A Journey Through History – An In Depth Interview with Uli Hesse – Part I

Amidst the continuing growth and popularity of German football and the Bundesliga, few voices are more prominent than those of author, historian and journalist Uli Hesse.  Uli is the author of the popular and comprehensive “Tor!”, which definitively traces the history and evolution of German football.  Uli also penned books on the history of the European Cup, “Flutlicht und Schatten:  Die Geschichte des Europapokals” and put together collection of diverse anecdotes and stories of the beautiful game, “Wie Österreich Weltmeister wurde: 111 unglaubliche Fussballgeschichten”. 

He is also a regular contributor to ESPN Soccernet and countless other publications, past and present including Champions magazine (UEFA’s official Champions League magazine), the German sports magazine “11 Freunde” and the German Rolling Stone amongst others. 

We at the Bundesliga Fanatic are delighted to bring you an in depth interview with one of the leading and most insightful voices on German football.

 In Part I of the interview we meet Uli Hesse the writer and person as he opens up about what motivated him to pick up the pen in the first place as well as the writing process he undertakes when working on a book or article.  We also explore some of Uli’s unique personal interests and how they are connected to his writing.  Finally Uli indulges our readers with an interesting recommendation of his own.

Bundesliga Fanatic: First, I would like to welcome and thank you for granting us this interview.  It is a privilege to have you on the Bundesliga Fanatic.  Well, let’s dive right in! 

I have heard your book, “Tor!” , be described as the “Bible of German football”.  It took you some 11 months to write one of the most detailed outlines on the history of German football.  As a former History major I have to marvel at the amount of detail and extensive research that went into the book.  Are there any plans for a fourth book in the works or perhaps an updated edition of the “bible”?

Ulis "Tor!", the definitive account on German football history.

Uli:  Well, I almost became a history major myself before I ditched history after two academic terms in favor of Film & TV studies.  So I know what you mean by detail and research – and appreciate it, thanks.  However, you have to bear in mind that I already knew my subject quite well when I agreed to do the book.  So it’s not as if those months were spent trying to find out who this Fritz Walter chap was.

Actually, just a few weeks ago we discussed doing another updated version. (I say “another” because the paperback is a revised edition of the hardcover.)  But it’s not going to happen for two reasons.  The first is that I don’t like the idea of simply adding a couple of chapters that deal with the past tens years.  Rather, you’d have to do a complete rewrite – and I’m reluctant to undertake that.  The second reason is that, yes, I’ll be doing a fourth book.  Again it’ll be about football and history, but with a twist: It’s going to be a history of football fans.

As a writer myself, I always wonder what inspires or motivates others.  How did you stumble upon this fine craft and what specifically led you to football writing?

Funny that you ask, because I recently had an online exchange with Glenn Stout about this subject.  (Glenn is the editor of “The Best American Sports Writing” series.)  The exchange was triggered by a great remark Glenn made in an interview, namely: “The words of others are the only reason any of us are writers.”  See, it often happens to us, I mean sports writers, that people assume we are failed athletes who make a living writing about, say, football because we can’t make a living playing it.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  All the really good sports writers will say what Glenn said in our exchange: it’s the writing, not the sports.

Which means I’ve always been fascinated by writing and have always tried to write about things that interest me.  The first really regular and serious writing I did was about music.  When I was eighteen or so, I started contributing to an English-language fanzine that covered underground music. (That was back when there still was such a thing as an underground.)  I eventually became co-editor and did that well in to the 90s.  One day, I rewrote a fanzine piece about a guitarist called Wayne Kramer using what I thought was a proper magazine style and sent the result to the German “Rolling Stone”.  They printed it without changing a word and paid me more money than I’d ever earned before.

So I kept writing for “Rolling Stone” but quickly realized we didn’t have too much common ground, as my taste in music was, uh, rather offbeat.  This means I was looking for a subject that I cared about and that they would accept at just about the time, the mid-90s, when the football boom was taking off and the game was becoming respectable, even hip.  So I did a piece about this phenomenon for “Rolling Stone” and that’s, in a roundabout way, how I got into touch with a lot of people like myself – people who’d always loved football and music, had written for fanzines and were now writing for magazines that paid real money.  For instance, that’s how I got to meet the people who publish “When Saturday Comes” and that would, a few years down the road, lead to “Tor!”.

Your writing style and topics are very unique to say the least and stands apart from anything else in the world of sports journalism.  What keeps the assembly line of ideas rolling so to speak?

Ulis in depth piece on St. Pauli was recently featured in the new football magazine, "The Blizzard".

I know what you mean and you’re right in that coming up with ideas is sometimes a problem, but let me first say that you seem to be focusing on the Soccernet columns here – and they are only a small part of my writing.  I did an in-depth article about St. Pauli for a Swedish magazine last year (that’s the piece Jonathan Wilson used for his new mag, “The Blizzard”), which is hardly a unique topic.  Then there’s the German writing I do.  Not so long ago, I profiled Shinji Kagawa for a German monthly and wrote something about Reinhard Libuda for “11 Freunde” magazine. Again, not really unusual subjects.

But it’s true that I’m not particularly interested in what seems to form the bulk of today’s sports writing.  Interviews, for example, bore me.  I’ve done enough player interviews in the 90s to know that I can live without them just fine, thank you.  I’ve spoken with Jürgen Klopp for almost three quarters of an hour a few weeks ago and that was cool, because it was more of a conversation.  But out of those 45 minutes of talk, I’ll quote maybe 45 seconds – two or three lines – in the piece I’m going to do.

Yet it’s not as if the other 44 minutes and 15 seconds have been wasted.  While we were talking about creating chances, Klopp said something I made a mental note of that could form the nucleus of a story about statistics.  That’s how I often stumble across ideas – somebody says something or does something that is totally unrelated to the matter at hand but makes me curious.

Add to this that I have, as one of the Soccernet honchos once put it, “carte blanche” when it comes to the columns.  Which means if I don’t have an idea, I won’t write anything.  This happens.  However, sometimes I do think Soccernet should get another German columnist, a proper one who will discuss transfer rumors and quote players, not a nutcase like me.

Football isn’t the only sport you enjoy, what spurred your interest in Baseball for example?  I imagine it isn’t a common occurrence for fans of football in Germany to enjoy America’s favorite past time.

In the 90s, I wrote a lot of stuff for a now-defunct German magazine called “Hattrick”.  It was a football magazine, but they had a section called “Out of Soccer”, I’m afraid (yes, in English), in which they ran long articles about other sports.  For this section I did pieces about Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, Bobby Fischer, the chess legend, or Suzanne Lenglen, the French tennis queen, because I was interested in their stories.  But yes, baseball is different. Boxing and tennis are popular in Germany and I played competitive chess myself – but baseball was something very alien to me when it first aroused my interest, which was in 1991.

I guess it’s just that I wanted to understand what this was all about.  To this end, I bought two or three books – and they turned out to be amazing, just utterly amazing.  They were brilliantly written and they also taught me a lot about American social history. So I bought another batch of books.  And another one.  Again, this proves Glenn’s adage: “The words of others are the only reason any of us are writers.”  Because of that I ended up writing my master’s thesis about baseball.  Oh, the English writer Harry Pearson has promised to explain cricket to me, so this could be the next project.

 You mentioned your predilection for music and many of your readers may not know this side of you.  Can you tell us a little bit about your unique taste in music and what role it plays in your life?

I don’t think my taste is unique, it just isn’t mainstream.  And it has changed over the years.  In the mid-80s, I played in a hardcore punk band, think Black Flag coupled with early Bad Religion, and looked the part, which I briefly allude to in “Tor!”, because it was at the height of the hooligan era and caused me some trouble on the terraces.  But then my taste broadened, so to speak, through the fanzine and the records I got sent to review but also thanks to John Peel, a legendary British disc jockey I could listen to because there were English army barracks in Dortmund and thus we could tune in to the British Forces Broadcasting Service.

Until the late 90s, football and music always used to be equally important to me, but then I realized I had gradually stopped going to gigs regularly and didn’t buy as many records as I used to.  I mean, I’m not a collector, but I do have about 2,500 vinyl records and they must have come from somewhere.  (I know people who have ten times as many records as I have, so trust me when I say 2,500 records do not constitute a collection.)

I was willing to accept that as a sign of approaching middle age, but then I got an iPod for my birthday five or six years ago and at about the same time my son gave me a DVD by The Supersuckers, whom I only knew as a rowdy, punky rock’n’roll band.  The DVD came with a bonus CD of the Supersuckers in their guise as an alternative country band … and suddenly I had found a new genre – new to me, that is – I could explore.  Now things have reached the point again where I had to buy one of those 160 GB iPods to store stuff I might want to listen to.

 Finally, can you recommend some of your favorite music to our audience of chic bohemians and garage rock punks?

Let me cheat my way out of this one by suggesting you go and see Hank III when he next comes into town. That’s Hank Williams III, the grandson of THAT Hank Williams and the son of Hank Williams Jr. He’s got more tattoos than your average Premier League starlet, but he’s a good lad at heart.

The nice thing about Hank III is that he will give you three very different sets for the price of one. He usually opens with a country set, where he’s backed by the Damn Band. We’re talking about pretty rowdy but basically traditional country here, the sort of stuff his grandfather would be proud of (if only Hank III could cut back on the swear words), not the Nashville variety his dad too often recorded.

Hank III follows that with a set of what he himself calls Hellbilly – aptly named; let’s leave it at that. Finally, he plays a third set with his group Assjack that is not for the faint of heart. I think you would have to call the genre crust or sludge metal.

Stay tuned for Part II next week.  In it, Uli addresses the crazy Bundesliga season we’ve had this year and gives us his view on Klopp and Dortmund as well as the prospects and talents of the German National Team .  We also touch on the growth of the Bundesliga in the English speaking world so stick around!  

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Cristian Nyari

Cristian is a football writer and analyst living in New York City, fascinated with the history and study of the beautiful game and all it entails. Follow Cristian on twitter @Cnyari

11 Comments

  1. Thank you Michael. Let me know how Uli’s recommendation pans out if you do get to see him.

  2. Fascinating stuff, Cristian, good work. I’m off to the Nashville next month – nice to get some music tips thrown in. I’ll have to investigate Hank III.

  3. Fantastic job, Cris !!! Uli is just such a cool guy. Looking forward to reading his thoughts on the current season and Dortmund. And thanks Uli for giving the Bundesliga Fanatic a great interview.

  4. HA! Nah. When you do as many as him over time can you blame him? His honesty about everything is what makes him so unique and interesting.

    Leave it to a football writer to educate one on country metal music. 😀

  5. Cris: Did you almost stop cold when he told you interviews bore him? Was not aware there was even a Hank Williams III in this world to begin with–learned something new.

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