Oliver Bierhoff knew how to market himself as a player and he knows how to market the national team today.
The striker, who played on the German national soccer team from 1996 to 2002, scored the title winning “golden goal” 20 years ago in the Euro 1996 final.
In an interview with Handelsblatt, before Sunday’s match against Ukraine, which the Germans won 2-0, the friendly, straight-talking team manager talked about the many changes and challenges afoot in professional soccer today and also shared this views on politics and his possible plans for the future.
Handelsblatt: Mr. Bierhoff, you want to make a brand out of the German national team. What does it stand for today?
Oliver Bierhoff: For fairness, diversity and tolerance. But also for commitment and the will to win. The national team has always stood for something. For example, when the German team was allowed to compete in the 1954 World Cup, there was a feeling, “We are somebody again!” With the 1990 world championship, it was a feeling of greater strength immediately before unification. And the 2014 World Cup showed a completely new image of German players, some of them with immigrant backgrounds. The national team is Germany’s darling.
After winning the World Cup in 1990, we made the mistake of believing everything would continue on just as successfully. Ten years later we had a rude awakening. The race to catch up cost us a lot.
That sounds a little like brand development.
Spontaneous factors always enter into it. We showed our empathy when we hugged the Brazilians in 2014 after the blowout victory in the semifinals. That wasn’t planned. We have progressively honed our image since 2004 — some moves were planned, and some were also very natural.
That includes a slump after winning the World Cup, like losing to Ireland in 2015.
Yes, we can’t be happy with last year. All the same, we did qualify as head of our group for Euro 2016.
What do you say to people who think national team players are too elitist, too arrogant and too divorced from reality or simply too rich?
That’s an image you quickly get in professional soccer, especially because of the money. It doesn’t affect just us on the national team, but also top clubs like Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. We’re a premium product — an enterprise that also pursues commercial interests for the common good of German soccer. First of all, we have a beautiful goal: We want to make people happy. And when we succeed at that, so does our marketing. Professional sports have long been a major economic factor.
Do you see yourself as a product manager?
Yes. If you want to look at it objectively, the national team is a brand, a product that is constantly changing. The basic requirement is winning, and losing has an immediate impact. Stadiums weren’t completely filled for our last home games. That means people weren’t really satisfied with the product, which didn’t deliver what it promised.
At the moment, team jerseys aren’t selling. There appears to be less excitement about European tournament this summer. People seem to be worried about terrorism, Turkey and the refugee crisis. How do you see that?
For one thing, I hope nothing happens and people get caught up in the excitement. We noticed thousands of unsold tickets for preparation games. I think people are more concerned about other things right now.
Today, you can watch a good soccer game anywhere in the world, every day of the week, on the Internet. What is more important — keeping fans happy or increasing business and revenue?
I believe the market will regulate itself. There’s still plenty of demand. But we should be careful not to overdo it. I’m sometimes amazed at how much soccer is shown on television, but the high viewer ratings show continued strong interest. Like a company, we have to constantly think about how to make the product more attractive without sacrificing authenticity, and how to increase sales.
Let’s be specific. As manager, how do you optimize your product?
My starting point is the image of the national team, and how I can communicate that to the outside world. I sit down with my partners and talk about advertising, TV spots, interviews and PR campaigns. The choice of clothing also affects how the team is presented and perceived.
How much have you used Peter Olsson as an example in your job? He was the one who successfully marketed you after your “golden goal” in the Euro 1996 championship.
I was one of the first players to have used his marketing skills in such a professional way. What I experienced then is helping me enormously today. I know how many small things add up to the whole. I’m no fan of superficiality. I’m obsessed with perfection.
At the time, you were considered the consummate advertising vehicle: scandal-free, from a respectable family and good-looking. In today’s soccer business, wouldn’t that probably be too boring?
Would you say Thomas Müller has a completely different image? He’s pleasant and sociable.
But at least he’s cheeky.
But always in a friendly manner. And he’s also authentic. Naturally, scandals can make you interesting. You can see that continually with other advertising stars. But you also have to want that image.
Did you always know exactly how you wanted to be presented in public?
No. But today I tell our young players that they should think about it early on. Because you can quickly be put into box — and it’s unbelievably hard to change that image later. I always had a set of values. I don’t drive a car into a wall or do any other kind of nonsense just to make the news.
You also never lost your driver’s license. Or has anything happened to you like to striker Marco Reus, or your coach, Jogi Löw?
Fortunately not. But you have to admit, in the era of Facebook and Twitter, today’s players have a lot harder time staying clear of scandals. They have to carefully consider what they should and shouldn’t do. Take Mario Götze, for example. He is a highly professional player who is concerned about his body around the clock. And then, through some social media activity, he creates a somewhat different impression.
Just as a reminder, he baked a cake
Shocking, isn’t it!
How political is Euro 2016, especially after the terror attacks in Paris ahead of the tournament that you personally experienced at the Stade de France?
To some extent, soccer can’t escape social and political issues — and it shouldn’t. But you also can’t make it responsible for them. Just consider the Euro 2012 and Ukraine. There was the impression that soccer all of a sudden was supposed to resolve longstanding political conflicts. And naturally the current situation plays a role at Euro 2016. Only soccer — this special mood of a great tournament — can give people a carefree feeling and enjoyment.
Looking on the positive side, what political effect could a successful Euro 2016 have?
A lot. Think of the European idea, which is in trouble at the moment. When we celebrate together, we will also be seen as a community by the world. Although athletes only think of their performance, they now have a political and social significance.
Are the players aware of this?
To a degree, but you can’t overburden them with it. They are more annoyed than upset by it with many of the statements made about them.
You mean criticism by the far-right Alternative for Germany party, against players Jérôme Boateng, who is black, and Mesut Özil, who is Muslim?
Yes. Those stupid remarks haven’t ruined the mood within the team. I’m annoyed when people like AfD Deputy Chairman Alexander Gauland use our players to make themselves the center of attention. That gets on my nerves.
Mesut Özil was criticized because he posted pictures of his pilgrimage to Mecca on social media. Does Islam belong to Germany?
The European tournament is about soccer and religious issues aren’t important. But naturally, with his Turkish roots, Mesut Özil has an influence on the behavior of a lot of Turks in Germany and serves as a role model. That’s why I’m glad we have players whose families were immigrants, who clearly declare themselves to be German, who speak the language and, at the same time, don’t play down their parents’ roots and religion.
The German Football Association is opening its DFB Academy in 2018 in Frankfurt, which will bear your mark. What is the goal?
After winning the World Cup in 1990, we made the mistake of believing everything would continue as successfully as before. Ten years later, we had a rude awakening. The race to catch up cost us a lot. We want to set standards developing top-quality soccer with the academy. The idea is to establish a hallmark of quality in the world, which can also be an important marketing asset.
How will that work?
Up until now, our partners gave us money in return for using our logo. But in the academy, we can work together with them on projects and use our knowledge and networks. For example, we can develop big data projects with (the German software company) SAP to help us analyze our own games and our opponents.
When the tournament opens, you will have been the manager of the German team for 14 years. Is it time for something new?
After every major tournament, I think about whether it is still the right job for me and whether I have something else to say. I enjoy my work very much but I know that it will end. At the moment, I think a lot about the academy. But in general, I always need a change in my life.
That almost sounds like a done deal — that you will leave at the latest in 2018.
I’m incredibly grateful to the German Football Association for everything. When the academy project is finished, I can very well imagine taking on a completely new professional challenge. But right now, I’m dedicating all my energy first to supporting our team in the Euro 2016.
Diana Fröhlich writes for Handelsblatt’s “Reports and Names” section. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org