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, Rudi Völler at Bayer Leverkusen, and Schalke's Christian Heidel 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 18 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 Niko Kovac 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 Uli Hoeneß 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. Thomas Hitzlsperger, who has just taken over from Michael Reschke at VfB Stuttgart, was pulling all the strings in midfield when Die Schwaben won their most recent Bundesliga title in 2006/07. The 36-year-old will now be looking to weave his magic behind the scenes and save his former club from a second relegation in three years.
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. Leverkusen's Völler won the 1990 FIFA World Cup with Germany as a player and then coached the national side in the early 2000s, while Augsburg's Stefan Reuter, Borussia Mönchengladbach's Max Eberl and Hertha Berlin's Michael Preetz all played in the Bundesliga.
Ralf Rangnick currently fulfils a unique role at RB Leipzig, where he is the coach and sporting director. The former Stuttgart, Hannover, Schalke and Hoffenheim boss has had stints in both roles at the Saxony club since 2012, and he will get back to shaping the bigger picture when Julian Nagelsmann takes over as head coach in summer 2019.
Most sporting directors have had a playing career of some sort, but there are exceptions. Schalke's Heidel had a background in banking and business when he became Mainz's sporting director in 1992, going on to revolutionise the club and hand young coaching hopefuls Jürgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel their first big break. After 24 years with the 05ers, Heidel switched to the Royal Blues in 2016, having built an impressive reputation for savoir faire and climbed the ladder to the summit of his art.
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, orchestrating 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, Sportvorstand or Director Profifußball, but they generally translate into the role of 'sporting director', all reporting to a more senior board member and overseeing the running of the football side of the club.
The Bundesliga's sporting directors
Augsburg: Stefan Reuter
Bayer Leverkusen: Rudi Völler
Bayern Munich: Hasan Salihamidzic
Borussia Dortmund: Michael Zorc
Borussia Mönchengladbach: Max Eberl
Eintracht Frankfurt: Bruno Hübner
Fortuna Düsseldorf: Lutz Pfannenstiel
Freiburg: Jochen Saier
Hannover: Horst Heldt
Hertha Berlin: Michael Preetz
Hoffenheim: Alexander Rosen
Mainz: Rouven Schröder
RB Leipzig: Ralf Rangnick
Schalke: Christian Heidel**
Stuttgart: Thomas Hitzlsperger
Werder Bremen: Frank Baumann
Wolfsburg: Marcel Schäfer
* Nuremberg parted ways with head coach Michael Köllner and sporting director Andreas Bornemann on 12 February 2019
** Christian Heidel has announced his intention to stand down as Schalke sporting director by the end of the 2018/19 season