Bundesliga: Stuttgart′s on-field progress tarnished by war of words off it | Sports| German football and major international sports news | DW | 10.01.2021
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Bundesliga: Stuttgart's on-field progress tarnished by war of words off it

Stuttgart continued their impressive return to the Bundesliga with victory away at Augsburg on Sunday. But behind the scenes, CEO Thomas Hitzlsperger is embroiled in an unsavoury internal dispute.

Thomas Hitzlsperger on the bench

Thomas Hitzlsperger has caused a stir at Stuttgart

Augsburg 1-4 Stuttgart
(Richter 46' — Gonzalez pen. 10', Wamangituka 29', Castro 60', Didavi 87')

Newly-promoted Stuttgart leapfrogged Augsburg into the top half of the Bundesliga table thanks to another fine performance.

Silas Wamangituka impressed again as the Swabians' cemented their record as the Bundesliga's best away team. Pellegrino Matarazzo's young team, partly assembled by sporting director Sven Mislintat, is well on their way to achieving their season aim of staying up.

Success on the pitch though, has been tarnished by a war of words off it. DW explains the situation.

Why are there off-field problems at Stuttgart?

After years of internal turmoil and politicking, a sense of harmony appeared to have returned to the Mercedes Benz Arena, embodied by club legend Thomas Hitzlsperger as chairman and popular club president Claus Vogt, who spoke to DW about his hopes for the club at the start of this season.

However, just one week after a storming victory over Dortmund in December, that harmony was shattered. Hitzlsperger surprisingly announced his intention to become both chairman and president, publicly accusing the current incumbent Vogt of serious shortcomings, including his handling of an investigation into a data protection scandal (see below).

"A deep rift runs through our club, which endangers everything that we are rightly proud of. This situation has now become unacceptable," wrote Hitzlsperger in an open letter on December 30. "We are on the road to destroying everything that we have achieved in the last 12 months! My candidacy offers a way out of this situation."

What was the data protection scandal about?

In September 2020, German football magazine kicker published research which suggested that Stuttgart bosses had forwarded emails containing members' data to third parties, in breach of data protection and confidentiality regulations.

Club president Vogt commissioned the Berlin law firm Esecon to investigate the matter.

Claus Vogt smiles

Claus Vogt suddenly finds his position under threat

How did Vogt respond to Hitzlsperger's letter?

Vogt vehemently denied Hitzlsperger's accusations in a public statement of his own, suggesting that "one could get the impression that there are people at Stuttgart who don't want this investigation [into the data protection scandal]. Why? I'll let you decide that for yourselves."

Ahead of Stuttgart's narrow defeat to RB Leipzig on January 2, the two men met to clear the air and announce a cooperative way forward — but that could be easier said than done.

Why is Hitzlsperger's candidacy problematic?

While Claus Vogt is the elected president of Stuttgart, the club, Thomas Hitzlsperger is the head of the out-sourced company which manages the club's professional football division (known as the AG). Such a separation of powers is common at German football clubs, with the club and its members with their elected president acting as a check on the corporate business.

For Vogt — and indeed for many Stuttgart fans — Hitzlsperger's intention to oust him and become club president and CEO simultaneously is an attempt to acquire total control of the club and sideline its members.

"If the chairman [of the AG] were also president [of the club], then the interests of the club would be subordinate to those of the AG … keeping bothersome members at arm's length," wrote Vogt. "Is that what we want?"

What do the Stuttgart fans think?

Stuttgart is the eighth biggest football club in Germany with over 71,500 members, and fans have reacted to the public dispute between two extremely popular figures with dismay.

"No-one is bigger than the club and its members," read banners hung around the stadium and training pitches over the Christmas break. "The only constant are us fans.”

It's Hitzlsperger who has come in for particular criticism. His candidacy for the club presidency has been viewed by many as a power grab to circumvent the separation of powers between club and corporation. One member has tabled a motion at the next annual general meeting to adapt the constitution to make it impossible for one person to hold both positions.

"The trust of many fans and members has once again been completely lost," wrote representatives of the club's own elected fan committee in a statement. "The attempt to replace the separation of powers with a fanciful double-function once again represents a break with promises, expectations and decisions."

What happens next?

The club's annual-general meeting (AGM) is set for March 18, but the fan committee has requested a postponement due to the dispute and that at the moment the meeting would be virtual due to the pandemic.