Q&A with Bayern Munich chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge
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.