'If things are going well, I'm happy to let go'
Nobody has shaped FC Bayern and German football like Uli Hoeneß, who began his career as general manager at the Säbener Strasse in 1979. The former football pro, manager, executive board member and today's club president talked about his best ideas and biggest mistakes in an interview. He also revealed how thoughtful the last year has made him.
Uli Hoeneß interviewed
Uli Hoeneß, you took over as FC Bayern general manager on 1 May 1979, but you did not have a lot to do at the beginning. After two hours on the phone you went home.
Uli Hoeneß:"FC Bayern had a staff of about 20 back then, we had a turnover of about 12 million Deutschmarks. There was virtually no marketing at all. In terms of merchandising, you could buy a few postcards and pennants at the post office. We perhaps had a scarf, but that's it. However, the work had just begun. I soon flew to Kuwait to organise friendlies. Unfortunately it didn't yet work out. Today we travel across the globe as a matter of course. Back then it was very unusual."
Is it true that you got the job because Rudi Assauer had turned down FC Bayern beforehand?
Hoeneß:"We went through stormy waters between my acceptance and my first day of work. President Wilhelm Neudecker, who had contacted me in January, gave me an oral agreement. I played for FC Nürnberg then, but my knee had to be aspirated every weekend, and the doctors told me: If you want to walk without pain later it would be best to stop. After a few days I agreed because I always wanted to be a manager, ideally at Bayern. However, Willi O. Hoffmann was club president when I started on 1 May - but he complied with the word his predecessor had given me. I know Neudecker and Assauer were friends. It may be true that he talked to him. Rudi was an acknowledged expert. It certainly wouldn't have been a bad idea. Perhaps Rudi didn't want to leave Bremen at that point."
You were attacked for your aggressive transfers in your first season. People called you a "robber baron," a "horse dealer" and a "vulture." Did it leave any marks?
Hoeneß:"I wasn't paid by the media, and I didn't want to be everybody's darling. I used my elbows, I absolutely wanted to take FC Bayern to the top, I was committed to it 100 percent. I explored new avenues, not everybody liked that. But I always behaved correctly, even though I pushed to the limits within the bounds of the football laws of course. Do you know what kind of business I like best? The business where there are only winners. I don't like it when I leave the negotiating table feeling the other side has lost. I don't want to be the one winner, I want to make the best business for FC Bayern."
You said, "I won't depart from my path by one centimetre - if that's not possible I'll do something else." You studied English and history to become a teacher. Uli Hoeneß as a teacher... can you imagine it?
Hoeneß:"Yes. The pupils would have had a lot of fun. At the beginning we usually trained only once a day, in the afternoon. So I could go to uni at 8 or 9 and left at 2, usually for three days a week. But when I was called up for Germany I dropped out. The workload wouldn't have been sustainable."
You won the German championship title in your first year as general manager. What memories do you have from your first season?
Hoeneß:"It was very intense at the beginning. I can remember I was dead beat after matches on Saturdays. Sweat-soaked. I was worked up about being in the dugout, powerless. It took some time until it faded. Of course I still get upset today, but the intensity is completely different."
Back then it was very unusual for a club general manager to be in the dugout.
Hoeneß:"It's crucial. You can only see what's going on in the team when you're in the dugout. Before the match, at half-time, always. We set off for training camps every Friday back then, and I was always part of it, even for all friendlies. You can demand anything from players, but you must lead from the front. If you see off the team at the airport and welcome them back after two days you risk a revolution. But if you're the first to board the plane and the last to leave it you can pull off a thing like this. It was my credo to demand from the players only what I would undertake myself."
**What would you tell the Uli Hoeneß of 1979?
Hoeneß:(pondering for a long time) "Apart from the tax affair I haven't made so many grave mistakes. I've always loved the job and done it with all my passion. 'Learning by doing' isn't the worst thing in life, there isn't a manual for everything. You must have the courage to make decisions, even on a gut level. You must be ready to admit mistakes. I've made mistakes, no question, but I've never made the same mistake twice. That's how I treat the players too: everyone can make mistakes, but please - not twice, and especially not if you're fully aware of it."
**Could Hoeneß the president work with Hoeneß the manager?
Hoeneß:"I'd let the manager act, that's clear. People always say, Hoeneß can't let go. But I'm the classic example of how to introduce the next generation. When I handed my sausage factory to my son we talked on the phone 20 times a day. Today he runs the company on his own. Many businesses go bust because the old man can't let go and knows everything better. I'm not like that. I only intervene when I see something's going wrong. But if everything goes well I can let go wonderfully. Two, three years from now, possibly earlier, Hasan Salihamidzic will say, 'Uli has handled it superbly.'"
What does the term 'life's work' mean to you? How should people remember you in terms of FC Bayern?
Hoeneß:"I think the word is too big. After the ado at the Annual General Meeting in autumn they said, 'Now his life's work is being damaged.' I don't think so. I'm not committed to this club so vehemently because of some lifetime achievement. Others may see it as something as simple as that, but I set no great store by a statue. When I look at FC Bayern some day - hopefully from above, from heaven, and not from below - and I see a flourishing club that's fun for people and imparts values to society, I'll be happy. I once said, 'It's not over yet!' But the day I'll say, 'That's it!' isn't far away any more. Because A, I can let go and B, the time will soon have come."
**Did you become thoughtful after the Annual General Meeting?
Hoeneß:"The course of events has affected me. I'm still thinking about it today. I'm not agonising over it, but trends like this one matter to me. To be frank, I was surprised at the meeting, and I've been thinking about it ever since. I'll include these new and surprising experiences when I consider whether to run for [club president] again at the end of the year. The thinking process will be done by the end of the season at the latest."
**Do you have a successor in mind for your positions as president and chairman of the supervisory board?
Hoeneß:"You saw I delivered in Oliver Kahn after my announcement. And I'd like to handle it that way in terms of a suggestion for the succession. But you have to know that it's ultimately our advisory committee that has the task of nominating a candidate at the Annual General Meeting. You see, I'm rediscovering my family life at the moment. My grandchildren are wonderful. Recently one of them asked, 'Why is grandpa always in such a good mood?' When I watch the kids I often have to smile: When there's a problem they always think it's the end of the world. Perhaps we all, especially we grown-ups, shouldn't take ourselves too seriously."
Who is allowed to criticise you with impunity?
Hoeneß:"Everybody can criticise me, as long as it's objective. It wasn't objective at the Annual General Meeting for example, and that's the crux. Look, I have a handful of truly good friends. Not too many but a few. And they're all friends who criticise me. I don't have claqueurs or sycophants as friends. I don't like them. I like people who tell me their honest opinion, which may well be contrary to mine. I dispute, I argue - and as a result we sometimes don't talk to each other for weeks. But I'm never vindictive, and off we go again. Friends only push you forward if they defy you, if they challenge you, if they tell you, 'What you said today was utter rubbish.' Good friends tell you when you're wrong. I may not share their opinion straightaway but I'll think about it."
You recently admitted the press conference in the autumn was a mistake. Is it harder to admit mistakes in the days of the new media because everything will be used against you?
Hoeneß:"The times have changed completely. If you use plain language today a shitstorm is almost inevitable. The reactions to some of my statements in the autumn were a major turning point in my life. I'll hold my fire in the future. In the past I was a welcome guest on talk shows - because I used plain language. But that isn't welcome any more. Besides, after my tax affair I have the problem that I must restrain myself in societal issues. But generally speaking I really regret that people have become touchy about plain language. They don't improve the world by it. And it wasn't by accident that at first I didn't comment on Joachim Löw's decision to dismiss Thomas Müller, Mats Hummels and Jérôme Boateng. If I had said what I think the internet would have been turned on its head. I wanted to spare myself and, incidentally, Jogi Löw too."
Do you sometimes long for the old days?
Hoeneß:"I'm not one of those old reactionaries. My life has fulfilled me in every respect. It's a pity that my parents can't see it today. They always worried their boy didn't eat enough. My father would be happy if he saw our factory with all the hightech today - or he'd get scared because he couldn't imagine you can make sausages with a computer like that."