Bayern buy

In Germany the debate over players' wages has been conducted in public during Bundesliga matches, as Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger describes

On A day in late March, Schalke 04’s business manager Rudi Assauer stormed through the corridors of power at UEFA headquarters. Grey-haired functionaries ducked out of his way, detecting a take-me-to-your-leader glint in the man’s eyes that heralded trouble. And they were right: Assauer was on a mission to save the world of football all by himself.

Arriving at the Top Dog’s desk, Assauer banged his fist and said: “Listen! If my club comes second in the Bundesliga we will not enter your silly Champions League but go directly to the UEFA Cup! Because your silly Champions League is nothing but a money-making machine that has nothing to do with honest sport!” “I’m sorry Mr Assauer,” replied the Top Dog, “but that’s not possible. Rules are rules.” And so Assauer retreated, beaten but unbowed. After all, he had made his point.

Yes, this really happened. Well, not the bit about banging on tables, but Rudi Assauer did indeed ask UEFA if he could theoretically waive the licence to print money represented by entrance into the Champions League. The interesting question, however, is not so much why he did such a thing but how we came to know about it.

The answer of course is that Assauer himself informed the public of his futile attempt at restoring sanity. As PR ploys go, his timing was perfect. Six months ago his colleagues would have declared him a naive nutcase, but now even Bayern’s Uli Hoeness kept quiet. Hoeness is Germany’s most outspoken representative of the football-is-about-money school of thought, and a man who once described his job as Bayern’s business manager as “ten per cent sports, 90 per cent economy”. He has held the post since 1979, when he became the first prominent player to prolong his career in football via the business side of things rather than coaching or commentating. But he is also a shrewd judge of public opinion and realised it would be unwise at this point to mention anything to do with finances because the mood among German football fans was bad. So bad that even the sober Kicker magazine talked about a “fan revolt”.

What triggered this “revolt” was a bizarre press conference given by Bayern coach Giovanni Trapattoni on March 10th. The usually reserved Trapattoni had been confronted with statements from his star players blaming the team’s performance in their last match on his tactics. “Some of these players have forgotten what they are!” a red-faced Trapattoni exploded before raving in garbled German, now sampled on a rap record, about egotistical footballers who “complain more than they play”.

It could have been a Monty Python sketch. But there were some people who saw beyond the comic aspects. Coaches Winfried Schäfer (then of Karlsruhe) and Ernst Middendorp of Bielefeld agreed with Trapattoni, arguing that modern players lacked what they called “heart”. And at Bayern’s next home game the fans unfolded a banner saying “Grazie Trap”.

A day after that press conference, Borussia Dortmund played their European Super Cup match against Barcelona. The team had put in a lacklustre performance in the last League match at Munich 1860 where they had conceded four goals in the first 25 minutes, and now they ran out to a cascade of hisses. When Barca scored in the seventh minute the Dortmund crowd cheered, then vented the anger that had been building up over the last six months through mocking chants culminating in the most precise assessment yet of a modern football fan’s predicament: “We have paid/We must be mad.”

“The players were humiliated by their own fans,” the papers said later, and anyone who thinks hardened pros can laugh off such things should have taken a look at local hero Lars Ricken, scorer of the third goal in last season’s Champions League final, who was stumbling around the pitch like a victim of shell shock looking for a place to hide. That was only the beginning of the Fan Revolt. Three days later, at Bayern, the ambience was downright nasty and the “Grazie Trap” banner fluttered in the wind like a warning to the players. Their comatose display proved to be the final straw. Halfway through the game the fans began to sing “You are too stupid,” followed by “Bloody millionaires.”

If these were two cases of supporters figuratively turning their backs on their teams the VfB Stuttgart fans went a step further two weeks later by doing it literally. While their side was being dismantled at Hertha Berlin, they sat down with their backs to the pitch and sang: “You aren’t worth your salary!”

These were not isolated incidents of the kind that are bound to happen when high hopes are not fulfilled, because the common element behind the fans’ anger wasn’t one bad result or sloppy play. It was money.

A touch of resentment over the size of players’ wages has long been a feature of newspaper coverage of football contracts, but in the past it had seldom been a topic of concern for supporters, especially not at Dortmund and Bayern. When, in 1993, Dortmund paid an extraordinary sum to buy Karlheinz Riedle from Lazio, reporters were sent out to gather quotes from appalled fans. But all they could come up with was a now-famous statement from a supporter who said: “If my options are being unemployed and not having Riedle, and being unemployed and having him, I choose the latter.” And at Bayern, the first German club to become a public limited company, they have always been rather proud of spending large amounts of money on playing talent developed by other clubs.

Bosman may have changed all that. Once the clubs pulled the strings by distributing intangible things called transfer fees among themselves. Now the stars of the show, the players, seem to be in control, a situation perfectly in sync with football’s role as part of the entertainment industry where the Kevin Costners and Michael Jacksons are idols, artists and businessmen all rolled into one.

However the rules in LA are not the same as on Planet Football. In Hollywood the entertainer has to deliver a show each and every time and there are no excuses for failure: no bad weather, no bumpy pitches, no defensive tactics, no stupid coach is to blame, only the star himself.

If you put on a show, no one will envy you your hefty salary. But if you fail, it may no longer be enough just to shrug your shoulders and say, in time honoured fashion: “the lads did the best they could.” At Bayern, Uli Hoeness has admitted to hiring detectives who spy on his players. He has to make sure his investment isn’t squandered. Bizarre though it may seem in England, German players are beginning to get the feeling that they have to justify the enormous sums spent on them.X

From WSC 136 June 1998. What was happening this month