Uli Hoeness' Return to Bayern Munich Presidency Will Blemish the Beautiful Game

Clark Whitney@@Mr_BundesligaFeatured ColumnistAugust 13, 2016

Ex-Bayern Munich president Uli Hoeness attends the awarding ceremony for the Moenchengladbach ring of honour on March 13, 2016 in Moenchengladbach, western Germany.

Former Borussia striker and former head coach of Germany's most successful football club Bayern Muenchen Jupp Heynckes is honored for his outstanding contributions to the sporting significance of the city.  / AFP / SASCHA SCHUERMANN        (Photo credit should read SASCHA SCHUERMANN/AFP/Getty Images)

On Monday, Bayern Munich issued a press release stating that Uli Hoeness would stand as a candidate to become club president. Current president Karl Hopfner would step down and not stand as a rival for Hoeness in his bid to regain the office he had held prior to his conviction.

Later in the week, CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge spoke out to back Hoeness, telling Suddeutsche Zeitung (h/t ESPN's Stefan Buczko): "Uli is still held in high esteem by fans and the team. He was always very popular, and rightfully so."

Per Buczko, Thomas Muller also voiced his support of Hoeness in a Thursday press conference. Commenting on the 64-year-old's possible early re-appointment, he said: "It's obvious that it will be for good for FC Bayern. For us players he has always been a go-to person."

Thomas Muller has given his backing to Uli Hoeness.
Thomas Muller has given his backing to Uli Hoeness.Petr David Josek/Associated Press

This all comes months after Hoeness was released from jail on February 29, having served half of his three-and-a-half-year sentence for tax evasion. The remainder of his sentence has been suspended.

In most any other circumstance, a convicted felon would find it exceedingly difficult to find employment, especially during the period of a suspended sentence.

As reported by the New York Times, notorious fraudster Jack Abramoff worked at a pizzeria for half a year after being released from jail for, among other charges, tax evasion. Disgraced Qwest CEO Joseph Nacchio has been a ghost in the public eye since being released from jail three years ago; the company he helped develop apparently felt it a bad idea for their image to bring a criminal back into the spotlight.

Hoeness, however, was welcomed back at Bayern in January of 2015, when he was granted day release. In working with the youth team, he was able to maintain some role at Bayern while the club were able to show gratitude and support for their fallen chief. Despite Hoeness' disgrace, it was a reasonable step. For Hoeness to now run for president, and apparently with the board's backing, is a very different matter.

Consider this: In the vast majority of the United States, Hoeness at this time would be ineligible to vote. Arturo Vidal would inform the presidential candidate that in his native Chile, he would be disenfranchised even after his sentence. Yet at Bayern, there is a general sense of impunity for his transgressions and the dark shadow they have cast over the club.

In a country that generally holds high standards of social justice, from its progressive stance on civil liberties to its welcoming of Syrian refugees, Bayern's recent actions strike a clanging dissonance—and not just in their dealings with Hoeness.

Earlier this year, the club signed a sponsorship agreement with Qatar government-owned Doha Airport (per ESPN's Stephan Uersfeld) in a move that many critics equated to an authorization of the Qatari government's dubious human rights record.

Bayern are not the only club in Germany to have questionable ethics. Schalke are sponsored by Gazprom, a company Swedish economist Anders Aslund (in an article in the Moscow Times) in 2012 likened to an organized crime syndicate. The energy giant's ties with the Russian government and apparent use as an economically inefficient political tool have certain implications on a club that aims to appeal to the everyman in Germany's North Rhine-Westphalia.

Football has long operated within a bubble: Nowhere else on the planet would an organization spend €105 million just to secure the rights to offer an individual employment. Yet in Manchester United's signing of Paul Pogba earlier this week, that's exactly what happened.

Paul Pogba has swapped Juventus for Manchester United for over €100m
Paul Pogba has swapped Juventus for Manchester United for over €100mDavid Vincent/Associated Press

Hopfner in February defended Bayern's Qatari sponsorship, telling SportBild (h/t Deutsche Welle's Stefan Bienkowski): "For us, this is an economic deal for our club—in terms of revenue in the Premier League—it's necessary. We must now ensure that the immense funds from England do not jeopardize our squad."

Such is the typical defense that club owners and fans use to back dubious sponsorship and ownership agreements: a cynical relativism that, through a series of comparisons, invariably concludes that the whole game is corrupt.

Another aspect of football operating in a bubble is the tribalism often found among devout supporters. Many fans, especially ultras, often seek first to justify their club's actions rather than assess them objectively—the concept of support "in any case" is common to the point that it has become normalized.

Whether in the form of Hopfner using the excuse of "necessity" or Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu's tone-deaf response to Lionel Messi's conviction for tax evasion, football giants are testing the limits of fan loyalty more and more. And they perhaps are surprising themselves by just how far their support will go.

Leo, those who attack you are attacking Barça and its history. We’ll defend you to the end. Together forever!

— Josep Maria Bartomeu (@jmbartomeu) July 8, 2016

Bayern have only profited from their deal with Doha Airport: Losing the support of what Amnesty International has reported are slave laborers in Qatar has had a negligible effect compared to the millions garnered from the sponsorship agreement.

Similarly, Bayern are unlikely to face much backlash from the German public cheated out of tens of millions of euros in Hoeness' unpaid taxes. Loyalty is a powerful thing, and perhaps assumption thereof is what enabled Hoeness' fraud in the first place.

When Bayern hold their presidential election in November, Hoeness will almost surely be the winner. Many will view it as a return of normalcy, to business as usual. But will things truly be the same? Bayern will have their old president back, but with his return will depart a bit more of the club's morality, a further taint to the increasingly corrupt and decreasingly beautiful game.




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