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Dec 2, 2009

Hoeness here to stay

A few minutes before 9pm on May 28, 1975, in Paris, Leeds United's Scottish left-back Frank Gray ended one German footballer's career and launched another one, both of them amazingly successful.

Well, I admit Gray wasn't the first Leeds player on the night to kick young Uli Hoeness so hard the German had to receive treatment at the sidelines (he was the third). It's also true that, taking everything into account, it might have been Bayern's medical staff that ultimately finished Hoeness's playing career when the doctors decided not to operate on the damaged knee.

Still, the fact remains that Gray's kick forced Hoeness to hobble off from the European Cup final before half-time and that the German would never again regain his full fitness, finally retiring four pain-filled seasons later at just 27 years of age.

Only four months after his final Bundesliga game, in July of 1979, Hoeness became Bayern Munich's business manager. I had been attending Bundesliga games for more than two years at that time, but since my parents felt I was too young to travel the 12 miles to the ground all by myself, it wasn't until later that I started going to the games with regularity, finally getting my first season ticket in the summer of 1981.

This means I have only very vague recollections of Hoeness as a player but have never experienced a Bundesliga season during which he was not Bayern Munich's most important and most prominent representative. Which is why it came as a shock on Sunday to see that Christian Nerlinger was Bayern's new public face on television.

I had heard, seen and read that Bayern's members had elected Uli Hoeness their club's new president two days previously, but somehow it didn't register that he was no longer the business manager until I was given this visual proof that an era had ended after 30 years.

As far as I'm concerned, those years can be neatly divided into decades. For the first ten years of Hoeness's reign, I was convinced the man was the devil incarnate, and I knew only two or three people who felt slightly differently about him (they said he was merely a pompous a**hole).

Hoeness, after all, was the face and, very often the voice, of the biggest club in the land, the one that had all the trophies, all the money, all the best players and won all the time.

But there were many things I didn't know or understand during this first of my three decades with the man. I was too young to know, for instance, that Hoeness had not inherited this empire - he had built it. I didn't know that he had not been brought in as the youngest general manager in league history for his financial acumen or his business sense. He did and does possess these things in spades but, in the summer of 1979, then-president Wilhelm Neudecker primarily gave him the job, as Hoeness says today, to use him "as an inexperienced buffer for the tax inspectors who were about to audit the club".

Most people aren't aware of this, but Bayern were in a bad shape in the late 1970s. It's worth noting that, in the week leading up to the ill-fated 1975 final against Leeds, the German press even spoke of a "match for Bayern's existence".

Back then, the squad cost the club 10.5 million Deutsche Marks per year. But in the 1974-75 season, Bayern earned only 4.5 million Marks in the Bundesliga and 4 million Marks in the European Cup. This not only means that Bayern desperately needed the European cash - it also means that, even with such additional income, they still lost 2 million Marks in that season alone. It was a significant sum of money for a football club back then.

But Hoeness dealt with that - as he dealt with so many other things. Consider that my first Hoeness decade ended with a memorable live television appearance, as he starred as Bayern's minister of defence (or maybe minister of war - he was often referred to as the club's one-man 'Department of Attack').

On the evening of May 22, 1989, Uli Hoeness and then-Bayern coach Jupp Heynckes discussed current affairs with Cologne coach Christoph Daum and newspaper pundit Udo Lattek. The most pressing current affair was the Cologne vs Bayern game that would take place five days later and was expected to decide the title race. Daum had come to the conclusion that Bayern always won because the other teams nurtured an irrational fear of the club, thus he'd started to play mind-games by mouthing off and belittling Heynckes.

When the debate began, I felt it was unfair that Bayern were represented by two men whereas Daum was alone. But Heynckes and Lattek were neither intellectually nor rhetorically playing in the same league as the other two and so the debate became a quarrel between Hoeness and Daum. On one level, it was all very silly. On another level, it was fascinating. Slowly and subconsciously, I understood that, for all his faults, Hoeness possessed a rare and admirable quality - he was utterly loyal.

He was there in the studio facing up to Daum because a Bayern man, in this case Heynckes, needed protection and it was his job to protect Bayern people. He was also exhibiting what I had long taken for smugness but which was in fact fearlessness. He didn't fear being made to look like a fool by the clever, quick-thinking Daum's sharp one-liners. He didn't even fear the studio audience, which was so much against him it suddenly began singing a famous anti-Bayern chant.

In brief, I thought to myself that it was a pity this man was in the wrong camp because you'd surely love having someone like him on your side.

I still didn't like Hoeness during his second decade, but I respected him. And slowly I learned more. His loyalty was even bigger than I had imagined - Hoeness really considered Bayern a family, meaning that, even if your contract ran out, even if you no longer produced, you still remained a family member.

Almost exactly a year before the Daum debate on television, Hoeness had spent a sleepless night in a Swiss hospital, keeping guard over a young Danish midfielder called Lars Lunde who was lying in a coma following a car crash. Lunde was no longer his player, having left Bayern a few months earlier after a largely disappointing year in Munich, but would be forever grateful for Hoeness's gesture. "I'll be thankful to Uli Hoeness for the rest of my life," says Lunde, now - believe it or not - a male hospital nurse. "He is the perfect business manager and a great human being."

Three years later, Hoeness learned from Sepp Maier that Gerd Müller was having private problems and battling alcoholism. One day later, Müller was in therapy and, five weeks later, he was given a job at Bayern. "Uli saved my life," says the man they once called 'the Bomber'. "I couldn't have coped on my own."

There are currently more than ten former players who've fallen on hard times and receive financial support from the club. Their names are not disclosed - Hoeness just says: "It is our duty to take care of people who are working for us or have been working for us."

I don't recall all the details about how my third decade with Hoeness began exactly, but it happened on a hot summer day in 1999. A colleague had dropped by to say hello and somebody, perhaps it was my young son, made a critical remark about something Hoeness had done.

"You know, he is actually a great guy," the colleague said. It turned out she had recently interviewed Hoeness for a newspaper and come away with more than just respect for him - she liked him. "All that ranting and raving, that's just for the cameras," she said. "But when you talk to him one on one, he is friendly and open and smart."

I had become used to thinking of Hoeness as a clever negotiator, a shrewd operator, even a loyal patriarch - but "a great guy"? Until that moment it had never crossed my mind you could actually like Uli Hoeness as a person. He had seemed too much of an institution - too much of an eternal club representative - for me to take into account he was also a person. But my colleague's words changed that.

Thus my final ten years with Hoeness, the business manager, were marked by many moments where I felt something resembling, yes, sympathy for the man. For instance, when he faced his "worst crisis". That's what Hoeness, who survived a terrible car crash in December 1975 (when Sepp Maier totalled his Ferrari) and then a plane crash in February 1982 (which killed three of his friends), calls his second clash with Christoph Daum.

In October of 2000, referring to an article that had linked Daum with drug use, Hoeness said the man couldn't become national coach if those rumours proved true. "I never said he had done drugs," Hoeness recalls. "But what got written was that I had said he'd done it. That started the machinery. I became Germany's public enemy number one. I don't know if I would've survived the whole affair if Daum hadn't turned in this hair sample."

Hoeness was indeed often misquoted, treated unfairly and vilified in a most nasty manner during those weeks. I suddenly found myself having to defend him in print, or at least quote him properly, until Daum, still inexplicably, at last cleared up the matter himself. I remember thinking to myself how strangely alliances are formed, thinking back to my teenage years when Hoeness was the ultimate enemy.

Now I wonder what the fourth decade will bring. Because even though Hoeness is no longer in the thick of the day-to-day business, he's not gone. He will still be running Bayern Munich - as the club's president and the professional football division's chairman of the supervisory board.

He's probably too driven, and his messianic streak too strong, for him to become the jovial elder statesman Franz Beckenbauer is nowadays. But I suspect he's already got his eyes set on a role he'd like to fill in the public perception.

In the countless interviews he's done those past weeks and months, Hoeness was almost at pains to explain that what the public thinks of as his "emotional outbursts" are usually pre-planned stunts. His pet example concerns a line he carefully prepared, or so he says, before belting it out live on television in May. Referring to a comment a journalist had made about Jürgen Klinsmann in April, Hoeness said: "If Klinsmann is the Obama of German football, then I am Mother Teresa!"

First, I'm not sure I really believe he prepared that quip. Second, I'm not sure about the reaction he hoped to get. Maybe he was really just after a few laughs. But maybe he hoped somebody would say: ''Uli, you are the Mother Teresa of German football!''

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