Simon Rolfes and Christoph Freund are currently pulling the strings behind the scenes at Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich respectively. - © IMAGO/Revierfoto
Simon Rolfes and Christoph Freund are currently pulling the strings behind the scenes at Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich respectively. - © IMAGO/Revierfoto

What is a sporting director? All you need to know about the men who shape the destiny of Bundesliga clubs


They are often 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 Christoph Freund at Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund's Sebastian Kehl 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. lifts the veil on the sporting directors masterminding the future of Germany's top-flight clubs.

Christoph Freund (r.) has been the man in charge of transfers at Bayern Munich since September 2023. - IMAGO/FC BAYERN MUENCHEN

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 (or at least traditionally) 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, identifying transfer targets, hiring and firing, and future squad planning.

There have been occasions of one person taking on a classic British managerial role, though, like Armin Veh and Felix Magath at Wolfsburg, who were both coach and sporting director in one.

In terms of hierarchy within a club, though, the sporting director sits between the head coach and the chairman/president.

Take Dortmund, for example: first-team coach Edin Terzić reports to sporting director Kehl, who in turn reports to the board headed by Hans-Joachim Watzke, who is CEO of the football company Borussia Dortmund GmbH & Co. KGaA. Going further up the chain, there is club (Ballspielverein Borussia 09 e. V. Dortmund) president Reinhold Lunow.

Ultimately, though, it's Kehl who is responsible for the sporting (i.e. on-field) aspects at the club. He and other sporting directors will often be seen on the touchline and in the dugout alongside the coach and the squad.

Sporting director Sebastian Kehl and head coach Edin Terzić (l-r.) work closely at Borussia Dortmund. - IMAGO/Ulrich Wagner

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. Rolfes spent a decade as a player at Leverkusen before returning to the club in 2018 in a role overseeing the academy. By the end of the year, he'd been promoted to sporting director in a position alongside another legend of the game, Rudi Völler. He later succeeded Völler in the role of managing director for sport - a position at board level. He works together with managing director Fernando Carro.

Bayern's Freund played professionally in his native Austria before working his way up at Red Bull Salzburg. Kehl captained Dortmund to back-to-back Bundesliga crowns in 2011 and 2012. Mainz's Martin Schmidt was previously a coach at the club for seven years. At Freiburg, Klemens Hartenbach used to play for the club and spent a decade as head scout before becoming sporting director in 2013.

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, before he handed over the reins of sporting director to Markus Krösche.

Most sporting directors have had a playing career of some sort, but there are exceptions. 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 Cologne sporting director Horst Heldt and Fredi Bobic, and later worked at Leipzig and Schalke.

One of Schneider's successors at the Mercedes-Benz Arena, Sven Mislintat, had a brief career in 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.

Former Schalke sporting director Christian Heidel (c.) gave Jürgen Klopp (r.) and Thomas Tuchel (l.) their first taste of senior management during his long stint with Mainz. - imago/Jan Huebner

What do they do?

Who better to describe the role than Michael Zorc? A Dortmund legend as a player, having won the Champions League in 1997 and still being BVB's record appearance holder, he was arguably even more influential for the club off the pitch, working for over two decades alongside scouts such as Mislintat to orchestrate the arrival of the likes of Robert Lewandowski, Ousmane Dembele and Jadon Sancho at Signal Iduna Park.

But as he explained, 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."

Borussia Dortmund stars like Jadon Sancho (l.) know they have a friendly ear in sporting director Michael Zorc (r.), who joined the club as a teenager in the 1970s. - imago/DeFodi

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 a board member in charge of sport.

Some confusion can arise when a club uses both a Sportdirektor and a Sportvorstand. One notable example there now is Bayern. They appointed Freund as sporting director in September 2023, before making Max Eberl - the long-time sporting director at Borussia Mönchengladbach and architect of one of their best eras since the 1970s - the new Sportvorstand from March 2024. In Munich they refer to Eberl's position as 'board member for sport', or managing director for sport. He is the member of the three-man executive board that oversees the sporting aspects of the club, as opposed to finances or other matters.

Eberl's role involves working alongside sporting director Freund in planning the squad, making transfers, contract extensions or appointing the coach. It's a change from the previous setup involving Hasan Salihamidžić, who was at first sporting director and then promoted to board member for sport.

The dual format of having a sporting director and board member for sport has become much more common in German football. 

The Bundesliga's sporting directors

Augsburg: Marinko Jurendic (sporting director)
Bayer Leverkusen: Simon Rolfes (managing director) 
Bayern Munich: Christoph Freund (sporting director)/ Max Eberl (managing director) 
Bochum: Marc Lettau (sporting director)/ Patrick Fabian (managing director)
Borussia Dortmund: Sebastian Kehl (sporting director)
Borussia Mönchengladbach: Nils Schmadtke (sporting director)/ Roland Virkus (managing director)
Cologne: Christian Keller (managing director) 
Eintracht Frankfurt: Timmo Hardung (sporting director)/ Markus Krösche (managing director)
Freiburg: Klemens Hartenbach (sporting director)/ Jochen Saier (managing director)
Heidenheim: Robert Strauß (director of football)
Hoffenheim: Alexander Rosen (managing director) 
Mainz: Martin Schmidt (sporting director)/ Christian Heidel (managing director) 
RB Leipzig: Rouven Schröder (sporting director)
Union Berlin: Oliver Ruhnert (managing director)
VfB Stuttgart: Fabian Wohlgemuth (sporting director)
Werder Bremen: Frank Baumann (managing director)
Wolfsburg: Sebastian Schindzielorz (sporting Director)/ Marcel Schäfer (managing director)