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Bayern's Uli Hoeness

The Rise And Fall of a Soccer Saint

Part 3: Chatting With Merkel

Wednesday, 5/1/2013   06:35 PM

On Jan. 12, a Saturday, Hoeness filed a voluntary disclosure of his tax evasion. Three days later, he took an early morning flight to Berlin to participate in a board meeting of the Germany Integration Foundation, an organization that aims to promote the integration of immigrants. Chancellor Merkel had called him personally beforehand to ask if he would like to be present, and expressed her high regard for Hoeness.

After the meeting, Hoeness sat down for a coffee with Merkel at the Chancellery. It was a pleasant meeting as always with the chancellor, a stimulating talk, Hoeness said the next day, adding that he finds Merkel highly intelligent, with incredibly quick comprehension. He added, "She said to me, Mr. Hoeness, we are going to have to play soccer in Europe now, 90 minutes, perhaps even 120 minutes. But I hope we don't have to go into a penalty shootout, because Bayern isn't very good at that."

Hoeness made these comments about Chancellor Merkel from his office at FC Bayern Munich's headquarters on Säbener Strasse in Munich on Jan. 16, four days after he had filed his voluntary disclosure with the tax authorities. On the desk in front of him lay an invitation from a company asking him to give a talk at a company party. Hoeness picked up the invitation and read aloud, "You have demonstrated that it is important, in addition to taking economic responsibility for employees and clients, never to lose track of social and societal responsibility as well."

Setting the letter back on his desk, Hoeness declared, "That says it all." He has always moved through the world with his eyes and ears open, Hoeness continued, adding that he is someone who "just understands how society works." He said, "People like me, who are fairly independent economically and very successful, increasingly need to assume social responsibility as well. These days no one is going to accept that you earn more money than many others unless you think for others as well."

Hoeness sounded very committed and convincing as his spoke. At the same time, his gaze wandered constantly to his TV. The sound was off, but the screen showed teletext from broadcaster n-tv with the latest stock market indexes.

Eight days after his voluntary disclosure, Hoeness was invited to the Bavarian town of Peissenberg, where the local branch of the CSU was holding its New Year's reception. Local party chair and CSU secretary general Alexander Dobrindt, who had issued the invitations, stood in the foyer, and seemed as excited as a little boy.

'You Have To Be Credible'

Onstage and in the best of moods, Hoeness explained what he felt was going well and what badly in Germany. He spoke confidently, giving the impression of being someone who understands what's going on and whom someone politicians should listen to more often. "These days, whether you're part of a club or part of politics, you have to go your own way, you have to have a clear concept and you have to be credible," Hoeness said.

Yet there were moments of hidden honesty that day as well. In Peissenberg, Hoeness fielded a question about left-wing politicians' plans to increase taxes on wealth and on high incomes by responding, "There are certain limits beyond which citizens are simply no longer willing to keep doing even more for others." It is a mistake, he added, to believe that "if we keep taking more and more from the wealthy, then things will be better for those with less. That's simply not the case. In fact, the opposite is true! If the wealthy eventually have had enough and decide to do less, then those with less will have to start working more again, to be able to maintain the status they currently have."

During the trip to Peissenberg, Hoeness proudly mentioned that his going rate for such talks has reached over €25,000 and that he donates every euro of that to charitable organizations. He expressed his disdain for the center-left Social Democratic Party's candidate for chancellor, Peer Steinbrück, who keeps his honorarium for himself.

Evading Taxes but Donating to Charity

That same evening, Hoeness gave hundreds of insurance agents a talking to. "The way I see the responsibilities of companies and of people is that those who are doing especially well have a damn responsibility to society, a responsibility to give those who aren't doing well a helping hand, in the hope that they will seize that opportunity and soon become full members of society once again," he declared.

That statement sounds as if it stands in direct contradiction to Hoeness' tax evasion -- since the very idea of taxation is that a government uses that revenue to give those who aren't doing well a helping hand -- and yet it isn't a contradiction. In fact, one could say the theoretical figure described in 2009 by philosopher Peter Sloterdijk finds a real-life counterpart in Uli Hoeness.

Central to the philosophy Sloterdijk describes is the idea of government as an enemy of freedom, and freedom as the highest commodity in capitalism. Adherents of this philosophy don't believe they live in a market economy, but rather "in an order of things that must be defined, though with a grain of salt, as semi-Socialism based on a foundation of private property, animated by mass media and drawing on government taxation," Sloterdijk writes. They feel they are at the mercy of a "government kleptocracy," a "monster that keeps taking," and that the most feasible response to this is an "anti-fiscal civil war." Sloterdijk suggests that instead of paying taxes, the wealthy should donate their money to "societally beneficial entities of their choice."

A major topic in a SPIEGEL interview with Hoeness last fall was the ill will he has sometimes caused at the club when he has revealed internal matters in these talks he gives, or when his witty critiques of everything under the sun have overshot their mark. Hoeness explained very earnestly that he has to do these things, because that's what people want to hear, and that if he didn't, companies wouldn't pay so much money for his appearances -- money, he pointed out, that he gives to charitable causes. The world would be a poorer place, in other words, without Hoeness' frivolous comments. He seems to truly believe that by doing the talk circuit and collecting donations for it, he is making the world a better place.

That attitude explains the strange coexistence of evading taxes but donating generously. It's not so much a matter of keeping all the money for oneself, but rather of keeping that money away from a government that can't be fully trusted. Hoeness certainly isn't alone in his skepticism toward the government. No one wants to pour their money into a bureaucracy if they harbor doubts as to whether that bureaucracy will handle the money well. Fortunately, though, not everyone reacts by resorting to illegal methods, as Hoeness has done -- while most likely allaying his conscience with the donations he has made. Those who do good things find it easier to do bad things as well, because they're able to tell themselves that they are essentially good people.

Much the same can be said of people who achieve great things. They sometimes tend to award themselves privileges and allow themselves not always to follow rules and laws. They see this special status as a reward for their great achievements.

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