Reinhard Grindel gave up his seat in Germany’s lower house of parliament earlier this year after he became president of the nation’s governing body for soccer, the German Football Association (DFB).
Now the former soccer outsider wants to revolutionize the DFB. The group runs Germany’s top-tier professional soccer league, the Bundesliga, and in recent months has been plagued by a corruption-related scandal.
Earlier this summer, Mr. Grindel was busy in France as Germany’s world champion men’s soccer team competed in the Euro 2016 tournament, also known as the European Championship.
On July 7, Germany was playing against the host country in the tournament semifinals. The 54-year-old was staying with his fellow German functionaries in a four-star hotel in Marseille, a city with a population of 800,000. The harbor was filled to the last berth with yachts. Mr. Grindel looked out at the water and breathed in the warm, salty smell.
“I have made mistakes in my active time as a politician. I haven’t always communicated enough.”
German fans would be filling the bistros next to the water by the thousands in the next couple of hours. At the moment, all he could hear were the cries of seagulls and a song by French singer Serge Gainsbourg echoing out of a café. Mr. Grindel smiled, his eyes narrowing with a twinkle.
He said he had a good feeling about the semifinal because Joachim Löw, the German team coach, was the best fit for this team. Unfortunately, the performance of the team and coach weren’t good enough that evening, and the Germans were eliminated as France won 2-0.
The unpredictable game on grass is a somewhat different type of territory for Mr. Grindel. The DFB president is a member of the second-league Rotenburger SV soccer club in the state of Lower Saxony, and he was first vice president of the Lower Saxony Football Association for three years.
The politician was also the treasurer of DFB, and he was responsible for taxes, dues and sustainability. Mr. Grindel was treasurer when the controversy erupted in 2015 over a €6.7 million ($7.3 million) payment by the DFB to soccer’s world governing body, FIFA, in 2005. The payment was linked to a deal to buy votes that reportedly helped Germany win the hosting rights to the 2006 World Cup.
At Euro 2016, Mr. Grindel didn’t like to leave things to chance and had accordingly planned his schedule for the coming days. On the Saturday prior to the tournament finals he made an appearance at an association conference with the theme “We Embrace Diversity” and another with the working title “Football Unites People.”
He has already thought through how he would bring the conflicting poles of his presidency together. On Saturday, a visit to the grass roots, since that’s “what makes my job so attractive. Talking with the different people in football,” he said. On Sunday, he would go with the German national team to the France-Portugal final. Perhaps Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, would come as well.
“If so, then only to the final game, because of Brexit and the things she has to do related it. The people would probably hardly understand anything other than that,” Mr. Grindel said.
The DFB staff missed the final, France lost 1-0 to Portugal, Ms. Merkel stayed home and Mr. Löw could now think about his future. But Mr. Grindel seized the opportunity to represent Germany in Saint-Denis stadium and consol the French.
“It’s a shame, after the terror attacks, and given the many domestic problems, we would have said the hosts deserved the title. The DFB says merci for the people’s wonderful friendship and the work of the security services,” he said.
Mr. Grindel is a lawyer and former journalist, and both activities marked stages in his life.
But the longest activity for the Hamburg native was as a politician, a pursuit that began in 1977 when he was a teenager. As a youth, he joined the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), now the ruling party, and never left it. From 2002 to 2016, he was a member of Germany’s lower house of parliament, the Bundestag.
To what degree he has internalized politics can be sensed in the way he reacts. Turn on a camera light and he begins to formulate simple things in momentous terms – and grin, which has earned him the nickname “Grinsel” among the members of the national team. Those are outward appearances. More interesting is how much his time as a politician molded him and how he wants to use it to revolutionize the association. He isn’t planning anything less when he speaks of a “new DFB.”
“I, too, have made mistakes in my active time as a politician,” he said during the soccer tournament. “I haven’t always communicated enough, given enough thought to the fact that you have to win over many people to reach a decision.”
Mr. Grindel isn’t a politician anymore, at least not an active one, since he resigned from office on June 3.
“Perhaps, despite the double burden, I could have gotten a few things moving forward for my constituency, thanks to my experience as a member of parliament,” he said at the start of the German team’s Euros training camp in Evian in southeast France. “But they just don’t know what it’s like to sit here in beautiful Evian while a voting week is in progress in Berlin. In the end, they would say, he is pocketing fat parliamentary allowances but is never there. That is very vulnerable for slander.”
The fear of making himself vulnerable to attack determines his actions. When the 2006 World Cup affair became public, the question arose about why he didn’t turn himself in. In Evian, he said he thought about it and spoke with tax experts. They came to the conclusion it wasn’t necessary to notify the authorities, Mr. Grindel said.
He says that as a member of parliament, he had more latitude in what he said than he has in his post as DFB president. At a dinner in Paris of the Union of European Football Associations, he sensed how seriously he was being taken as DFB president. He says he deliberately restrained himself, however.
“Everybody in FIFA and UEFA knows we are big, but you don’t have to act that way,” he said.
At the event in Paris, he was witness to how Michel Platini, the UEFA president who was banned for eight years following an ethics investigation, was praised in the highest terms by the president of French soccer.
“There certainly are some pretty different points of view in international football about what you can allow yourself,” Mr. Grindel said.
Half of the room applauded when Mr. Platini was thanked for hosting the Euro 2016 championship.
“If you don’t clap now,” Mr. Grindel said he told himself at that moment, “what effect is that likely to have on the upcoming talks over the awarding of the 2024 championship that we would like so much to bring to Germany?”
He said he didn’t applaud. Just because you were a good soccer player doesn’t mean you will be a good UEFA president, and that certainly isn’t a free pass to enrich yourself, Mr. Grindel said.
He hopes to be a good DFB president without having played in the Bundesliga.
The “old-school thinking” in the soccer profession, both on an international level and in the DFB, seems to annoy him. Did he feel bad for his predecessor as president, Wolfgang Niersbach, who was tripped up by the World Cup affair? Mr. Grindel says he was sorry Mr. Niersbach had been advised to keep quiet in June 2015 as the first evidence was uncovered. If Mr. Niersbach had spoken to the executive committee, it would have been a different story, Mr. Grindel says.
Prior to Germany’s quarterfinal against Italy at Euro 2016, the extension of the DFB’s contract with sponsor Adidas had been signed. The association reportedly will be taking in €50 million annually – twice as much as previously. On the other hand, the length of the contract was halved and the matching-offer right deleted.
Until now, the DFB was required to disclose third-party offers to Adidas, such as those from Nike. If Adidas was willing to meet the same conditions, the company would be given the contract without bidders like Nike being able to make counteroffers.
“If we had gotten significantly less, everybody would have said these new greenhorns in the DFB leadership can’t even negotiate properly. The next time we’ll be able to get a bidding war going,” Mr. Grindel said.
He now wants to work through the previous old-boy networks bit by bit. First of all, he plans to review the partnership with Mercedes and the sports marketing company, Infront. Deliberations might occur about whether the DFB itself can handle the services that Infront provides. Mr. Grindel didn’t want to go into detail.
Will the politician-turned-DFB-leader be able to survive over the long haul in this soccer world shaped by deals and emotions? For better or worse, there has never been anyone like him in this position.
This article first appeared in the newspaper Die Zeit. To contact the author: Cathrin.Gilbert@zeit.de