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THE MANY FACES OF ULI HOENEß

Bayern Munich president Uli Hoeneß retires after 49 years at the club. His legacy speaks for itself, but his personality will continue to divide opinions long after his departure.

Bayern Munich’s outspoken president Uli Hoeneß retires after 49 years at the club. His legacy speaks for itself, but his personality will continue to divide opinions long after his departure. Who is the real Mr. FC Bayern?


HOENEß THE HOUND

It was a press conference that will go down in the history books. Journalists from across Germany were invited to Bayern Munich’s Säbener Straße training ground on 19 October 2018 for an unscheduled presser with sporting director Hasan Salihamidžić, chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and president Uli Hoeneß. 

Bayern were four games without a win having drawn at home to Augsburg and been humiliated 3-0 by Borussia Mönchengladbach in Munich, either side of a defeat and draw against Hertha Berlin and Ajax. Were they about the pull the plug on Niko Kovač just three months into the job? Not quite. 

What followed from the Bayern bosses was an attack on the media’s “outrageous and disrespectful reporting” of the club and its players who, in the eyes of this trio, were being unfairly treated by the media and blamed for both the Bayern’s and the national team’s poor form. “Don’t forget, Germany won the World Cup in 2014 thanks to many Bayern players,” Rummenigge prodded during his opening statement.

But while Bayern’s chairman called for more respect and delivered his criticism in firm, but carefully chosen words, its president was getting ready for a fight. 

His face turning a deeper shade of red with every sentence, individual journalists were called out for their “disgusting” treatment, for example, of Joachim Löw, while one reporter’s suggestion Juan Bernat shouldn’t have been sold was reproached by the claim that the Spaniard’s “shit” performance against Sevilla “nearly cost us our place in the Champions League” in the previous season. Hardly the embodiment of respect.

Hoeneß has had a tricky relationship with the media during his 40-year reign at the top of Germany’s biggest club; indeed, it is his bullish, emotional-charged defence of his club and players that has at times characterised his career. An attack on Bayern, or anyone associated with it, was an attack on Hoeneß himself. 

But for some, this was a step too far and a signal that it was probably time for a change at the top. “With that press conference, they have ruined all the hard work the club has done in recent years to remove their image of arrogance,” club legend Paul Breitner remarked in the aftermath. “In my 48 years with the club, I never imagined they would show such weakness, “Hoeneß responded by blocking Breitner from entering the legends area at the Allianz Arena and the latter eventually handed back his two honorary season tickets.

It was a sorry episode in a long-standing feud between two men who were once good friends and whose stories at Bayern are so deeply intertwined with one another. Breitner is just one of many personalities to fall out with Hoeneß over the years.


HOENEß THE PLAYER

After 40 years in the dugout and board room, it’s easy to forget that Hoeneß’s journey at Bayern Munich began as a player. Born into a butcher’s family in Ulm, Hoeneß was taught from a young age the importance of working hard for one’s living, operating the cashier at his father’s shop on weekends. At school, he was already honing his leadership skills as a class representative. 

A talented footballer, Hoeneß soon attracted the attention of West German scouts while playing for VfB Ulm and later TSG Ulm 1846. By the age of 15, he was captaining West Germany at youth level and sharing a room with, of all people, Paul Breitner.

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At the age of 18, both he and Breitner looked destined to sign for 1860 München, but a late intervention saw them instead sign for Die Löwen’s city rivals Bayern Munich. “They asked my mother if she had a typewriter in the house,” Hoeneß told in the documentary Servus Uli – A Life Dedicated to FC Bayern. “That’s when they drew up the contract. I was signed as a gardener because I wasn’t supposed to turn professional until after the [1972] Olympics.”

Although officially an amateur, it didn’t take long for Hoeneß to establish himself in a star-studded team alongside the likes of Franz Beckenbauer, Sepp Maier, and Gerd Müller, with whom he would form a formidable strike partnership. His maiden season ended with a DFB-Pokal medal, while a first German championship followed in 1972. That summer he was crowned European champion with West Germany, before falling short at the Munich Olympic games at the hands of East Germany.

Hoeneß turned professional and Bayern defended their crown in 1972/73. By now he was known as “the quickest striker in Europe” after clocking 100 metres in 11 seconds, while he and Gerd Müller had combined to score 53 goals in back-to-back seasons – a record unmatched in the Bundesliga until Eden Džeko and Grafite notched 54 in their 2008/09 title-winning campaign.

“Gerd was a poacher who scored from the most impossible angles and situations,” recalls Beckenbauer in Bayern’s Servus Uli documentary. “But Uli was the one who covered the long distances to deliver for Gerd. I don’t know of a better duo than Gerd Müller and Uli Hoeneß.”

Hoeneß reached the pinnacle of his sporting career the following season in 1973/74 when he struck twice in a European Cup final replay against Atlético Madrid, which Bayern won 4-0 to clinch their first Henkelpott. 

“I sat in the changing room afterwards completely exhausted and this big trophy was there,” reminisces Hoeneß in Bayern’s documentary. “I took it in my hands and said to myself. ‘Freeze this moment, right now.’ It was the happiest moment of my playing career.”

Two months later, Hoeneß added a World Cup to his collection when West Germany beat the Netherlands 2-1 at Munich’s Olympiastadion, though the Bayern striker’s most notable contribution was conceding a second-minute penalty after bringing down Johan Cruyff in the box. At the tender age of 22, Hoeneß had already conquered Germany, Europe and now the world.

But despite another European Cup win in 1975, Hoeneß’s unassailable rise was halted by a knee injury suffered in the final against Leeds United, which ruled him out for six months. Though he recovered in time to help his team to a third successive European crown against St. Etienne at Hampden Park, he would never return to old form. In May 1979, aged 27, Hoeneß called quits on playing career, having scored 86 goals in 239 games and amassed an enviable collection of medals.


HOENEß THE VISIONARY

Hoeneß had the foresight to plan for his future during the years of rehabilitation on his knee. “I had a lot of time to think back then and I always wanted to become a manager rather than a coach,” he told the Deutsche Presse Agentur (DPA) earlier this year. “I felt a special affinity to the commercial side of football, and I would always be looking over Robert Schwan’s shoulder. He was the general manager back then.”

It was, therefore, no surprise to see Hoeneß quickly bury the disappointment of his early retirement and embrace his new role as Bayern’s general manager – the youngest in the history of the Bundesliga.

But the club he inherited then was not the Bayern he is leaving today. Although on the pitch they were still going strong, winning back-to-back Bundesliga titles in Hoeneß’s first two years in charge, the club was crippled with debt. “The biggest task I saw, was making Bayern less dependent on ticket sales,” he told DPA. “When I started, they accounted for 85% of our revenue. Today they represent around 18-20% of our €700 million revenue.”

Achieving that goal would not have been possible without outside help. “In the early days, I spent a lot of time flying to players where there was a lot of business, like England and the USA,” Hoeneß told. “I was in San Francisco at the 49ers, an American football team, as well as at San Francisco Giants, who had just won the World Series in baseball.” Hoeneß also visited England’s record champions Manchester United “who were by far the number one in football when it came to merchandising. They already had a fan shop and shipping department.” For Hoeneß, the process was very much “learning by doing.”

By following the example of other sports and clubs, and embracing the ever-increasing commercialisation, Hoeneß transformed Bayern into a giant of world football, leaving the rest of Germany in the shadows. In 2005, the club moved into its state-of-the-art Allianz Arena with a capacity of 75,000. 

In 2009, after 30 years as general manager, Hoeneß replaced Franz Beckenbauer as club president, with the club firmly established as a global powerhouse. “His legacy is that he has practically transformed Bayern into a global player and world brand,” said three-time head coach and 2013 treble winner Jupp Heynckes to Bayern TV.

 

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Today, Forbes lists Bayern as the fourth most valuable club in world football, valued at €3 billion, while the club boasts the largest membership figures on the planet with nearly 300,000 registered members. In recent years, the club has opened offices in New York and China as it seeks to expand outside Europe. How far this goes, and at what cost – Bayern have come under criticism in recent years for their association to Qatar – is a matter that deserves public debate and scrutiny, but this is a moral challenge facing many of Europe’s elite clubs today. 

In the transfer market, Bayern are the subject of envy across Europe’s elite for the efficiency, secrecy and economics of their dealings. Much of this is down to Hoeneß’s shrewd negotiation and 40-years’ experience.

On the pitch, Bayern have been the very definition of success during Hoeneß’s 40-year reign. The club have won 24 Bundesliga titles, two UEFA Champions Leagues, 14 DFB-Pokals and plenty more smaller cups in his time. Indeed, you can count on two hands the number of trophies won by Bayern without the influence of Uli Hoeneß the player, the general manager or the president.


HOENEß THE CRIMINAL

For all the success, Hoeneß’s legacy will always be tainted by the 2013 tax evasion scandal. Just two months after Bayern completed a famous treble in June 2013, Munich prosecutors opened criminal proceedings against Hoeneß, who had been accused of tax evasion. 

Hoeneß plead guilty, admitting to evading over €20 million in taxes, and was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison. “It was the biggest mistake of my life,” Hoeneß admitted in a club interview. 

But if people expected prison to break Hoeneß, by now in his sixties, it didn’t. Stories of him staying calm and rising above attempts to provoke or extort him with photos of him showering depicted a man determined to serve his sentence and get on with his life without any trouble. 

Hoeneß developed a routine of waking up at 4am every day to workout, reading some of the 5,000 letters he received during his incarceration and offering advice to fellow inmates on how to cope with life on the outside. “Some people think that I would dominate others because I’m arrogant,” he told Welt in an interview in 2016. “If that were the case, I wouldn’t have had it so easy. It was difficult at first, but in the end, it was easy because anyone who had anything to do with me thought very highly of me.”

His exemplary behaviour saw him serve only half of his sentence, including the last 14 months on day release. In 2016, he was re-elected as Bayern president, in some part thanks to all those letters he received in prison.

“They all gave me strength,” he told Welt. “The fact that I accepted the punishment without appeal, without looking back or attacking the judge or prosecutor, without attacking the media who abused me so much and wanted to portray me as a villain, the people found that very positive.”


HOENEß THE HERO

When Hoeneß emerged at the 2016 annual general meeting, he was greeted by a hero’s welcome. “Uli Hoeneß, Uli Hoeneß, du bist der bester Mann” (“Uli Hoeneß, Uli Hoeneß, you are the best man”) sang the fans in attendance, as he was re-elected unopposed with 97% votes. 

But it was not a hero’s welcome made in defiance of his crimes – he did his time – but for a man who had returned to the club and family he built from the ground. Mia San Mia. Mr. FC Bayern. 

Hoeneß’s heroic reputation stretches back to 1979, in his early days as general manager, when goalkeeper Sepp Maier was involved in a near-fatal car crash. While visiting Maier in hospital, Hoeneß quickly realised that the Bayern and Germany goalkeeper was in a far more critical condition than doctors had claimed. He immediately organised a transfer to the more modern Großhadern hospital, where Maier underwent emergency surgery. “Uli saved my life,” ‘Der Katze’ has always maintained.

Karma came back to help Hoeneß on 17th February 1982, when he and three men boarded a flight to Hannover to watch West Germany play Portugal. Shortly before landing, air traffic control lost contact with the aircraft and feared the worst. An hour later, Karl-Heinz Deppe was walking through the woods on a fox hunt when he found a blood-soaked and disorientated man crawling on all fours. It was Uli Hoeneß. “I’m freezing, I’m freezing,” he mumbled. 

The plane had crashed in a field nearby, killing the other two passengers, student Thomas Kupfer and journalist Helmut Simmler, as well as the pilot Wolfgang Junginger. Hoeneß, who had gone to sleep at the rear of the plane, had escaped with a few broken bones. Were it not for Deppe, however, he would most certainly have died of hyperthermia. Paul Breitner and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge were the first to arrive at his bedside after hearing the news. 

It was one of the darkest moments in Hoeneß’s life and a testament to his unwavering determination that he recovered and continued to execute his masterplan with Bayern. But just as Karl-Heinz Deppe had helped him, and he Sepp Maier years before, he made it his mission to take care of those who needed it, especially those within his “Bayern family.” 

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When Gerd Müller was battling with alcoholism, Hoeneß covered the costs of his rehab and visited daily. In 2001, a blood donation drive was organised to support youth coach Udo Bassemir when he was diagnosed with leukemia. Lars Lunde never established himself at Bayern, but that didn’t stop the general manager going above and beyond to support the Danish striker after a nearly fatal car crash in 1988. Hoeneß moved Lunde into his own home and hired the best therapists to assist Lunde in his recovery. There are, for sure, many more examples. 

But Hoeneß’s charity extended beyond those connected to Bayern. Borussia Mönchengladbach, St Pauli and even arch-rivals Borussia Dortmund and 1860 München are among the many clubs to have received financial aid from Bayern under Hoeneß’s watch. Nowadays, it is not uncommon for the club to organise fundraiser matches to help struggling clubs with ticket proceeds.

As he got older, the Bayern president became something of a father figure for his players. Franck Ribéry, who left Bayern in the summer after 12 years, had a particularly “special” relationship with Hoeneß. “Whatever was going on in my career, Uli was always there for me,” the Frenchman told Deutsch Welle in May. “He was like a father to me.”

It’s an image that contradicts the grouchy persona he has developed over the years. But despite the barking interviews, public feuds and scandal that have accompanied his 49-year association with Bayern, there was no shortage of legends queuing up to pay tribute to him last week. Former players, coaches and even his ‘enemies’ all delivered the same message: Hoeneß’s influence on Bayern, and German football as a whole, is extraordinary. “He’s the only man in football I’d compare to Santiago Bernabéu,” his friend-turned-foe Breitner complimented. “What he has done for Bayern is incredible.”

Hoeneß built the club in his image. Emotion, innovation, and resilience. It is no coincidence that it took just two years for Bayern to bounce back from the heartache of 1999, and just a year to recover from the soul-crushing “Finale Dahoam” in 2012. Uli Hoeneß is the embodiment of FC Bayern. Or rather, FC Bayern is the embodiment of Uli Hoeneß. 

BY JORDAN MACIEL