Truly excellent discussion panels are few and far between. Listening to Uli Hoeness, President of Bayern Munich, Clemens Tönnies, chairman of the board at Schalke, and Bishop Dr. Franz-Josef Overbeck talk about the role of football in Germany and whether the sport could be considered a social glue sadly delivered far less than its promising title. In the end, three white men over the age of 55 skirted over the topic at hand, which was perhaps inevitable given that Uli Hoeness made sure he took center stage.
Hoeness dominates any room he enters. Regularly pleading the words of forgiveness and honesty for his near €30 million ($33.5 million) tax-evasion bill, Hoeness arrived with the confidence of a man who knows his power. He recalled times when he was a player and beers were drunk at Oktoberfest after a morning training session. He said how a Super League would never happen for Bayern if it meant the loss of a Bundesliga Saturday, how to compete with teams like Manchester City if it meant spending transfer fees he wasn't keen on, and why it was a huge shame that Germany, a country so rich, didn_t want to a host an Olympics.
The 50+1 question was neatly dealt with.
"We have the 30+1 rule which means we can’t sell more than 30 percent of our shares without a three-quarters majority from our members," Hoeness said.
It seems Bayern’s competition knows no bounds. To some chuckles of disbelief, Hoeness also said he felt bad for his players because of the public scrutiny they are under: "Every fart is registered."
Tönnies was less dominant, but equally assured, as only a man worth $1.7 billion (according to Forbes) can be. He spoke about the increasing impact of agents on players, and the role of Schalke in the community, stressing that the club – like Bayern Munich – does a great deal to help its community.
Bishop Overbeck played the philosophical pivot between the two football businessmen, but the attempt at making the religious man the relatable member of the panel was problematic. Overbeck felt out of place. Hoeness made a joke about how grateful the church should be for footballers, given that church tax in Germany is income-based. Although the bishop’s response was quick – that he is from the Ruhr region, one of Germany’s poorer regions – it was clear from that point onwards who was in control. Even his compliment of Hoeness' honesty about his tax evasion mistake felt forced.
Most of the above is linked to the role football has in Germany, but it does not truly delve into the depth of the discussion. There was also talk of the amateur game and its importance, but not long after Hoeness said computer games were the reason fewer young people were playing football the conversation began to revolve itself around the usual headline topics. Franck Ribery and his golden steak?
"He never even ate the steak," Hoeness said.
Perhaps there is some deeper meaning about how that is linked to the role of football in Germany but it was hard to find.
On Qatar and the issue of human rights, Hoeness said the conversation was unfair. As for the club's connections with the country: "We fly to China and Qatar so that fans can go to the stadium for eight euros," Hoeness said. There were some voices of discontent in the room, and one look at some of Bayern’s fan and ultra groups shows the great discomfort those close to the club have with some of Bayern's decisions.
When asked about the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, Hoeness said: "From an organizational perspective, it will be fantastic." Tönnies also lacked a critical voice on the subject of the World Cup in Qatar in 2022. When pressed later by a perceptive question from the audience that asked specifically about the human rights issue, Tönnies deflected, and said he was referring to the sport.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise, but it remains no less acceptable that a panel discussing the role of football in Germany was made up of four white men (three guests and one host). At a time when women’s football is finally getting the coverage it deserves, the voices of other cultures and the LGBT+ community are finally being heard, it is deeply troubling that yet another panel talking about the world’s most popular sport and its connections to society failed to include any of those voices. At one point, Bishop Overbeck did apologize about the all-male couch and while the bishop is not at fault for the arrangement, his apology is not enough.
This event may have been moderately successful for some – Bonn students hoping to work in sports media and business types who wanted to hear Hoeness deliver yet anecdote of life at Bayern Munich. But those who wanted to hear about why football really matters to society, whether it be through integration or club membership, from people who know the topic well, were left disappointed. A panel on German football could easily have been diverse and engaging, but this was neither.