A Handcrafted Global Superclub: Book Review of Uli Hesse’s Bayern

The first thing you need to understand is that FC Bayern Munich is a club of contradictions – or seemingly baffling tensions –  between the likes of its regionally-grounded Bavarian identity and its global reach, or between its “superclub” status and its famous “family” ethos. Or, more prosaically, between its long list of global superstar footballers and its equally long list of unsung footballers, who themselves won many a crucial match in the most opportune moments for Bayern. In Uli Hesse‘s newest book, Bayern: Creating a Global Superclub, the famed German Fußall writer avoids reducing Bayern’s history to any one of these readily available identity anchors. Instead, Hesse skillfully navigates through all the identity anchors, fashioning the most complete, meaningful, and entertaining work on Bayern to date.

However, one identity anchor is indisputable when Hesse confirmed my worst suspicions: Bayern Munich have always been good.

Hesse laconically states something to this effect when reporting on Bayern’s first decade of existence in the 1900s. However, the news gets worse, as Hesse explains: “Less than two months after its formation, [Bayern] demolished one of the oldest football clubs in town, Nordstern FC, by a score of 15-0.” Fast forward to 2016 and this ancient result certainly sounds on par for a global giant who’s won the Bundesliga four years in a row and 26 domestic league championship total.

bayern-uli-hesse_book-coverHowever, if Bayern’s story was a straight-arrow, linear narrative of progress toward “superclub” status, Hesse’s newest book would be pointless.

Luckily for readers, Bayern’s story is not one of unimpeded progress. Hesse digs out various moments of conflict and uncertainty that could have steered Bayern’s identity and status in any number of directions. For example, even during those old heady days of beating Nordstern FC 15-0 in 1898, we learn from Hesse that Bayern was never rich. As Hesse reminds us that “like everyone else, Bayern was an amateur club that generated revenue only through membership fees and gate money.” Or we learn that through most its history, Bayern has never had or owned its own ground. Or we learn that Bayern was supremely fortunate to land some local lads (Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Müller, and Sepp Maier, etc.) who vaulted the club to global glory. Or we learn that Bayern had to navigate a dizzying array of pressures – from Bavarian regionalism, Nazi persecution, multiple scandals, late professionalizaton in Germany, etc. – any one of which could have totally altered the superclub’s history. After reading Hesse’s history, it’s feasible to conclude that Bayern could have simply become a Bavarian force in German football, known mostly for its cutesy regional ways.

From another point of view, given the vicissitudes of history during Bayern’s 100+ year history, which spans two World Wars and other immensely challenging decades, the presence of these conflicts and uncertainties is logical. Hesse avoids reducing Bayern’s story either into counter-factual “what-ifs” or into a deterministic tale of a giant brand’s rise to global dominance. Instead, Hesse sticks to people and their particular roles both individually and collectively in shaping a football club.

We quickly learn that as the people go, so too does Bayern Munich’s history. During his long career as an esteemed football writer, Hesse has always demonstrated keen perception in carving out fully-fleshed personalities from the clubs and figures comprising German football. In Bayern, Hesse’s skill with characterization shines more brightly than ever before; he’s at his best in Bayern, with the narrower scope of writing about a single club, contrasted to, say, the nation-wide scope of his indispensable Tor!

As Hesse pain-painstakingly reminds us, Bayern’s story is the story of people.  Not a brand. Not an abstracted force. Nor even a club. Throughout Bayern, Hesse sticks faithfully to the hundreds of people united in their efforts to make something great at Bayern. Essentially, Bayern is a creation story. As such, the book is a study about the phenomenon of creating a superclub.

Hesse signals the importance of his people-focused technique in Bayern‘s enthralling “Prologue,” which imaginatively writes the on-pitch consciousness of a nameless Bayern workhorse during a European Cup final. (Spoiler Alert!) This nameless workhorse, who tellingly is not Franz Beckenbauer or one of the other stars on this world-beating Bayern side, scores the winning goal that, in Hesse’s estimation vaults Bayern into global superclub status. Later, we learn this workhorse is none other than Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck, who dutifully manned his family’s tiny local newspaper and stationary shop for 28 years after retiring from football.

Bayern’s unsung hero, Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck working his family’s tiny stationary shop in Munich.

Throughout Bayern, we learn that the Bavarian club’s history is littered with many other Schwarzenbeck-esque characters. In fact, Bayern’s founding itself adheres to this pattern, as Hesse carefully recreates the moment when the club was born on a cold February night. In this episode, we follow Otto Naegele, Arthur Ringler, the Wamsler boys, Fritz John, Kuno Friedrich, and Wilhelm Focke as they trudge through Munich’s Schäfflergasse alleyway, eventually gathering at Café Gisela on Fürstenstrasse where they draft a document that officially founded the club. As Hesse explains, these men — and others — were cosmopolitan urbanites: “It may seem strange in retrospect that these educated, creative, liberal, cosmopolitan and rather sophisticated young men were crazy about a simple, crude game that we have come to think of as the classic workingman’s sport.” Bayern’s founding was a counter-cultural act in the Friedrich Ludwig-Jahn Turnen-dominated world of fin-de-siècle Germany. In this context, crude football — “The English disease” — could be considered anti-patriotic and anti-nationalistic in the newly unified German Republic. A bold founding, indeed. Thus, Bayern’s identity is partially grounded in self-assurance. Is it any wonder then that the Bavarian phrase Mia san Mia (“we are who we are”) eventually became the club’s hackneyed motto?

Moreover, from its founding, Bayern has always had a cosmopolitan sensibility, demonstrated by the club’s openness to foreigners (Richard “Little Dombi” Kohn, Zlatko Cajkovksi, Branko Zebec, Gyula Lóránt, Pál Csernai, Giovanni Trapattoni, Louis van Gaal, or Pep Guardiola), new ideas (a business manager, creative revenue streams, management structures, or on-pitch tactics), and international ambitions (European success and titles, global recognition). This sensibility functions as a main character in Bayern, as Hesse documents the club’s road to success.

Of course Bayern would not be complete without the club’s more conventional main characters – Kurt Landauer, Sepp Maier, Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Müller, Paul Breitner, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Uli Hoeness, Lothar Matthäus, Jürgen Klinnsmann, and Philipp Lahm – playing a major role in Hesse’s history. And they do. Hesse devotes ample time to these superstars by intertwining their stories in such a way as to construct a “lineage” of Bayern success: link-by-link the club’s success was sustained by these greats and the dozens of unsung heroes. All the big moments make the book. For example, the nearly apocryphal tale of how Beckenbauer ended up at Bayern, or how the remarkable story of Maier and his imprisoned father, or Uli Hoeness’ plane crash, or the Matthäus/Klinsmanns feud and the latter’s Tonnentritt, or Trapattoni’s infamous “FC Hollywood” rant (die Wutrede), or more recently Guardiola eschewing the Bavarian way.

Yet even when documenting the lives and times of Bayern’s many superstars, Hesse can’t seem to help puncturing these stories with the appearances of unsung footballers. Take the case of Franz “die Bulle” Roth, who first shows up on page 70 – “To be honest, I thought I was taking the piss,” –  but sticks around for what seems like most of the book, as he inevitably tips the scales in Bayern’s favor during many a key match. In Bayern’s story, Roth is a ubiquitous photo-bomber, lurking in the background everywhere. And this is Hesse’s point. As much as anything else, Bayern’s story depends on the likes of Roth, Schwarzenbeck, Franz John, Klaus Augenthaler, or Søren Lerby. Prominently including the contributions of these players adds a nice spin to the hackneyed “football is a team sport” commonplace.

Aside from the lineage of global superstars, and unsung heroes, Hesse makes the case the creation of a superclub also needs a lineage of charismatic and shrewd administrators. So it’s no surprise that a significant portion of Bayern‘s word count is devoted to the “backroom” men who ran the club. Indeed, Bayern’s administrative history is extraordinary rich. For example, Kurt Landauer (“The Man Who Invented Bayern”) dominates the book’s earliest chapters, while the same can be said of other early chapters for club president Wilhelm Neudecker, then later chapters for club president Uli Hoeness, as well as other famous-former-players-turned-presidents, Franz Beckenbauer and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. Many of my favorite moments in Bayern document the personalities, decisions, interactions in Bayern’s backroom. Moreover, it’s here in Bayern’s backroom where the club’s cosmopolitan roots have always been most apparent. Throughout its history, Bayern has mostly demonstrated administrative innovation and creativity in leveraging its on-pitch success into superclub status. Hesse’s tale doesn’t miss a beat in connecting the dots.

Finally, throughout his football writing, Hesse has always demonstrated a knack for telling history, while simultaneously exploding superficial myths. He’s true to form in Bayern. Hesse easily casts aside the flimsiest myths – such as, “Bayern has always been rich” –  while working through the trickier ones, such as Bayern-Dusel (the notion that Bayern always gets the lucky breaks, which Hesse argues to be only partially true at best) or the reductive interpretation of Bayern’s Mia san Mia motto. However, Hesse’s method cuts two ways. For example, he makes a convincing case that Bayern really is a big family, a notion reflected in former player Markus Babbel’s explanation that “[a]mong the top clubs in Europe, Bayern are the most humane.” Through Hesse’s treatment of the myths surrounding Bayern, a more human and likable club emerges.

A human and likeable Bayern is a phenomenon that a reader like myself, a Borussia Dortmund partisan and an “anyone but Bayern” spectator, can only be chagrined gratefully by.


Bayern: Creating a Global Superclub, by Uli Hesse (Yellow Jersey Press, 298 pages, £14.99).

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and sports are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Howler magazine, 11Freunde, America Magazine, The Short Pass, Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

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