They are former players putting their inside knowledge of the game to good use, renowned wheeler-dealers whose silver tongues secure the right players for their club, arch-strategists in whom the hopes of the Bundesliga's finest lie: they are the sporting directors.
Men such as Hasan Salihamidzic at Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund's Michael Zorc and Simon Rolfes at Bayer Leverkusen have combined contacts forged during their careers on and off the pitch with finely tuned business acumen and Meisterschale-level negotiating skills to shape the destiny of their respective clubs.
bundesliga.com lifts the veil on the sporting directors masterminding the future of Germany's top-flight clubs.
A sporting what?
Clubs in continental Europe tend to differ from those in England in terms of their structure. German clubs almost exclusively employ a sporting director and a head coach. English teams, on the other hand, usually have a manager that encompasses both roles.
In Germany, it means duties are split: the coach is responsible for leading, training and picking the team, while the sporting director oversees the entire footballing side. In terms of hierarchy within a club, the sporting director sits between the head coach and the chairman. The person in the higher position has the ability to hire and dismiss any of those below him.
Take Bayern, for example: first-team coach Hansi Flick reports to Salihamidzic, who reports to CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. The former Bosnia and Herzegovina international oversees the club's sporting activity as a whole, working in collaboration with president Herbert Hainer and reporting to the owners – the Bayern members.
Who are they?
All have a background in football, but the routes they took to reach their current positions are many and varied.
Some are familiar faces; ex-players putting their contacts accumulated through years in the game to good use, working alongside men with whom they shared dressing rooms or lined up against as opponents. Hertha Berlin's long-time boss Michael Preetz is a former striker for the club, their all-time top scorer and winner of the 1998/99 Torjägerkanone. He's been in the position since 2009 when he succeeded Hoeneß's brother Dieter and was behind the club's return to the top flight in 2011 and consolidation as a challenger for Europe. In 2020, the head of sport appointed another former player, Arne Friedrich, as a specifically named sporting director.
Salihamidzic spent nine seasons with Bayern, winning six Bundesliga crowns and the UEFA Champions League in 2001, while also turning out for Hamburg, Juventus and Wolfsburg. Dortmund's Zorc is the club's record appearance holder, a two-time Bundesliga winner and owns a DFB Cup and Champions League medal, while Augsburg's Stefan Reuter and Borussia Mönchengladbach's Max Eberl also played in the Bundesliga.
Ralf Rangnick was the long-time sporting architect at RB Leipzig, also stepping in as coach when needed. The former Stuttgart, Hannover, Schalke and Hoffenheim boss oversaw the club's rise through the divisions over seven years, but has now handed over the reigns of coach to Julian Nagelsmann and those of sporting director to Markus Krösche.
Most sporting directors have had a playing career of some sort, but there are exceptions. Schalke's Jochen Schneider had a background in banking and business when he began working as assistant to Stuttgart's sporting director Rolf Rüssmann in 1999, before taking over the role himself in 2004. He was with the club as they won the Bundesliga in 2007, working alongside previous Hannover sporting director Horst Heldt and Eintracht Frankfurt chairman Fredi Bobic.
Schneider's latest successor at the Mercedes-Benz Arena, Sven Mislintat, had a brief career as an amateur football but made his name as a scout at Dortmund, forging a reputation as one of football's most talented talent-spotters when building Jürgen Klopp's double-winning team between 2010 and 2012.
What do they do?
Who better to describe the role than Zorc? A Dortmund legend as a player, winner of the Champions League in 1997, the 56-year-old has arguably been even more influential for the club off the pitch, working alongside scouts such as Mislintat to orchestrate the arrival of the likes of Robert Lewandowski, Ousmane Dembele and Jadon Sancho at the Signal Iduna Park.
But as he explains, the sporting director's responsibility runs far deeper than simply convincing players to sign on the dotted line – he must also play strategist, sounding board, and even lunch date to Dortmund's local heroes.
"I'm responsible for the philosophy at the club, from the youth to the first team," outlined the man who brought Klopp to BVB, for what many consider the most successful chapter in Dortmund's history (2008-2015). "I discuss the style of play with the coach, and the youth teams will follow that. But for our fans it has to be daring and attacking."
"The CEO handles the budget you have, but as well as buying, selling and extending players' contracts, I'm also someone they can talk to besides the coach," he added. "I'm always with the team during matches. I attend all training sessions and will often even eat with the players, so they know someone from the club is looking out for them."
Are all Bundesliga clubs the same?
Clubs may give different names to the position, for example Sportdirektor, Direktion Sport, Sportlicher Leiter, Sportvorstand or Director Profifußball, but they generally translate into the role of 'sporting director'. Some hold positions on the club board, some report directly to the board member in charge of sport, but at the end of the day, all oversee the running of the football side of the club.
The Bundesliga's sporting directors
Arminia Bielefeld: Samir Arabi
Augsburg: Stefan Reuter
Bayer Leverkusen: Simon Rolfes
Bayern Munich: Hasan Salihamidzic
Borussia Dortmund: Michael Zorc
Borussia Mönchengladbach: Max Eberl
Cologne: Horst Heldt
Eintracht Frankfurt: Bruno Hübner
Freiburg: Jochen Saier
Hertha Berlin: Arne Friedrich
Hoffenheim: Alexander Rosen
Mainz: Rouven Schröder
RB Leipzig: Markus Krösche
Schalke: Jochen Schneider
Union Berlin: Oliver Ruhnert
VfB Stuttgart: Sven Mislintat
Werder Bremen: Frank Baumann
Wolfsburg: Marcel Schäfer