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Bayern's Uli Hoeness

The Rise And Fall of a Soccer Saint

Part 4: A Duopoly in the Bundesliga

Wednesday, 5/1/2013   06:35 PM

Perhaps Hoeness takes such a perspective as well. Didn't he lead Bayern back to its spot among the top European teams, all while being good to his German competition? Didn't he give Borussia Dortmund a loan when the club was nearly bankrupt, and grant impoverished FC St. Pauli a benefit match to help that team stay afloat? Yes, he did. But then something unnerving happened to Bayern: In the last two years, Borussia Dortmund won the Bundesliga. Some sport analysts already speculate the team may become the new dominant force in the Bundesliga, the monopolist of success.

Bayern reacted to that news by making a few smart purchases of players and has so far dominated the league in the current season. But it seems that wasn't enough. Hoeness himself also made a few moves that wouldn't be out of character for Gordon Gekko, that ultimate capitalist from the movie "Wall Street."

In mid-April, Hoeness suddenly began an assault on the so-called "Spanish conditions" supposedly threatening the Bundesliga. After Bayern won 4-0 against Nuremberg on the same day that Dortmund beat Greuther Fürth 6-1, FC Bayern president announced he saw "a need to take action" and that "such results aren't acceptable in the long term." He also said had already spoken about the matter with Dortmund's business manager Hans-Joachim Watzke.

The term "Spanish conditions" refers to the way FC Barcelona and Real Madrid have formed essentially a private society for the superrich and super strong, sharing between them around 60 percent of the Primera División's total sales, as well as its titles. This is very different from Germany's Bundesliga, whose trademark is the constant excitement of not knowing who will win, following the motto that anyone can beat anyone -- although that hasn't been strictly true for the last three years. The question, then, is whether Germany is on its way to becoming a Spanish-style duopoly dominated by Dortmund and Bayern Munich.

When Hoeness laid out his idea, Watzke wondered how it would work. Was Hoeness volunteering to donate players -- or even funding -- to struggling members of the competition? The distribution of national television funding for the next four years was decided in November 2012, and Bayern has certainly complained about the ample earnings that go to the Champions League's top teams. Besides, Watzke believes, more equality within the sport would come at the cost of quality, since German teams capable of keeping up with top teams around Europe will have to dominate the national league.

Watzke was thus taken by surprise when he read about his telephone conversation in the newspaper -- Hoeness had gone public with the idea. Was that the Bayern manager's plan all along? Did Hoeness want to garner acclaim for himself as the lone do-gooder, the champion of solidarity within the Bundesliga, the socialist of soccer?

'He Wants to Destroy Us'

Hoeness has since backpedaled on his plan. It turned out to be hypocritical in any case, since Hoeness must have known, even as he was supposedly campaigning for more equality, that his team had plans to snap up Dortmund's wunderkind Mario Götze. That deal went through for €37 million, because that's the price the player -- or more accurately his advisor -- and Dortmund established in a release clause in Götze's contract. And because it's a price FC Bayern was able to pay.

Now Dortmund is spreading rumors that it was not FC Bayern as a club, but rather Hoeness working alone, who leaked news of the transfer to the mass-circulation newspaper Bild, in order to unsettle Dortmund just before the first leg of the team's semi-final match against Real Madrid last week. According to the rumors, Hoeness was desperate to prevent his absolute worst-case scenario, which is that Bayern might lose to Barcelona in the semi-final and that Dortmund win the Champions League. A Borussia official says of Hoeness, "He wants to destroy us." Hoeness, meanwhile, denies he was the leak. All sides here are playing hardball.

Bayern would also dearly love to snatch away Dortmund's striker Robert Lewandowski, doubly weakening its rival team. The competition believes the Bavarian team has long since agreed with Lewandowski on a transfer -- although such an agreement is against regulations -- by the season after next at the latest, at which point the Polish striker will be a free agent. If Lewandowski wants to transfer before that, he will need Dortmund's consent, but the team has no interest in approving an early transfer, not after Götze -- and not even for the €25 million Bayern is said to be willing to pay for Lewandowski.

Modern capitalism, too, began with the trade in human beings, in the form of slavery. Some people may never get used to the idea that athletes have a price tag and can be traded back and forth. But that trade is by no means the specialty of Bayern Munich alone. Bayern buys Götze from Dortmund, Dortmund buys Marco Reus from Mönchengladbach, Mönchengladbach buys Max Kruse from SC Freiburg, and so on. Bayern Munich is such a successful team precisely because it understands this business so well -- thanks to Hoeness.

Not everyone is able to come to terms with this free-market form of soccer. There will always be hardliners in the stadiums who manage to cling to the dream that their sport is first and foremost about heart and soul, about football, about a particular city. When goalkeeper Manuel Neuer transferred to Bayern in 2011 from Schalke 04, the Bundesliga team of the western industrial city of Gelsenkirchen, that went too far for many fans. Neuer was a real Gelsenkirchen boy, who had himself shouted his heart out in the stands, cheering for the home team, before he followed the scent of money and success to Munich. Schalke's hardcore fans were outraged at Neuer's perceived betrayal, while Munich fans reacted with hostility to their team's new purchase. This wasn't the kind of player they wanted.

Now all that is forgotten. Soccer has a great power to reconcile, and the name of that power is success. When Bayern Munich plays as enchantingly well as it has done this season, even diehard Bayern haters find themselves enamored with the team for the beauty of its game, for the joy of a successful combination ending in an exquisite goal, for the intoxication of a match well played. When that happens, no one is thinking about the trade in humans, because consumption always makes it easier to reconcile ourselves with capitalism. Consumption is good at creating illusions. We see the lovely picture on the surface and not the system behind it.

Tepid Support From Bayern Fans

Tax fraud, though, has a way of seriously disrupting that illusion. At Bayern's game against Barcelona last Tuesday, fans showed far less support for Hoeness than expected. One fan held up a small sign that read, "Uli, I'm sticking by you." When, during the halftime break, the stadium's video screen showed a shot of Hoeness cheering for a goal, the audience clapped a bit, but the atmosphere remained strangely cool and no chants rose up in support of Hoeness.

Does this mean that a soccer stadium is a hotbed of government supporters, people who want to make sure their politicians have plenty of money to work with? Hardly. But Germans are touchy when it comes to questions of justice. They have no sympathy for someone who has a lot to begin with, and then commits fraud in order to have even more. Tax fraud is a phenomenon of the wealthy. For someone drawing a normal salary, as the majority of the fans in the stands do, withholding money from the government is never even an option. In that sense, it can seem unfair that some people even have the option of committing fraud, while others don't.

The people who reacted most strongly, though, were seated comfortably in the VIP section, especially Martin Winterkorn, CEO of Volkswagen, and Rupert Stadler, CEO of Volkswagen's subsidiary Audi. Both men sit on Bayern Munich's supervisory board and will have a say in deciding Hoeness' future.

The football manager now finds himself at the mercy of a different aspect of capitalism -- a global company with a built-in obsession with being scrupulously correct to protect its reputation, especially after a major sex and corruption affair tainted the company in 2005. A major corporation such as this one has a particular interest in being clean so that customers don't get angry with it and stop buying its products. An Audi car cannot afford to be connected in any way to the word "fraud," and it is Audi that provides FC Bayern's vehicles.

The company's top managers always saw Hoeness as a soccer saint. Winterkorn has known Hoeness for over 10 years, since the partnership between Audi and Bayern Munich first began. The idea back then was that some of the soccer team's glamor would rub off on an automobile brand that was looking a bit wan at the time. Winterkorn also sought Hoeness' advice when he needed to hire a new coach for VfL Wolfsburg, the team Volkswagen owns.

'Hoeness Will Have to Go'

The revelation of Hoeness' tax evasion surprised and saddened Winterkorn, those close to the CEO say. They say Winterkorn has made comments such as, "He's messed it up," and "Anyone who points fingers at others has to be unassailable himself."

A manager who withheld several million euros in taxes would certainly not be allowed to keep his position at Volkswagen, at least not if the case became public knowledge. And Bayern Munich is technically a VW holding, since Audi owns just under 10 percent of the club, which means the carmaker's rules must hold for the soccer club as well. The result, say those around Winterkorn and Stadler, is clear: "Hoeness will have to go."

Members of the club's supervisory board are also annoyed that they weren't informed about the search of Hoeness' villa and the warrant for his arrest before the media were. "Then we could have been prepared, not caught off guard," they say. The board is eager to talk with the team's other major sponsors, Deutsche Telekom, Adidas and Allianz.

At a meeting on Saturday, for which Winterkorn cancelled a visit to a VfL Wolfsburg home game, board members agreed that if Hoeness isn't willing, at the supervisory board meeting next Monday, to announce his resignation or at least to step aside for a period, then the board will force him to do so.

Then again, Volkswagen itself isn't particularly well placed to condemn Hoeness given that VW managers face a lawsuit for incorrect business practices in connection with VfL Wolfsburg. It turns out all isn't clean and correct in the world of corporate management either. But here, too, companies are eager to peddle an illusion.

As for Bayern, some insiders believe Franz Beckenbauer will now make a comeback. When Beckenbauer made way for Hoeness as supervisory board chair in 2009, he didn't do so entirely of his own free will. The foundation for that change was laid during the 2006 World Cup, while Beckenbauer was too busy to keep a close eye on his power base at Bayern. Sometimes rivals within family businesses fight particularly tough and dirty.

Capitalism can also be seen as a system of temptations, in which there are countless temptations to do something bad, because something that's bad for someone else so often appears to be good for oneself. Hoeness, for all his good deeds, was not especially good at resisting this temptation. It turns out words he himself spoke in a 2002 interview are true: "It doesn't make any sense to end up in prison over a few deutsche marks in taxes."


Translated from the German by Paul Cohen and Ella Ornstein

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