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The power of the tabloids

On Saturday, Bayern failed to hold on to a two-goal lead for the third time this season. As amazing as this is, the last weeks have been so successful for the Munich giants that there's now little of the hoopla which surrounded every Bayern game in August and September.

Back then, you were reminded almost daily that Bayern were off to their worst start to a campaign since the season in which Uli Hoeness scored his last Bundesliga goal. However, Bayern are now unbeaten since October began and have won five of their last seven league games. For the moment, it looks as if Jürgen Klinsmann has weathered the first storm.

Interestingly, the turning point coincided with Klinsmann taking the bull by the horns. That happened on the Day of German Unity, October 3rd, and the site was neither the Arena nor the training pitch but the Bayern press room.

Before I explain what that was all about, let me first take a brief detour. Shortly before Euro 2008 began, I met a man who's in charge of the sports section of a large TV station's internet and teletext services. We got to talking about our respective jobs, and in the course of this conversation he said that sports journalism was a very strange beast because it's somehow become accepted that you're free to break all the rules of proper journalism if you're covering sports.

And that's true. In a regular newspaper, on public service radio and even on TV, there exists a very clear line between reporting and opinion. And even the opinion texts, usually in the form of editorials, are very often comments rather than all-out attitude pieces. When dealing with particularly controversial topics, most editors will in addition strive for balance by giving equal space to dissenters.

But on the sports pages, all that goes out of the window pronto. When was the last time you read a sports piece that only told you what happened? Even the so-called straight match reports ''inform'' me as early as the lead paragraph that an under-fire coach will have a hard week ahead of him following a shock defeat that came about because his shaky defence let him down again. Apart from the word defeat, that would all qualify as opinion in other areas of journalism.

I don't think it's ever been any different. Actually, I once met the sports editor of a fairly respected paper who basked in his role of opinion leader by telling me: 'In the 80s, we used to shoot down the local club's coaches by the dozen!'

Considering this state of affairs, it should probably come as no surprise that even level-headed and knowledgeable fans actually read the sports pages of the tabloids, such as our own notorious Bild, with interest. ''Of course you can't go by anything that's printed in Bild,'' they'll say - and then add: ''Apart from the sports section, which is quite good.'' No, it's not. It's full of the same gossip, innuendo and spin doctoring as the rest of the paper.

What appears to give the tabloids' sports coverage a touch of respectability is quite simply the fact that the difference to the regular press is not as pronounced in this section.

That makes Bild a force to be reckoned with in German sports, a role that became even more prominent in 1988, when the paper launched the weekly sports magazine Sport Bild which now boasts a circulation of half a million copies.

And ever since that decade, football players and functionaries are acutely aware that there are rewards to be reaped if you have a good rapport with Bild: following Germany's exit at Euro 1984, two Bild journalists and two Bild columnists discussed suitable successors to the just-sacked national coach Jupp Derwall. According to the writer Torsten Körner, Bild's then-head of sports finally decided the job should go to… one of the two columnists present. And that was Franz Beckenbauer.

In retrospect, it wasn't the worst of ideas and Bild's subsequent lobbying yielded results. But ever since, both the national team and Bayern Munich developed what the writer Roger Repplinger called ''a sustainable form of chumminess'' with Bild, marked by the exchange of background information for favourable write-ups, also thanks to Lothar Matthäus, whom Repplinger called another ''notorious Bild informer'' in a piece published shortly before the 2006 World Cup.

Bild's role became a topic during those weeks and months because the paper was calling for the head of the national coach as late as March of 2006, just ten weeks before the start of the tournament. This coach was, of course, Jürgen Klinsmann and to many it seemed that Bild was not expressing public opinion but waging a vendetta that went back more than ten years.

Klinsmann had always refused to co-operate with Bild and didn't change this stance when he joined Bayern in 1995, which served to cut short his stay there.

The writer Moritz Müller-Wirth says: ''Klinsmann's situation at Bayern escalated dramatically when there was the unresolved accusation that Lothar Matthäus was giving internal information about Klinsmann to Bild. It got so that Klinsmann was willing to buy himself out of his contract only to get out of this Hollywood FC.'' Meaning out of a situation Klinsmann considered untenable because nothing could ever stay behind close doors and people were following their own agendas.

All of which raises the possibility that Bayern stunned the country by signing Klinsmann as their new coach not only because they think he's the man to overhaul the footballing side of things. Perhaps his job is also to, as the reporter Marc Schlömer has put it, ''de- tabloidise Bayern''. As I pointed out in a column on January 20, Bild didn't have the slightest idea Klinsmann was even in the running for the job, which suggests the boardroom must have kept Beckenbauer in the dark until the decision was made.

This would also explain why Klinsmann had the guts to throw Raimund Hinko, Sport Bild's editor-in-chief, out of the press room on October 3rd and then bar him from future press conferences involving himself, Klinsmann. At the time it happened, this act seemed to prove how thin-skinned Klinsmann had become in the wake of the disappointing early results. But I don't think it was a spur-of-the-moment thing.

Doing this to Hinko was nothing short of a declaration of open warfare. Hinko has been covering Bayern for almost four decades, he's a personal friend of Matthäus and on good terms with Beckenbauer, he's also written a book about Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. This is not a man you alienate without first making sure the club is behind you.

Of course Sport Bild retaliated almost immediately, printing Bastian Schweinsteiger's contract over no less than eight spreads for no apparent reason other than to prove that they could do it and that they still have access to confidential information and documents.

But Bayern didn't back down. The club won an injunction against the magazine and then the team sent Sport Bild a letter, signed by all players, that stated they would for the time being not grant the paper any interviews.

The fact that Bayern are doing okay since this happened is a good thing for Klinsmann because he must be aware he's now just one, however brief bad run away from being slaughtered in the tabloids.

Heck, even a draw can and will trigger a reaction. On Monday, Bild said the 2-2 away at Gladbach ''mercilessly exposes all that is going wrong under Klinsmann''. Well, at least the paper had the sense of decency to insert the line ''despite a run of seven unbeaten league games''.


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