We’re in Munich in the brightly-lit office of the Manuel Neuer Kids Foundation, a charity for disadvantaged children. There’s no razzmatazz or hullabaloo, no bodyguards or fans, just the world’s best goalkeeper and a small dog belonging to his girlfriend. Mr. Neuer seems a bit more nervous than he looks between his goalposts, possibly because for once he is supposed to be talking not about football tactics but about money and the business of sport. He’s urged us not to ask questions about alleged corruption at the German Football Association, the DFB, and in Germany’s successful application to host the 2006 World Cup.
Handelsblatt: Mr. Neuer, the prices for soccer players literally exploded this year. Kevin De Bruyne switched from VfL Wolfsburg to Manchester City for a reported club-record fee of €75 million ($81.7 million) and the Belgian isn’t even a world champion like you. How much are you worth?
Manuel Neuer: That’s naturally hard to say since I don’t set the price.
According to a website that would know, transfermarkt.de, a club would have to pay around €45 million right now.
The question is whether I’m for sale at all. It doesn’t matter how great the demand for the product Manuel Neuer might be – it’s what’s for sale that matters. And for Bayern Munich, as for me, money isn’t the only factor. That’s why there are no reports about my assumed market value at the moment.
“It doesn’t matter how great the demand for the product Manuel Neuer might be - it’s what’s for sale that matters.”
Would you at least know if the club had any plans to sell you, or is the player the last to know things like that?
I’m sure they would inform me. But for the reasons given, nobody is seriously entertaining the idea of making an offer for me right now.
What’s your view of the price war instigated primarily by the British soccer clubs thanks to their gushing pay-TV revenues?
Great Britain is certainly one of the trailblazers, that’s for sure. The sums of money involved are barely comprehensible to normal soccer fans. Even “normal players” are being transferred for around €30 million. That’s why I think the way the German soccer league, the Bundesliga, is handling transfers is healthier. Although transfer fees are also going up here bit by bit, they’re not rising in such gigantic steps. The problem is more about top clubs like Dortmund, Wolfsburg and Bayern Munich having to adapt to the prices being asked to stay competitive internationally and to remain in the game. At some point, they can’t avoid playing along in this game of financial monopoly.
The chief executive of Bayern Munich, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, said that compared to Great Britain, the German Bundesliga is a poorhouse. Are you concerned about the financial climate?
I’m not greatly worried about my own economic existence. I can live well with what the Bundesliga pays most of its players.
As a player, does it sometimes feel like slave trading?
I wouldn’t call it that because I can always say “no.” Victims of human trafficking sadly can do seldom that.
Would you move anywhere if the price were right?
I’ve never chased money. And I’d certainly take a very close look at a transfer.
That’s what we assume.
You know, in the end, it isn’t just the pay slip that counts. I have to feel comfortable. I have to be able to identify with the club, with the other teammates and, if need be, with the league. Naturally, the idea of going for a few years to another country, to learn the language and get to know the culture is appealing. But for one thing, I’m perhaps a little too German and, for another, I can still do all that after my career. The Bundesliga has developed so well in the past couple of years that there is currently no reason for me to go abroad.
What’s so great here?
The training, the infrastructure, the fan base. Look at up-and-coming teams like Darmstadt 98 and FC Ingolstadt. Every one of their games are sold out. You hardly see that with comparable clubs in the Italian or Spanish leagues.
There is still the romantic notion of a young kid kicking a ball round in a back yard who can someday become a world champ like you. Is it absurd to think so?
I’m a kid from the Ruhr district and certainly know a back yard or two.
But you joined a professional club, Schalke 04, when you just four years old. That sounds like a meticulously planned career.
It wasn’t, especially considering that I could only plan to a certain extent. There’s a lot of filtering out in the youth years. It isn’t always easy to make it to the next level.
What drove you on?
I constantly set myself small goals. I always wanted to be the number one in each team so I could continue to play with Schalke the next year. It wasn’t clear to me for a long time that someday I could become a pro. I simply wanted to make the best of my abilities.
You couldn’t have been so determined at a kindergarten age.
Naturally, at that age, parents tend to keep an eye on what’s fun for their children. At any rate, I wasn’t interested in playing Lego or Playmobil with friends. I always wanted to have a ball. And if you’re from Gelsenkirchen, you can’t avoid Schalke.
So your parents took you there?
At the beginning, the idea of taking their son to this club was totally utopian for them. I pressured them a bit. The coach put me in the goal although I actually wanted to become a field player – that’s how it began. My parents only wanted me to have fun. And only with this type of fun could I develop the ambition I needed.
You are considered to be a strategist who can direct the team from behind. Are you the same with your own career?
So many little steps and coincidences are involved. At some point, for example, I had to convince my parents that I wanted to switch to the boarding school Berger Feld, which cooperates with Schalke. For me, that was an opportunity to further develop athletically. And I did, winning a spot on the German national youth football team. But sometimes it took a little longer. For a long time, for instance, I had the talent but the other boys were a head taller than I was.
But today you’re . . .
… 1.93 meter (6 foot three inches). Actually, I developed normally, but for a while the other guys in the goal were simply taller.
When you announced your move from Schalke to Bayern Munich in April of 2011, you had tears in your eyes. Why?
I actually wanted to stay composed. Even my Schalke teammates told me I shouldn’t get sentimental. But I’m just a human being and can’t always control my emotions. Then it became a hard time for me.
Because of the angry Schalke fans?
It was a new experience for me. At the time, Schalke was just about to be relegated, even though we had made it to the semi-finals in the Champions League and won the DFB Cup. Then there was a change of coaches, as well. Felix Magath went, Ralf Rangnick came. None of that was easy.
How long did it take for you to get comfortable with Bayern Munich?
I was 22 the first time I was on the national team and got to know the Bayern Munich players. They were all very nice and sensible. If I were able to look 10 years into the future, I could estimate how many titles Bayern Munich would win and how many Schalke. I play not only for the club, but also for the success.
Was the transfer to Munich really a sports decision or a financial one?
Definitely a sports one. At the time, I would have earned more with Schalke. But that wasn’t all that mattered: It was about opportunity.
The transfer alone cost Bayern €25 million. How do you feel about fans moaning in bars about you earning more than €7 million a year for standing in a goal?
I’m seldom in such bars and can’t really comment on that. But soccer happens to be a sport nearly every boy tries out in his youth. So everyone can talk about it. That’s okay with me, even if I try to avoid talking about jobs I don’t understand all that much.
As a top athlete, how much are you controlled by others?
Time off is limited. I wasn’t able to attend my grandfather’s 90th birthday. I had to tell him that ahead of time. I went a few days later and spent the evening with him.
What does your appointment calendar look like?
It’s pretty much booked solid. We’re professional athletes. The coach expects us to live soccer 24 hours a day. It comes first and foremost. Along with the sports committments, the club arranges appointments with sponsors and with the media. Added to that are the national team, the work for my children’s foundation and my own sponsors and more.
How much private life remains when cell phones with cameras are lurking everywhere?
We are pros and know what we do. The players are certainly more disciplined than in earlier decades.
Are you jealous when you hear of the escapades of earlier generations of soccer players?
I’ve heard those stories, too. At any rate, it would be a lot more difficult today for this generation to live that way.
Because today’s players, like you, also always have to take care of business? How many people are running Manuel Neuer Inc.?
Six people. My career management agency PRO profil has assigned specialists to help me with communications and marketing. These days, unfortunately, various legal issues also have to be covered. There’s also the business manager of my foundation.
Whose job is to promote youth. With how much money?
The foundation must distribute its donations every year. That’s around €400,000. Between 40 and 80 children meet daily in a building next to my old primary school in Gelsenkirchen, where they have help with their homework and where there are also DJ workshops.
Would you agree that a global soccer star like yourself today must be two things: an employee of his club and an independent businessman?
Perhaps not at the regional league level, but certainly at a certain higher level. Not every pro soccer player is in demand as an advertising figure.
How do you manage this balancing act? Where does the businessman Neuer have to step back and take second place to the employee Neuer?
There can be conflict of interests, but, thank heavens, I’ve been spared that. There should be no competition in personal marketing with the club’s top partners. And that also hasn’t been the case with me.
Bayern Munich is a club that Adidas not only equips but also partly owns. Wearing Nike shoes isn’t really an option, is it?
This has become more relaxed in recent years. Every player has his own shoe contract. There are no rules even in the national team. Mario Götze wore U.S. shoes when he shot the national team to victory (in the 2014 World Cup) and later auctioned off the shoes for a worthy cause – for €2 million. What more can you ask?
We assume you wouldn’t let it come to a conflict with sponsors.
The matter just doesn’t come up for me. If the club is being outfitted by Audi, the thought would never occur to me that I absolutely have to drive a Mercedes. Ultimately, I’m just an employee who wants to have a good relationship with his employer.
If everything is so open, why would Adidas allegedly pay up to €1 billion for a 10-year contact with the German national team?
You’ll have to ask Adidas whether it’s worth it. As an essentially-German sports brand, it fits perfectly to the national team. For us, as players, it’s good to have people we can contact here in Herzogenaurach instead of somewhere in the United States.
Two clubs in barely 25 years really aren’t that many.
And my current contract runs until 2019.
Up until then the number of your fans is likely to continue to grow. On Facebook, you already have 8.5 million followers, on Twitter 3.3 million, and 1.7 million on Instagram. You are even present on two social media platforms in China. Are you still involved personally in all of that?
Ultimately, I’m responsible for what gets posted. So I do look at it. But we have specialists for that as well.
The fact that you appeal to so many fans is certainly part of your advertising contracts.
Of course, my business partners are interested in this target group. After all, you can reach very many Neuer soccer fans without much wasted advertising coverage.
You were recently chided for aggressively presenting your advertising partner in an interview in the German soccer magazine Kicker.
Why shouldn’t I do that if I’m asked? Why hide the names? There is nothing worse than treating sponsors indecisively.
If, for example, you wanted to grow a beard, would you first discuss it with your sponsors or management?
Nonsense. I’m not that controlled by others. If I don’t feel comfortable, people know it immediately.
And when you split up with a girlfriend as you did last year, do you keep a low profile for a couple of months?
Someone like me doesn’t really have anywhere to hide. The only freedom I have is whether or not I want to talk about it. And I try to protect my private life as much as I can. Incidentally, not only mine, but also that of my family and inner circle of friends. Unfortunately, I have sometimes needed legal help because it seems public personalities are no longer allowed a private life.
Not even an affair with an underage prostitute could harm your fellow teammate Franck Ribéry. Are the bad boy soccer players allowed to get away with more than you?
For the fans, Franck is above all a soccer player, not necessarily a brand ambassador. I’m simply who I am. But there may be sponsors who are louder and more aggressive in their campaigns. Another type of person would fit them better.
You’re seen as honest, down-to-earth and reliable.
But I also take risks occasionally. If you remember the Algerian game during the World Cup, I was a pretty active goalkeeper.
Germany beat Brazil in the World Cup 7-1. It was a celebration of strikers, not of the goalkeeper.
I still consider that game to be one of my best during the World Cup, because I did have some play action at my end.
What was the most important game of the World Cup for you personally?
The final against Argentina.
In a normal Bundesliga game with Bayern Munich, you only have deal on average with about three shots at the goal. Don’t you get bored?
What you perhaps don’t see is that I run down four, five balls that otherwise could result in shots at the goal. As goalkeeper, you’re always in the game. I adapt to the team.
Mehmet Scholl warned about so-called “laptop coaches.” Whom did he mean by that?
Those coaches who work a lot with video analysis and flip charts. But that makes a lot of sense and is a huge aide for us.
Do you train with the laptop?
We analyze the opposing players in detail, looking at free kicks, standard situations, the strengths and the weaknesses of individual strikers. I don’t necessarily have to worry about every central defender, but I do have to know the offensive players. But in the end, intuition is crucial.
Do you immediately blank out conceded goals?
Yes, emotions tend to come after the game. At the same time, there is certainly nothing I can change or undo.
Goalkeeper Robert Enke from Hannover 96 took his life in 2009. What was your reaction to that? What pressure do you feel yourself?
At the time, I was still pretty new to the national team and trained closely with him. His death was a shock to all of us. The pressure on the goalkeeper is unique. Each one has to know how to deal with it.
When will you start to prepare for life after soccer?
That started already a few years ago. In all that I do, I learn more, experiment and look to see what else could suit me.