Column by Martin Volkmar: Hitzlsperger after the announced end in the criticism: “Hopelessly overwhelmed with office”
What comes unexpectedly for many, hardly surprises insiders at VfB Stuttgart after the lost power struggle with Claus Vogt. The background to the announced departure from Thomas Hitzlsperger, his possible future at the DFB and potential successors.
When Felix Magath switched to FC Bayern in 2004, he had to adapt. Suddenly, the new FCB coach complained, every one of his statements became a breaking news topic, while the same sentences at his old club VfB Stutgart didn’t interest anyone outside the region.
To this day, nothing has changed – and the reverse also applies: Although the traditional club from the Baden-Württemberg state capital is always a topic of conversation in the rest of the republic, VfB is usually only marginally noticed.
Therefore, on Wednesday, Thomas Hitzlsperger’s announcement that he does not want to extend his contract as CEO, which will expire next year, came as a surprise to many. After all, he had announced several times in the past few weeks and months that he wanted to “stay with VfB for a very, very long time”.
VfB Stuttgart: Hitzlsperger doesn’t feel like it anymore
Nevertheless, those familiar with the Bad Cannstatt club were only surprised at the time of the announcement, not at the fact as such. The reasons are complex, but at the core they can be summarized as follows: Hitzlsperger is no longer interested.
He himself has not yet commented on the specific reasons and probably does not want to continue to do so. However, it is obvious that the lost power struggle in the spring with club president and AG supervisory board boss Claus Vogt and, above all, his clear re-election at the general meeting in summer played a decisive role in the move.
The hope had been great that with the clearly clarified conditions, calm would finally return after one of the most restless years in the already restless VfB.
The kick-off was the disclosure of the data affair by kicker in September 2020. According to this, executives had passed on the e-mail addresses of the club members to a PR entrepreneur from 2016 onwards so that he could use “guerrilla marketing” to persuade the members to agree to the controversial spin-off of the Fußball AG. This was done in June 2017.
Layoffs, resignations and rifts between Hitzlsperger and Vogt
After the publication, the Vogt, who was elected President for the first time at the end of 2019, commissioned the Berlin law firm esecon with the investigation, which accused Hitzlsperger’s VfB board of massive disabilities in an interim report. As a result, several board members and directors were dismissed or resigned. This led to a massive rift between Vogt and Hitzlsperger, who in an open letter denied his adversary his suitability and announced that he would run for president against him.
But Vogt, supported by numerous fan groups, contradicted himself in an open letter, rejected all requests for resignation from various directions and also prevented the non-nomination for re-election by the association’s advisory board.
After Hitzlsperger had already withdrawn in the spring, Vogt was finally confirmed triumphantly in July with more than 92 percent in office, while all of his opponents said goodbye to the committees. “Vogt of all people now has the position as the undisputed number one in the club, which all presidents since Gerhard Mayer-Vorfelder have always strived for in vain,” says a long-time observer.
“Maybe it’s like a good marriage with Thomas and me”
Since then, the unequal duo at the top of VfB has found a professional togetherness again, but it will no longer be a close relationship. Which is not necessarily due to Vogt, who quickly tried to settle the dispute with the ex-national player and announced an offer for further cooperation beyond the end of his contract in October 2022.
“We both have the same interest: to do our work in the best possible way in the interests of VfB. Yes, there have been upheavals, but despite everything, our relationship is better than many might think,” said the entrepreneur in an interview with SPOX and Goal in May : “Maybe it’s like a good marriage with Thomas and me.”
As it now turns out, it was more like a bad marriage – at least with one partner. The Stuttgarter Zeitung therefore described the withdrawal as the “end of hypocrisy”. Because Hitzlsperger apologized several times for his allegations towards Vogt, but it was no longer enough to show real empathy towards his nominal superior. At the same time, the number of skeptics grew after Hitzlsperger had already annoyed many supporters with his candidacy for a fight.
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To this day, the critics accuse him of only having climbed the career ladder through the old ropes at VfB, which have now finally been driven out, and in early 2019 the Vogt predecessor and former Stuttgart21 spokesman Wolfgang Dietrich made him chairman of the board. Out of a misunderstood loyalty, Hitzlsperger let himself be instrumentalized by the “old VfB” against Vogt in the data affair and thus failed, it is said.
“VfB still brings out the worst out of every club boss”
“In the end, Hitzlsperger also stands in the tradition of unhappy bosses at the Swabian club. VfB still brings out the worst out of every club boss. Even Thomas Hitzlsperger,” commented the Berliner Tagesspiegel on the announced withdrawal.
The Stuttgart-based company has lost a figurehead that is an almost perfect brand ambassador because of its modern, communicative appearance and its social commitment, including for the rights of homosexual people. And they have to look for a new person in charge of sport, the fifth in the past five years. This is certainly not a sign of the continuity that has finally been hoped for.
Allegations against Hitzlsperger: beginners, self-promoters, overwhelmed
However, there are contradicting statements about how great the actual loss is in operational business. Zeit Online called Hitzlsperger a “beginner” a few months ago, and Tagesspiegel called him a young professional who “obviously benefited from a few years of apprenticeship in club management”.
Others express themselves behind closed doors even more drastically. The 39-year-old is “hopelessly overwhelmed with the office,” says a former executive. Another VfB insider describes the chairman of the board as “a self-promoter that everyone has taken for granted”.
Those who are well-disposed towards Hitzlsperger, on the other hand, call President Vogt an intriguer and egomaniac with whom constructive cooperation would no longer have been possible in the long term. However, both sides agree that Hitzlsperger’s job was ultimately no longer fun. Because of course the conditions for the lateral entrant have become more difficult due to the new balance of power in Bad Canstatt.
Hitzlsperger: Without support and backing from VfB?
Without his former helpers at his side, he lacked support in day-to-day business and perhaps also, in the future, the backing of the committees. At the same time, the problems in the wake of the Corona crisis have increased. Management positions have to be filled with competent people, gaps in the budget that are worth millions have to be saved and even the future together with anchor investor Daimler is not forever secured in view of their turning away from football.
The question remains whether Hitzlsperger can actually implement his announcement to fulfill the contract, which runs until October 2022. “In the business world, we have had bad experiences with such situations, as the incumbent from now on takes the so-called lame duck position. That could now also happen at VfB,” warned Honorary President Erwin Staudt.
Hitzlsperger successor: Cologne’s Alexander Wehrle and Sven Mislintat traded
Presumably, the change in leadership will depend on how quickly the five-time German champions find a new board boss. Born in Swabia, Alexander Wehrle, currently CFO at 1. FC Köln, is highly traded, as has been the case several times in previous years, but this time as chairman. And in addition, sports director Sven Mislintat, who has explicitly not linked his whereabouts to Hitzslperger’s future, could move up to the sports directorate.
And what will become of the former bearer of hope? An obvious candidate would be for the vacant position of DFB President. “For my part, there are no such ambitions,” said Hitzlsperger on Wednesday. However, this leadership issue, which is so important for German football as a whole, could still generate quite a dynamic before the Bundestag in March.
Because the interim president Peter Peters, who was previously considered a favorite due to the lack of alternatives, is still regarded by a majority of professionals and above all amateurs as not employable. So Hitzlsperger could be the figure of light that the DFB so desperately needs. Probably such a role would suit him even more than the current one at VfB Stuttgart.
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