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 (to be succeeded by Sebastian Kehl in 2022) 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, identifying transfer targets, hiring and firing, and future squad planning. In terms of hierarchy within a club, the sporting director sits between the head coach and the chairman.
Take Bayern, for example: first-team coach Julian Nagelsmann reports to Salihamidzic, who reports to the board, headed by CEO Oliver Kahn. 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. 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, who is managing director for sport there. He works together with managing director Fernando Carro.
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, who will make way for Kehl in 2022, is the club's record appearance holder, a two-time Bundesliga winner and owns a DFB Cup and Champions League medal, while his successor Kehl wore the Black and Yellow colours 362 times, lifting three Bundesliga titles. Elsewhere, 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, 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 Bobic, and later worked at Leipzig and Schalke.
Schneider's latest successor 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.
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 58-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 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 a board member in charge of sport - some clubs will have two levels of similar position, such as sporting director and managing director for 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
Bochum: Sebastian Schindzielorz
Borussia Dortmund: Michael Zorc
Borussia Mönchengladbach: Max Eberl
Cologne: Dr. Jörg Jakobs
Eintracht Frankfurt: Markus Krösche
Freiburg: Jochen Saier
Greuther Fürth: Rachid Azzouzi
Hertha Berlin: Arne Friedrich
Hoffenheim: Alexander Rosen
Mainz: Martin Schmidt
RB Leipzig: Vacant (role fulfilled by commercial director Florian Scholz and technical director Christopher Vivell)
Union Berlin: Oliver Ruhnert
VfB Stuttgart: Sven Mislintat
Wolfsburg: Marcel Schäfer