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Fußball DFB-Funktionäre Horst R. Schmidt Theo Zwanziger Wolfgang Niersbach
Image: Getty Images/Bongarts/U. Roth

How Germany's 2006 World Cup fairy tale turned sour

Marko Langer
March 9, 2020

Many Germans will never forget summer 2006, when Germany hosted the World Cup. But its legacy is at risk, as a trial over suspicious payments opens against three men who worked for the DFB and helped land the host bid.

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Anyone who experienced it will still remember the euphoria that gripped Germany at the time. Brilliant weather, full stadiums and the triumphant public viewings in squares, streets and pubs across the land. The fact that the German team failed to win the tournament hardly dampened the mood. From then on, June and July 2006 were considered a "summer fairy tale." It was almost too good to be true.

The FIFA World Cup host role going to Germany had not been a foregone conclusion. Franz Beckenbauer, who virtually invented the sweeper position as a player and later became world champion again as a coach, played a central role as head of the organizing committee working to land the host bid.

Before the decisive vote on the host nation, Beckenbauer had flown around the world in order to cast Germany in a favorable light. Soon a dubious cash flow of €6.7 million ($7.5 million) between the years 2002 and 2005 was being discussed. The matter quickly became confused: in 2002 Beckenbauer had received a loan for this amount from the now deceased entrepreneur Robert Louis-Dreyfus.

The money then flowed into the accounts of the then-FIFA official Mohammed bin Hammam in Qatar. The repayment to Louis-Dreyfus three years later was made from a DFB account via FIFA.

These transfers are at the heart of a legal process in Switzerland that opens on Monday. Were these payments bribes? Was the World Cup bought?

Lukas Podolski and Bastian Schweinsteiger were the faces of Germany's 2006 World Cup team.
A young Lukas Podolski and Bastian Schweinsteiger were the faces of Germany's 2006 teamImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Kinowelt

The accused

Beckenbauer, who for a long time held the honorary title of "Lichtgestalt" ("figure of light") in Germany because he apparently succeeded in everything, was only removed from the main trial last year, as his health began to fail.

The men remaining in the dock are those who were the key figures in the association itself: former DFB presidents Theo Zwanziger and Wolfgang Niersbach and former DFB General Secretary Horst R. Schmidt. The three men, as well as former Swiss FIFA General Secretary Urs Linsi, are accused of something that is unknown in German law: "Disloyal management" is the term used for the offence.

Each man has always denied the allegations. The defense counsel for Zwanziger has already announced that the former president of the association will not attend the trial on Monday for health reasons. "After a serious eye operation his attending doctors do not consider him able to travel over 700 kilometers to participate," the lawyer's statement said. Whether Niersbach and Schmidt will appear in person remains unclear.

The witnesses

Some observers say the real culprits are not the ones on trial: ex-FIFA boss Sepp Blatter, for example, or the aforementioned Beckenbauer, who is now 74 years old. His defense attorneys have presented certificates in Switzerland stating that Beckenbauer's health has also deteriorated massively. His judgment and his memory have been severely impaired, and no improvement is to be expected.

German football legend Franz Beckenbauer is implicated in the trial.
Franz Beckenbauer is implicatedImage: Getty Images/A. Rentz

This diagnosis was used to justify to the Swiss investigators that they could not question Beckenbauer. As a result, the proceedings against him were dismissed by the judiciary. However, Beckenbauer is still on the list of witnesses in the trial that is now beginning.

The hearing takes place at the Federal Criminal Court in Bellizona,in Switzerland, the country where football's world governing body is headquartered. The Swiss consider themselves to have jurisdiction because bank accounts of the Swiss Confederates were used for the payments. But there is a danger that the whole thing could turn into a show trial, given that the chief prosecutor was recently accused of serious misconduct, as reported by German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, among others. The public prosecutor, Michael Lauber, is accused of having held secret meetings with the current head of FIFA, Gianni Infantino. 

Should the trial break down, however, the matter still won't be over for the accused. A possible trial on suspicion of tax evasion is pending in Frankfurt, the seat of the DFB. The officials at the time had declared the transfer in 2005 as a contribution to a cultural program for the 2006 World Cup, but the program never took place.

The consequences

The view of the "summer fairy tale" has clouded since the payments affair became known. Today, nobody speaks of Beckenbauer as a "shining light," despite his earlier achievements, and the Munich native makes very few public appearances.

DFB president Fritz Keller.
There are hopes for a better future for the DFB with Fritz Keller now at the helm of the organizationImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Gora

The alleged "disloyal management of business affairs" also had consequences beyond a personal level.

The DFB's relatively new boss, Fritz Keller, offers hope for better times, and his organization is acting as joint plaintiff in the trial. "Apparently, things have happened that can only be called criminal," Keller explained to German broadcaster ZDF. He expressed hope for the "greatest effort to finally come up with the truth so that we don't have to deal with something like this anymore."

Will Keller's request be granted? The court is under time pressure: A first-instance decision must be made by April 27 at the latest; otherwise the statute of limitations will apply. The legal representatives of the defendants raised not only the damaged health of their clients as reasons not to start the trial, but also the spread of coronavirus. News magazine Der Spiegel has already reported that the German functionaries had been assured a kind of "free escort" back to Germany. Initially, twelve trial days are planned.

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