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Uli Hoeness: From young visionary to old-school patriarch

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Tobias Oelmaier
November 15, 2019

Uli Hoeness has done more to make Bayern Munich the force that they are than anyone else. Now he has decided not to stand for reelection as club president, a move that was long overdue, writes DW's Tobias Oelmaier.

Karikatur Uli Hoeneß von Ceine Rübbelke

He first joined Bayern Munich at the tender age of 18. He won his first Bundesliga title and European Championships just two years later. At the age of 22 he won the World Cup. A fair-haired boy with the golden touch back then — now he's very much a self-made man.

Hoeness is a media darling who is beloved by the fans — and also has a happy family life. His rise was as fast as he was, he once ran the 100 meters in 11 seconds flat. Even the knee injury that would force an end to his playing career did nothing to slow him down. Hoeness made the best of a bad situation, taking over as general manager of what was then a financially-precarious Bayern Munich. He was always looking to the future.

It was after he turned his hand to management that both his career and the club really took flight. Not even a 1982 plane crash, of which he was the sole survivor, could slow him down. In fact, it seemed to push him to greater heights as he set about making Bayern Munich one of the most successful and richest clubs on the planet.

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DW's Tobias Oelmaier

While a certain Donald Trump may live by the maxim "America first," Hoeness' slogan, until this Friday at least, could best be described as "Bayern first." He's always swatted aside anyone who dared to voice a word of criticism of his beloved Bayern - or threatened to compete with them on the pitch. He has done so through words, actions, and money.

When a competitor got close to posing a threat, he simply bought their best player out from under their noses. If a journalist dared to ask tough questions, he would lash out verbally, trying to intimidate them. This, Hoeness did to shield his team from criticism and distract media from the real story during times of crisis. The aim was always clear: to make the club bigger and more successful. The end justified many means.

Hoeness polarized opinion, both then and now. His success made him the object both of envy and hate. But after meeting him personally, most of his competitors have been full of praise for Uli Hoeness the manager. They will tell you that as a businessman he was always more than fair — with more than a bit of gratitude.

This is because without him, the Bundesliga wouldn't be what it is now, in terms of television deals, newly constructed stadiums, marketing and sponsorship. As a commercial manager, Hoeness regularly broke new ground and always thought big. Both his vision and decisions were usually on the mark. Later, after he became president, he remained the strongman at Bayern Munich, which by then had become an international brand.

Jail term

Then came the little matter of that tax offence. It came to light at the beginning of 2013 that Hoeness had evaded a double-digit million sum after a series of foolhardy financial transactions, for which he was eventually convicted and sentenced to three and a half years in prison. He served just half of his sentence, before being granted parole for the rest. While he admitted his mistake, he didn't really appear to have been reformed. It seemed as if Hoeness had become out of touch in recent years. The success, the fame and fortune; all this apparently robbed himself of the power of self-criticism — and possibly the ability to take it from others. 

"It's not over yet," Hoeness exclaimed in his speech resigning as Bayern president at the club's AGM in May 2014. Overwhelmed by the applause of the Bayern members before he left to serve his prison sentence, Hoeness planned to return to his club as soon as possible. And in fact it took just nine months for the inmate to return to his post, elected president again by 98.5 percent of Bayern members. The fans stuck with him, the symbol of their club's ascent.

It turns out that this was the second major mistake (after the tax offense) in the life of Uli Hoeness. By the time he returned, the chairman, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, had become accustomed to making the decisions, and there was little left of the former harmony between the two bosses.

The process of renewal at the club ground to a halt. Bayern failed to seize upon the momentum created by the treble in 2013, even if they did continue to dominate the Bundesliga. At the same time, the club stopped bringing through promising youngsters from its academy. Personnel decisions haven't gone so well either.  The celebrated yet controversial coach Pep Guardiola was succeeded by the hapless Carlo Ancelotti, before Hoeness' aging personal friend, Jupp Heynckes, came to the rescue. Then Niko Kovac came along, lasting just over a season.

As for Hasan Salihamidzic, his skills as sporting director are difficult to assess. The only real evidence we have to go on after his two years in the job are his occasional empty public statements.

Embarassing actions

Instead, in recent years, it was always Hoeness in the spotlight, usually for all the wrong reasons. 

First he hammered the media for daring to criticize the club's leadership, then, in an embarrassing performance at a press conference, he on the one hand demanded that reporters respect the human rights of others — only to trample all over them a few sentences later. He cursed at a club member who dared publicly criticized him. Later he threatened the national team with a boycott by Bayern players because in his eyes, Joachim Löw hadn't given Manuel Neuer the public support he deserved. It was enough to make even the most fervent of Bayern fans blush.

For all he has done for Bayern Munich and German football, times have simply changed - and Hoeness failed to move with them. He still claims never to have gone on the Internet or written an email. The visionary of old has stuck with old ways, evolving into an old-school patriarch. Uli Hoeness would have done better to have stepped away from the limelight right after his prison spell, but his ego wouldn't let him. After all, how many people do you know who manage to choose the right moment to step down?