Are we entering the Bayern Munich Era in world club soccer? It’s a reasonable question after Bayern swept last season’s trophies, winning the UEFA Champions League, German Bundesliga and German Cup and followed those with a FIFA Club World Cup title in December.
The scary thing is Bayern may be even better this season under new manager Pep Guardiola. The club is undefeated in the Bundesliga and aiming to reach its fourth Champions League final in the past five years. A round of 16 battle with Premier League-leading Arsenal starts on Feb. 19 in London.
Now Bayern is trying to expand its brand even more internationally, with a focus on the United States. The club will take part in this year’s MLS All-Star Game in Portland, Ore., and Bayern has also recently opened an office in New York City. On Thursday, I spoke with Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, the chair of both Bayern and the European Club Association, which represents more than 200 clubs from 53 countries.
A former striker for Bayern and the German national team who played in three World Cups (1978, ’82, ’86), Rummenigge, 58, has transitioned seamlessly to the boardroom. Fluent in English, he has big plans for Bayern, which include raising its international profile.
While the Bundesliga is on mostly solid financial footing, boasting big ticket sales, domestic TV deals and sponsorship numbers, its international TV exposure needs improvement. That will start to happen in the U.S. in 2015-16, when the German league moves from hard-to-find GolTV to Fox Sports.
Rummenigge addressed a number of topics in our conversation, including Bayern’s U.S. plans, its push to become the new Barcelona and his thoughts on U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who had a short tenure as Bayern manager in 2008-09:
SI.com: Your Bayern team is undefeated in the Bundesliga and set for a round of 16 matchup against Arsenal in Champions League. Where does this Bayern team rank among the best club teams you’ve ever seen?
Rummenigge: I would say it’s very high-ranked. We had a fantastic year in 2013, winning everything possible for a club. Regarding the five-year UEFA ranking, we are No. 2. Barcelona is still No. 1. That’s OK for us, but we are still working very hard to lead this competition. I believe we are in a very good way. The only thing is football is running always more and more quickly, like all of our lives, and there’s a momentum. We have a very good momentum that we’ll try to keep as long as possible.
SI.com: In what ways have you seen this Bayern team change under new manager Pep Guardiola this season?
Rummenigge: We had a very successful season last year, winning the treble. But with the arrival of Pep came something additional with quality, I’d say. I’m watching sometimes 15 to 20 minutes in training sessions, and this quality he’s giving in favor of the team is impressive to all of us. We believe it’s a fantastic story, what he is doing.
SI.com: Bayern plays Arsenal next in Champions League. How do you see the match-up?
Rummenigge: Arsenal is doing well this year in the Premier League, so it looks like they’re a bit reborn, a kind of comeback to the old times. It is a serious opponent, and we’re very respectful, but we hope to go through. We have a good history with the club. The past three times we have met them we have gone through. But I remember when we played them last year, in the second leg in Munich we were suffering at the end, losing 2-0, and it was close! That was kind of a surprise for us. So we take them seriously.
SI.com: Barcelona has been the team that from 2008 to 2010 was viewed as the best club in the world. Do you think Bayern can do in the next few years was Barcelona did during that time?
Rummenigge: Barcelona is a very good example, a kind of benchmark for us. We try to follow them. We were in the final three times in the past four years, fortunately winning last season in London against Dortmund. We hope to achieve this kind of benchmark with the era of Pep, because we are very happy with him. He’s a fantastic coach and guy. I’d say he’s born to work in favor of Bayern.
SI.com: It’s a World Cup year, and you played in the World Cup yourself. But it strikes me that UEFA Champions League has become even bigger in recent years. Do you think Champions League has become a more prestigious competition than the World Cup?
Rummenigge: No. I played in three World Cups. The World Cup is in the sports world the most prominent and important event in the world. I follow it with a kind of happiness. It’s by far the biggest event. We have a lot of respect for it. We’re very happy the Champions League is growing in this style in the past five, 10 years, and every participating club is happy. We’re happy with the financial figures. But we always have to respect that the World Cup is the World Cup and remains the World Cup. It’s a fact that it’s probably the most important thing to our players. We have to respect that fact.
SI.com: The Bundesliga is doing well these days, and the league’s financial future looks strong. Do you think it can pass the English Premier League in the next 10 years when it comes to international recognition?
Rummenigge: Ten years is a long time. In the next five to seven years I’d say the Premier League is No. 1 in the world and will remain No. 1. Maybe the Bundesliga is on a good path to get No. 2, but the Premier League is doing a fantastic job, and they have a certain advantage. We respect that.
SI.com: Recently, Bayern announced it would be coming to the U.S. this summer for the MLS All-Star Game, and you decided to set up a new office in New York City. Why did you do that?
Rummenigge: It’s not a surprise that we are very strong in the [German] market, but we have to do better in the international market. There are clubs like the two big Spanish clubs and English clubs like Man United, Chelsea, Liverpool and so on who are doing probably better than Bayern. We have to try and take our success on the pitch and bring in good figures in favor of Bayern as well regarding sponsoring and merchandising and partnerships. We decided in a first step going now to the States, but we’re intelligent enough to know it’s not just about going there for one week. We have to do well the whole year. We will go to the States next summer, and that’s the opening event for us for hopefully a long and fruitful partnership with soccer in the States.
SI.com: There are concerns out there that Bayern could become this superpower club in Germany the way Barcelona and Real Madrid have been in Spain in recent years (this season’s success of Atlético Madrid aside). What is to keep Bayern from becoming a superpower far beyond the other German clubs?
Rummenigge: We have a long and successful history which started in the 1970s. I would say we changed a bit the philosophy a couple years ago, saying to ourselves that we have to invest in best possible quality in the transfer market. The other way, which is very important, is not to spend more money than we can cash in. In the past 15 years it worked well, and we have been lucky also to choose the right coaches like Jupp Heynckes and now Pep. So we are benefiting from the change in philosophy and the fact our last two coaches have been very high-class and high-profile.
SI.com: There’s a FIFA presidential election next year. Would you ever want to run for that post?
Rummenigge: No, never (laughs). I’m very happy with my current job. I’m telling you the truth. If you’re doing your job as president of UEFA or FIFA, three-quarters of your job is politics, and that is not for me.
SI.com: Who would you support in the FIFA election next year?
Rummenigge: I don’t know. First of all, both [current president Sepp] Blatter and [UEFA president Michel] Platini have to decide to go ahead to [run for] president or not. I’m not so curious what will happen, because I believe we have a strong quality now in Europe, and I hope sometimes that’s maybe more important than the worldwide football. Europe is by far probably the most prominent and important continent in the football world.
SI.com: You have a big role with the ECA. At one point you were in favor of changing the European club calendar to the one we have here in MLS, which is the regular calendar year. Is that still the case?
Rummenigge: No, because I have the impression that the big majority of the stakeholders in football are not in favor of changing to the Gregorian calendar. We have that July-to-June calendar. The history is very deep, so the majority isn’t ready to change. I don’t expect that it will be changed in the near future. There will be a huge discussion about the Qatar World Cup, because they will probably change from a [northern hemisphere] summer date to a winter date, which probably is logical. But that will run for one entire season, and afterward we’ll come back to the old system.
SI.com: In what months do you think the Qatar World Cup should take place?
Rummenigge: So there are just two possibilities discussed here in Europe. One is the preference of [FIFA general secretary Jérôme] Valcke in November, and the second one is the January of UEFA, and we have to try and figure out what is the better one. We also have to respect that if we do it in January, the IOC has to organize the Winter Olympics [in February]. We have to find the best solution which isn’t too painful for the clubs and the leagues.
SI.com: I saw you had some comments this week asking for the punishment of PSG for not following UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules. Do you think the FFP rules will work when they finally go into effect?
Rummenigge: I hope so. Because in the football industry in Europe 60 percent of the clubs are losing money. It’s not a very healthy industry. The idea of Michel Platini for Financial Fair Play is probably the best tool to come back to a rational and hopefully healthy way. In the last 15 years we had always growing processes regarding transfer fees and salaries. In the end, everyone has to understand that Financial Fair Play is a bonus and not a bad thing.
SI.com: Are there other clubs besides PSG that you’re concerned about breaking the rules?
Rummenigge: I don’t know. I have nothing against PSG, but maybe they’re an example. Maybe we need one bad example to show to the football world that this is not a favorable direction for football in Europe.
SI.com: Here in the United States, Jurgen Klinsmann is the national team coach. He has done a pretty good job here so far and qualified the U.S. for the World Cup. Why do you think Klinsmann didn’t succeed as the Bayern manager in his short time there [2008-09]?
Rummenigge: First of all, I’m happy for him that he is successful in the States. I believe he’s perfect to be a national team coach. He did a very good job with the German national team in 2006. It is very different to be a coach of a national team and a coach at a club like Bayern. The expectations in a club like Bayern are very high. He was fired in 2009 being in second place, which under normal circumstances is not a drama. But (laughs) for Bayern it is a kind of drama, unfortunately.
I’m sorry about that for him, because he was always very serious doing his job. He was a very modern coach, and I’d say thanks to him we got some things like the modernization of our training center. That was an important step Jurgen did. At the end, maybe we went different ways because there was something in the relationship that was not working very well between him and the media on one side and between him and a certain part of the supporters. It was probably much more difficult for him than for the other parties, but it was not possible to avoid. I’m a bit sorry about that fact.
SI.com: I had to laugh when the U.S. drew Germany at the World Cup draw. The German coach, Joachim Löw, was Klinsmann’s assistant on the German team at World Cup 2006. How motivated will Klinsmann be to face Germany? I know there was discussion in the German media in ‘06 that Klinsmann was the motivator and the man-manager, while Löw was the tactician. Rummenigge: Maybe there is a kind of truth in that story. But I believe he’s more than just a motivator. Because he understands football. He played football at the highest possible level. He qualified the States for the World Cup, and now he’s in a very interesting group with Germany. Knowing him well, he’ll be very motivated, especially to face the German team.