German Soccer Hero Faces Prison Amid Record Run and Scandal

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BERLIN -- To say Uli Hoeness led a charmed life does not do him justice.

He won soccer's World Cup on his home soil as a player in 1974. The son of a butcher, he grew rich as the co-owner of a bratwurst factory in Nuremberg.

This year, as president of one of Europe's most-storied sports teams, FC Bayern Munich, Mr. Hoeness has overseen a record season on the field and record revenues off it. He even managed to walk away in 1982 from a plane crash that killed the other three on board.

Now, though, the former soccer striker renowned for his speed finds himself embroiled in a scandal that has transfixed a nation and left his reputation for rectitude and generosity in tatters. He faces up to 10 years in prison after turning himself in to Munich prosecutors for keeping a secret bank account in Switzerland that he admits to having used to evade taxes.

On Monday, the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper reported on its Web site that the money in the Swiss bank account had come from a former chief executive of Adidas, Robert Louis-Dreyfus, who provided about $13 million in cash and guarantees to Mr. Hoeness to invest. Though Mr. Hoeness paid Mr. Louis-Dreyfus back, Adidas also was allowed to buy a stake in the athletic team's soccer business.

A record number of viewers tuned into German public television's flagship Sunday talk show, the Günther Jauch show, to hear a panel of tax experts and sports analysts debate Mr. Hoeness's ethical and legal failings. Left-wing politicians condemned him, and friends in conservative circles, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, sought to distance themselves.

"Many people in Germany are now disappointed in Uli Hoeness," Ms. Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said at a news conference Monday. "The chancellor is one of those people." After hammering Cyprus, the tiny Mediterranean island, over money laundering during the debate over bailing it out this spring, the many photos of her next to an admitted tax cheat are especially uncomfortable for Ms. Merkel.

In this election year, tax evasion already had emerged as a significant issue. The left-wing opposition scuttled an accord between the German and Swiss governments that would have offered amnesty to people like Mr. Hoeness in exchange for back taxes. Instead of the chance to anonymously pay what he owes, he has become the poster boy for an economic system believed to be rigged against the little guy.

Mr. Hoeness is hardly the first prominent German caught up in a tax scandal. Boris Becker, the Wimbledon tennis champion, was convicted of tax evasion in 2002 and was sentenced to two years of probation after a court found he was living in Munich while pretending to reside in Monaco, a tax haven. In 2008, the authorities raided the home and office of Klaus Zumwinkel, a former head of Deutsche Post, a mail service, because he used a foundation in Liechtenstein to avoid more than $1 million in taxes. He also received a sentence of probation.

Tax evasion has become more emotional as the gap between rich and poor has widened in recent years. The labor-market reforms that led the German economy to greater competitiveness, with employment and export figures that are the envy of a stagnant Continent, also pared back the social-welfare state and forced many into low-paying jobs.

Rampant speculation over how many millions of dollars Mr. Hoeness, 61, squirreled away south of the border -- neither he nor the prosecutor is saying -- have only fueled interest in Mr. Hoeness's story.

After telling Focus, a magazine, that he had indeed turned himself in, Mr. Hoeness has largely declined to comment. But he threatened in an interview with a local Munich newspaper, Münchner Merkur, to sue news media outlets for irresponsible reporting.

A spokesman for Vontobel, a Swiss bank, where Mr. Hoeness reportedly kept his money, would neither confirm nor deny that he had an account there. Focus reported that investigators had raided his home in Bavaria after he informed the authorities in January about his Swiss account.

"An investigation was initiated," said Ken Heidenreich, a spokesman for the Munich prosecutors, speaking by telephone on Monday. Investigators were looking into the "completeness and validity" of Mr. Hoeness's voluntary declaration.

Mr. Hoeness had to come clean about all of his overseas accounts and all the money in them to avoid criminal prosecution. If an investigation into his finances were already under way before he turned himself in, the voluntary declaration would be moot and he could still face jail time.

Experts say it will be months before the legal and political ramifications are clear, but casual fans have begun asking how much of a distraction the scandal will be for the club. Bayern Munich hosts Spanish powerhouse Barcelona on Tuesday in a semifinal of the European Champions League. Bayern officials banned questions about the investigation at a news conference in Munich on Monday.

In a country where soccer enjoys a standing something like American football and baseball combined, Bayern had gone from favorite to juggernaut this season, winning the German championship a record 23rd time in fewer games than any team since the league was formed. Mr. Hoeness is a central part of the club's storied history, almost like a Joe DiMaggio and a George Steinbrenner rolled into one.

He was born in the city of Ulm on the Bavarian border. As a 10-year-old, he helped out at the cash register in the butcher shop alongside his mother and father. As a youth player he was known for his blinding speed.

He found early success on a Bayern team that won three European club championships and a national team that won the European championship when he was 20 and the world championship just two years later, in front of a home crowd in Munich.

His spectacular playing career ended early after a knee injury, and he retired in 1979. Bayern made him the club's general manager that same year, when he was 27. Three years later, he survived the crash near Hanover of the small Piper aircraft, after which a forester found him wandering in the woods with torn, bloody clothes, mumbling, "I'm freezing."

As general manager of Bayern, Mr. Hoeness presided over significant rises in revenue and membership. Soccer fans instantly recognized his thick jaw, bald head and red-and-white scarf, Bayern's colors, as he sat brooding or leapt in celebration in the stands. He became president of the club in 2009 and chairman of the board in 2010.

Mr. Hoeness was famed for his outspokenness, in particular his criticism of what he said was corruption in the world soccer authority, FIFA. He was also known for standing by players in need, whether they had drug problems or financial difficulties.

"He's always been there for people that have needed him, and that's why it would be a shame if he resigned," said Gerhard Prost, 46, an independent sales agent from Oberhaching and a Bayern fan. But he added it would not be right if Mr. Hoeness received special treatment because of his connections.

Lukas Podolski, a German national team member and former Bayern player, defended Mr. Hoeness on his Facebook page. "I don't think it's right that people are rushing to judgment about a person who has done so much good for others," Mr. Podolski said. "We all make mistakes, me just like the rest of you."

Victor Homola and Chris Cottrell contributed reporting.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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