idea and the background, the more enthusiastic we were about the planned project. Enabling fans from all over the world to own part of the club was a fascinating idea. It was going to be unique to have two football cultures in one club.”
Call it fate, but at the same time Alessandro Ziege, son of former German international, Christian, joined the club, and the simple act of signing him ultimately led to changing the face of the club again, as Christian Herzog recalled.
“Around the same time as Mark had the first talks with us, Alessandro joined our team. His parents accompanied him to every match and that’s how we got to know Christian and his wife. Alessandro and his parents felt very comfortable at the club and they soon became part of the FCPS family. When we cancelled the contract with our former coach (Markus Fürstaller) during the season, Christian offered to coach the team for the last few games of the championship. Meanwhile, negotiations with Mark and his partners, Trey and Steve, collectively ‘Fan Owned Club,’ were completed. Trey managed to get Christian enthusiastic about the joint project and he signed a long-term contract.”
By employing the services of one of European football’s most storied players, FCPS quickly became headline news, and interest in the team and club went through the roof. With the American owners now on board, the club wouldn’t now just be looking to win the Austrian Regionalliga West. Qualification for the Champions League was now a goal, and both Siegi Kainz and Herbert Bründlinger couldn’t have been happier.
“Owning the club with people who had the same interests, and the same goals to take the club forward again was the best part,” Kainz said. “You have to consider that we all worked voluntarily for the club from the beginning. Besides the highlights of winning some championships on the pitch, we were proud that we created one of the biggest clubs in the federal state of Salzburg. Our greatest achievement, however, was the fact that the Americans chose our club to implement their unique Fan Owned Club concept. Clearly, we had already created a good framework in the past.”
The arrival of Christian Ziege
Bründlinger added; “I find it extremely exciting to bring an Austrian football club to the world in this way. Through our USA friends and partners, FCPS continues to develop.”
Since Ziege’s arrival on the bench in April 2019, the team has continued to go from strength to strength. The squad of young professionals, that now include a number of American players thanks to the partnerships set up by the new trio of owners, have worked hard under his tutelage. Before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the players were all set to contest the Austrian Eliteliga West playoffs for the first time ever, with the carrot of promotion to the second tier a very real prospect.
The quality of the football that has been on show recently comes as a result of the total respect that Ziege has from his players. The former Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Tottenham Hotspur stalwart is loving life at FCPS too.
Promotion is never a certainty of course, but everything is now in place to grow the club again and for it to achieve its current aims in the near future. There are also plans afoot to upgrade the stadium in order that it is ready for an assault on the upper echelons of the Austrian football pyramid and eventual qualification to UEFA competition. Formerly known as the Sportanlage Bürgerau, the stadium was rebranded as the SaalfeldenArena in 2018, and there are associated works – HDTV-quality lighting, undersoil heating, capacity increases, etc. – that must be put in place in order to fulfil the various criteria that upper domestic leagues and European competitions require.
It’s one of many ongoing challenges, but with the ‘super six’ owners at the helm, the sky really is the limit for FC Pinzgau Saalfelden/Fan Owned Club. From being a purely local concern in its early days, the club now has genuine global reach and continues to go from strength to strength.
The time is NOW to write a few more chapters in the history of this extraordinary organisation. There can be no doubt that FCPS is a club going places.
WGP Global are the sole strategic partner for FC Pinzgau Saalfelden/Fan Owned Club.