November 18, 2017

The Curious Case of Klaus-Michael Kühne

In all the brouhaha that has once again surrounded HSV since the dismissal of Thorsten Fink on Tuesday, one name seems to have appeared in German media more than any other. But strangely, it’s not that of the fired coach, the rumoured replacements, or even the sporting director and board members responsible for the decision. It’s the name of a man with, technically, no more say in matters than many fans on the street: Klaus-Michael Kühne. So how has this come to pass?

76-year-old Kühne, born in Hamburg but resident in Switzerland for decades, built his fortune with the logistics company Kühne+Nagel and has in recent years invested some of this wealth in his beloved HSV. In 2010 he helped finance the purchases of players such as Paolo Guerrero, Dennis Aogo, Marcell Jansen and Heiko Westermann, taking a percentage of transfer rights in the process.

Last season, however, he was a prominent figure in the return of Rafael van der Vaart to the Hansestadt, and gave up those previous rights as part of the deal. While he accepted a similar share in van der Vaart’s transfer rights, he must have been aware that this was money he was unlikely to see again, given that the Dutchman was 29 at the time of signing.

There is little doubt, therefore, that Kühne is willing to support the team he loves without demanding a financial return. But, not unreasonably, he does want to have a say in how the club is run. Having been openly critical of both Fink and the recently appointed sporting director, Oliver Kreuzer, Kühne has not only expressed his delight at Fink’s removal, but insisted that Kreuzer should go too.

What’s more, he has now declared himself willing to invest again, but this time there’s a condition – the money is only available if the “right” man is appointed. Kühne’s proposal – that he will supply €25 million for transfers if Felix Magath is appointed in an advisory role above his desired coach Bernd Hollerbach, a former HSV player and Magath’s assistant at Schalke and Wolfsburg – has divided opinion among fans of the Rothosen. One concrete issue with this statement is the contradictory nature of suggesting Hollerbach, who up to now has not been in charge of a team above Regionalliga level, as a solution, despite Kühne’s earlier criticism of Kreuzer as a “third-division” sporting director. But there are broader points to consider, both positive and negative.

The 50+1 rule in Germany, designed to stop anyone (e.g. a billionaire businessman) taking control of what are still non-profit member associations, is well known. Nevertheless, it always seemed likely that anyone who put millions of their own wealth into a football team would like some say on how things were run in return. However, this attempt to buy power makes many fans uneasy – a single benefactor who cannot officially have control, but is so financially important that his word is effectively law, draws uncomfortable parallels to the roundly despised “Hoppenheim” experiment in Sinsheim.

Another issue is why Kühne has chosen to make his feelings known via daily outpourings to the Hamburger Morgenpost and Bild newspapers, rather than to seek discussions with those at the club directly. Here there are three likely explanations, none of which are particularly edifying:

1. Some people just like being in the papers. It’s hard to say whether this is something those with a lot of money particularly enjoy, or whether it’s simply a lot easier to get your views printed when you’re wealthy. Regardless, Kühne certainly seems to enjoy the limelight.

2. Kühne has, like many, many HSV fans, been critical of Carl-Edgar Jarchow and the set-up of HSV’s controlling Aufsichtsrat board. With that in mind, it’s perfectly possible that one party or the other is now unwilling to work together or even enter discussion with the other – which leads onto the final point.

3. At the HSV AGM in January of next year, a group headed by former HSV boss Ernst-Otto Rieckhoff will propose HSV Plus, an initiative designed to restructure the club into a more future-friendly model – splitting the football division of the sports club from the other branches and turning it into a public limited company, cutting down the size of the board, and populating it with a mix of “football people” and businessmen. Should this proposal be accepted by club members, ties to the old regime would probably be a noose round the neck of anyone looking to become involved, as Kühne likely would, and this might well be why he is happy to stick with external criticism for now.

Nevertheless, there is a slight contradiction in the fact that Kühne has, up to now:

a) Gone straight to tabloids with information that would have been better kept internal (if Magath is now appointed, good luck to him convincing other clubs he has anything less than €25 million to spend on their players).

b) Supported a strategy of investing more cash than the club can generate and then spending yet more on sacking employees who continue to burden the payroll for, in some cases, years thereafter.

These are, of course, two of the main (and entirely justified) criticisms levelled at the current board.

However, there are several factors that work in Kühne’s favour. Firstly, he is without question a HSV supporter in the traditional sense, as well as financially. What’s more, it would be foolish to ignore the necessity of money, and indeed outside investment, in modern football. At the Allianz Arena, much of it comes from sponsors like Adidas and Audi who, in turn, have representatives on the board of the Bayern Munich plc.

Kühne’s role in HSV Plus would probably be no different. It seems clear that change is needed at the very top of the Hamburg club, and HSV Plus is the most realistic solution that has been put forward thus far. But if it is to succeed, the new shares will have to be bought, in bulk, and Kühne seems to be by far the most likely major investor.

The worry is that such a sea change at a football club almost always brings casualties. A situation where a new manager is appointed by the current board in the next few weeks, only to be replaced again after the AGM in January, is far from unthinkable. All of which makes the coming months some of the most significant in HSV’s recent history. The next chapter begins with Saturday’s Nordderby against Werder Bremen.

By May 2014, however, the club could be blossoming under a new regime, berating said new dawn for a failure to deliver what it promised, or still suffering under the current bosses. It could be coming to terms with another year of mediocrity, celebrating a return to the European stage, or mourning the loss of first-division status for the first time in its history. Time will tell, but one thing is certain – Klaus-Michael Kühne will have had his say in proceedings.

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