Oliver Kahn: Slacking off, letting up - there's no such thing at FC Bayern
Oliver Kahn took over as CEO of FC Bayern in the summer of 2021. In an interview with our members' magazine "51", he sums up the season, talks about the return of the fans, assesses an extraordinary generation of players, and looks to the future.
Oliver Kahn - The interview
Oliver Kahn, in football and in many walks of life, 10 is a special number. Is that true for you as well
Kahn: "To be honest, I've never given the number 10 much thought until now - but there's something... monumental about FC Bayern's tenth consecutive title. I think that word sums it up well. To become champions ten times in a row, as the first team in the top five European leagues - you can only achieve something like that with a very exceptional generation of players. Our fans and all of us can be proud to be experiencing this era at FC Bayern. In my playing days, becoming champion three times in a row was at the limits of our imagination."
As a former competitive athlete, how impressed are you by this run of ten titles?
"Immensely. Especially at a time when the stadiums often had to remain empty because of the COVID pandemic, I often asked myself: How would you have managed that as a player? The build-up of tension required depends to a large extent on the interaction between the athletes and the spectators. Anyone who makes a lasting impression like that over such a long period of time has a special character. Our players will only really grasp their achievements after their careers have come to an end. As long as you're actively playing, you never really take the time to step back and look at the whole body of work."
You became a champion eight times as a player, now as CEO it's your first time. What feels better, what are the biggest differences?
"It's a very satisfying feeling - and basically similar to the way it used to be: you work towards winning the title for a season, and I always felt the responsibility as a player, as I do now as CEO. Every now and then I get the impression that it's written somewhere in our statutes, maybe in the small print, that as FC Bayern you have to win trophies every year, so that’s why it also leads to a certain relief when you have something tangible in your hands at the end. But that's a good thing, because all of that continually renews the drive in you, always wanting to be successful."
Every season has special championship moments. Which was your personal one in 2021/22?
"I can tell you very precisely: I was particularly pleased that the fans were able to be there again in a packed Allianz Arena for the crucial match against Dortmund. We've all sorely missed this feeling of being able to celebrate titles together in the past two years - the fans feel the same way as we do at the club. During this pandemic, it was also debated time and again whether the spectators would come back to the stadiums, and I think that question has now been settled. Anyone who was there for our 3-1 win over Dortmund at the Allianz Arena felt once again what football can be like: It doesn't get any more wonderful than this."
An experience that is not unimportant after two years of COVID-related uncertainty...
"Absolutely. It was nice to finally experience that special feeling of togetherness again that a trip to the stadium offers: that feeling of being united in success and in all the emotions. I went home that day very, very happy and with a very pleasant feeling. Incidentally, there was also no talk of such a championship win being 'business as usual' at FC Bayern - for example, I've received many emails since then about how happy people are and that they can't understand why some people have a perception that you don't really enjoy winning a championship at FC Bayern."
Your predecessor Karl-Heinz Rummenigge called the championship the "bread and butter of the business". He didn’t mean it in a demeaning way.
"Personally, especially in view of this tenth championship, for example, I feel a certain gratitude and also humility about how this club has developed over the decades. It is absolutely not a matter of course to win this title. There's a lot of effort and passion behind it, and no one here feels that a championship like this is something normal, but always something special."
How do you explain this championship-winning streak, which has now lasted ten years?
"In the past decades, FC Bayern has always made the most out of every situation. Of course, the financial capabilities also play a role, but we see time and again in top-level international football that money alone can't buy titles. At FC Bayern, a culture has been developed that is passed on from one player generation to the next. That makes us strong. Every club has to find its way - we certainly won't let up on ours."
Does FC Bayern's DNA of always seeing titles as a duty ultimately often account for the proverbial final few percent?
"Slacking off, letting up - there' s no such thing at FC Bayern. Here, people constantly question themselves. And with a consistency I've never experienced anywhere else. Even when you win or clinch a title, they're constantly thinking about the next step. This club is always on the move. The feeling of satisfaction never has time to spread in such a way that it could become complacency. This constant struggle here to find the best solutions is a recipe for success at FC Bayern."
You congratulated the players in the dressing room after winning the title. Was there anyone you were particularly happy for?
"For Julian Nagelsmann. I remember exactly how I used to dream of becoming champion once in my lifetime when I was at Karlsruher SC. After my transfer to FC Bayern, I had to wait two years and I still remember how Marcel Witeczek then scored the decisive goal two matchdays before the end of the season. Becoming champion for the first time was an overwhelming feeling!"
Nagelsmann is young and wears his heart on his sleeve - how do you like that?
"With his fresh, dynamic style, Julian is very good for us - and I've never been a fan of trying to change people. The fact that with his casual quips he can be misunderstood now and then is a part of him. I much prefer a guy like that to one who doesn't speak his mind. Julian is incredibly ambitious and enormously reflective. Without his extraordinary abilities, he wouldn't be where he is today. He'll analyse this season for himself and then do what he's been doing for years: develop himself bit by bit. At 34 years old, he's already reached a very high level."
When he thanked the FC Bayern staff for supporting the team, he concluded his speech with the sentence "Next year will be better, I promise!"
(grins) "That shows how quickly he's internalised the FC Bayern culture, and I also know from my conversations with him that he in no way questioned the value of the championship. A sentence like that simply speaks for his profound ambition - and that's exactly the kind of guy we need here."
How do you assess the first season with him at the helm in general?
"You mustn't forget that we were missing a lot of important players long-term and that this season was also strongly influenced by the COVID pandemic. In the Bundesliga, we delivered close to the optimum. To be knocked out of the DFB Cup so early hurt us all - not to mention the quarter-final exit against Villarreal in the Champions League. But I'm sure our players and our coach have stored these experiences away so that something like that can't happen to us again - and won't."
For how long did the exit against Villarreal annoy you personally?
"It still annoys me today. When I sit on the couch in front of the TV during the Champions League semi-final thinking to myself: ‘I could also be playing against Liverpool right now’, it drives me up the wall. It's the same when you watch the cup final. But something like that also works in the minds of our players. It'll spur them on. And one thing is clear: every opponent out there will try everything again next season to stop us from succeeding. But this year, our team once again refused to allow anyone to knock them off the top of the league. Everything we come up against just makes FC Bayern stronger in the end."
It's often said that there’s no manual for leading FC Bayern. Can you confirm that?
(smiles) "I can more than confirm that. Whereas I sometimes have the feeling that for the public the word 'lead' in relation to a football club means that you have to be loud. For me, however, that has only a limited connection with leadership, if any. I think I have a sense for when I need to be outspoken and when not. For me, leadership is mainly an internal thing. People at the club need to know what our goals are for the future and how we plan to achieve them."
What did you learn in your first season as CEO?
"That it is of great importance for the public that, as far as external perception is concerned, the people running FC Bayern are visible - and permanently visible. Because that creates identity."
In the past two seasons, football has constantly been pushed into the background: the pandemic and the war in Ukraine have shifted the focus. How much does that affect the work of a CEO?
"These first two years here for me have been intense, quite a baptism of fire. But what was it former coach Otto Rehhagel once said? 'Anyone who's signed a contract at FC Bayern has to know what he's done.' That obviously applies at all times - and not only to players, but also to a CEO, for example (grins)."
What are your goals for the new season today, immediately after winning your 10th championship?
"That's typical for FC Bayern - not a second's rest, not even in an interview (laughs). But that's okay. That's what we're here for. Our goal is clearly defined: We want to offer our fans attractive, emotional and successful football, preferably with the maximum possible haul of trophies."
FC Bayern has always distinguished itself by finding its own way of competing against the top clubs on the international stage. Is this task more difficult than ever today?
"It's demanding, but it always has been. Over the past decades, FC Bayern has on the whole made many right decisions, and has thus regularly carved out a competitive position for itself e at the top level, both domestically and internationally. Now new challenges are coming our way. When I joined the board, the pandemic had just begun. The consequences will occupy us for some time to come, and football in general is in a state of flux with all the further professionalisation of investor clubs, a new Champions League format from 2024 and the Financial Sustainability Regulations, the further development of Financial Fair Play. Our task is complex and it’ll be important for all of us at the club to continue to make good decisions. To do that, we need to think in a new, changing football world."