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Uli Hoeness: German football legend, tax sinner

4 min
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Berlin (AFP)

Uli Hoeness, the son of a butcher, rose to fame as Bayern Munich's powerful president and a millionaire businessman who bounced back despite a spectacular own goal which landed him in jail.

He will stand down in November as club president after a glorious era of success in which Bayern won the Bundesliga title 27 times and five European Cups since he joined the club as a raw teenage player in 1970.

However, a black mark on the German's legacy was the 21 months he served in prison until February 2016 following his 2014 conviction for evading at least 28.5 million euros ($31.5 million) in taxes.

It spoke volumes for his fearsome reputation that the German media only questioned when he would return to Bayern's helm, never whether it was morally right to do so.

His stint in jail saw the outspoken Hoeness endure public humiliation as a fallen role model and newspaper mockery as a hypocrite who "preaches water and drinks wine".

His comment, "criminals have no place in football", uttered when it emerged in 2000 that ex-Bundesliga coach Christoph Daum had used cocaine, has regularly come back to haunt him.

"I know this is stupid, but I pay my taxes in full," said to Bild in 2005, was another Hoeness statement which saw plenty of air time.

But such is his popularity within Bayern that he was welcomed back with open arms by the club he helped turn into a European powerhouse and global brand, re-elected as president in November 2016 with no other candidate against him.

Hoeness played a key role in an extraordinary press conference in October 2018 when he and Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge lambasted the media for what they felt was unfair criticism following poor results.

Reporters were told to expect "mail from our media lawyer" for any false or inaccurate reports.

Hoeness' enraged expression and clenched fists showcased his unbridled pride in the club whose success over the last 40 years he played a key role in orchestrating.

- Star player -

He was born in post-war Germany in 1952 into a conservative Catholic middle-class family, living in a humble flat above his father's butcher's shop in Ulm.

The teenager's passion meant his discipline and talent were noted early and he joined Bayern Munich aged 18.

As a young star player, Hoeness, alongside the legendary Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Mueller, was at the heart of the team which won the European Cup three times from 1974-76.

When a persistent knee injury forced him to retire at just 27, the club made him its youngest-ever manager. And when Beckenbauer stood down as Bayern president in 2009, Hoeness was ready to succeed him after a 30-year apprenticeship.

Hoeness was the driving force behind the rise of the club, which now boasts a massive membership, state-of-the-art stadium and huge profits.

While Hoeness is a hard-nosed business man, he also developed a culture of helping teams in financial trouble by staging friendlies, and in 2005 lent near-bankrupt Borussia Dortmund two million euros ($2.8 million) to pay their players.

Hoeness has gone out of his way to support players in distress -- he made sure the retired Mueller was treated in a clinic when he was battling alcoholism.

Hoeness twice narrowly escaped death, first from a serious car accident in 1975 and then a light plane crash in 1982, which killed three of his friends.

A dazed and bloodied Hoeness wandering through the woods simply told his rescuer: "I am cold, I am freezing."

- Moral apostle -

In the close-knit elite of conservative Bavaria, Hoeness has been a confidant of top state politicians, and not afraid to share his conservative views on politics and morality on TV talk shows, never tolerating criticism of his beloved Bayern.

As the co-founder of a lucrative sausage business, interest in which he handed over to his two children, he long presented himself as an honest businessman.

With the conviction of the self-made man, he railed passionately against plans to raise taxes.

He told one TV show that a higher tax burden will mean "the rich will go to Austria and Switzerland... we need to keep the rich here so we can keep milking them".

Unknown to the wider public, he was already obsessively gambling millions on stocks and currencies via his Swiss bank accounts.

Club colleagues gave the pager he used to follow stock listings the nickname "tamagotchi", after the Japanese handheld computer game in which a "digital pet" demands to be constantly nursed and fed.

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