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From Bremen to the UN

Willi Lemke bows out as UN sports adviser

In New York, outgoing UN chief Ban Ki-moon has thanked his special adviser for sporting matters, Willi Lemke, who's also something akin to royalty for Werder Bremen fans. Lemke is stepping out of the spotlight at 70.

Willi Wilfried Lemke UNHCR (UNHCR)

Lemke has spent eight years as the UN's top sporting ambassador

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told Willi Lemke on Tuesday that he had enjoyed working with the German football manager over the past eight years. 

"You have carried out important tasks and built bridges," Ban told his special adviser for sports at a ceremony in New York, citing improved cooperation with the International Olympic Committee in particular. "I thank you for your leadership qualities and engagement." 

Lemke also poured praise on Ban, confessing that he had asked the secretary-general's wife to ensure the evening would take place: "I am very touched, because it was my great desire to say farewell to you in person." 

"It was a very good time serving you and the United Nations." 

As Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General on Sport for Development and Peace, Lemke once said that he identified five core areas where he sought progress: conflict resolution, gender equality, development of Africa, inclusion of persons with disabilities, and youth development.

Ban said on Tuesday that sport's "much more important dimension" was often overlooked, the way it can "spontaneously mobilize the hearts and minds of people" to "create peace." Lemke concurred, saying that with so many problems in the world, "sport can help to build bridges."

From double agent to Werder strategist

Lemke, 70, worked briefly in academia after completing his studies in educational and sports sciences. He'd been bitten by the sporting bug young and told DW in a 2015 interview that he volunteered at the 1972 Munich Olympics in order to get closer to the Games.

During the Cold War, he operated as a double agent, feeding information to the Soviet KGB but keeping West Germany's intelligence services informed of the names and addresses he leaked. Both sides paid for the information.

He's best known, however, for nearly two decades spent as the commercial manager of Werder Bremen, ending in 1999. The club picked up two Bundesliga titles, three German Cups and the European Cup Winner's Cup during his tenure. Thereafter, Lemke returned to politics in Bremen with the Social Democrats, before taking up the job at the UN as Ban Ki-moon's special adviser for sport in 2008.

Words of warning on departure

Lemke also recently retired from Bremen's board of directors, ahead of laying down his work with the UN. He was rather critical of the club's performance in recent years, with Werder slipping from a guaranteed European football candidate to a mid-table player or worse in the Bundesliga.

Werder-Präsidium (picture-alliance/dpa)

Lemke (c.) spent 18 years managing Werder Bremen's off-pitch affairs

"The question is why it is currently going better at other clubs which are no better placed financially than us," Lemke said in a radio interview in November.

He also railed against some of the changes in the modern game, saying it was important that football remained true to its roots.

"Nowadays we have these investors who simply buy up a club and change it," Lemke lamented. "The player agents are enjoying an absolute boom that is just not acceptable. And when I then see that some clubs are planning a European super-league in the American style, where the richest clubs play with no threat of relegation. That's a horror scenario for me."

Even in his swansong year in the public eye, the 70-year-old remained active on the sports scene - for instance completing the Bremen half marathon in October. 

 

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