Opinion piece: Promotion of Hasan Salihamidžić chance, not risk

Justin Separator November 14, 2019

I recently wrote in an article for the “Focus” that I do not consider Hasan Salihamidžić to be a strategist. “He’s not someone who can strategically steer the club into the future.” In this opinion piece, I would like to revisit this proposition and discuss it critically. Actually, my statement is so clear and unambiguous that it hardly allows for discussion. But just as there are many arguments for my position, there are also numerous against – which I chose not to reflect in my wording. That is why I take a second look at the issue.

Since 2017 Hasan Salihamidžić has been the sporting director at FC Bayern. He was in an unfortunate position from the beginning. It was not his fault, but after people like Max Eberl and Oliver Kahn were discussed and even Philipp Lahm, who was equally inexperienced as him, appeared to be more popular with most Bayern fans, Salihamidžić seemed like a second or third choice appointment.

Salihamidžić’s appointment strikingly prefigured a very similar process later with Niko Kovač: The two bosses did not seem to agree and finally the alternatives ran out. Whether or not that was actually the case with Salihamidžić we may never know. However, to this day the Bosnian has not really got rid of his last resort label in public. Yet, two years later he is promoted. What has he done to earn it?

Diligence, ambition, learning ability

As already described in my article quoted at the top, Salihamidžić is a hard worker. He is someone who works from early morning to late at night at his office on Säbener Strasse for a successful Bayern future. This has even left an impression on many journalists. One of them is Martin Volkmar, who in his article praises Salihamidžić’s work in many areas and quotes an insider as saying that his promotion was no more than the logical result of his commitment and tireless efforts on behalf of the club.

Many sources close to the club point again and again to his diligence. Salihamidžić enjoys a good reputation with a number of youth player agents. Many of the people who have to deal with him on a daily basis have only good things to say about him. Besides his diligence and his industry, he is generally considered a nice guy. 

Hasan Salihamidžić – the “good guy” of Säbener Straße. That sounds like a cliché circulated by the club itself to strengthen his position. But it is true. Not only Uli Hoeneß and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge frequently point this out, but also many people from the club’s surroundings, who are above suspicion of speaking pro domo.

What speaks in his favor

Moreover, Salihamidžić has proved that he has the ability to learn. We have mentioned his mistakes often enough. Some of the most memorable examples are the blinding doggedness in the transfer negotiations with Callum Hudson-Odoi, the neverending yet seemingly aimless negotiations with Miroslav Klose in the summer and the saga of the Leroy Sané transfer, in which the sports director did not always cut the most convincing figure.

But in recent weeks and months, the 42-year-old seemed to be making progress. He can hardly be reproached for not being rhetorically on par with someone like Matthias Sammer, for example. Rather, one should measure him by his actions. And on this front, he seems to be improving.

In the debate about the recent change in coach especially he proved that he had a sense for what FC Bayern wants to represent in sports. Bayern needed to find back to its former game of dominance in possession, he could be heard as saying. This might seem like a marginality, but if you take a closer look at Salihamidžić’s interviews over the last weeks, you will develop mixed feelings as to whether he has really been making progress lately. With the exception of the ironic interview in Bochum, Salihamidžić nevertheless seemed to become more self-confident, even though his presentation to the outside world still cannot satisfy the requirements of a club like Bayern.

Sensible decisions as a collective

Failing in the representation department, Salihamidžić’s work behind closed doors for the club needs to be all the better. From people at the club it can be heard again and again that Salihamidžić was a great supporter of Thomas Tuchel after the release of Carlo Ancelotti in 2017. Thus he did not side with his supposed mentor Uli Hoeneß, but with Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, who is often suggested to be the more calculating and strategically thinking person of the two. Two conclusions can be drawn from this: Firstly, Salihamidžić is not a mere Hoeneß “yes-man”, and secondly, in Tuchel, he favored a coach who fits in with Bayern’s footballing ideas. Allegedly, he is also one of the proponents of Erik ten Hag.

The fact that the sporting director has at least a rough plan for the future is also evident from his transfers. There has not been an outright failure among his signings yet. And even if he was accused last summer of not having a real plan B after the Sané transfer fell finally through, he managed to come up with the quite smart loans of Philippe Coutinho and Ivan Perišić in no time at all. This keeps all options open for the coming transfer periods. Sané, Havertz, Nübel – three names that are recurringly associated with FC Bayern most probably not least because Salihamidžić’s efforts in this regard. So all in all, he seems to be hunting in the proper territory for the record champions.

Nevertheless, there is a valid question as to how large his share in all these processes really was. Working under Uli Hoeneß and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge is not that easy. To work under them AND to make one’s own mark is all the more difficult. So perhaps the debate should not be about whether Salihamidžić is not his own man enough, but rather about whether the bosses have left him enough latitude to show that.

The slow and instructive ascent

But maybe everything that has happened has happened just right. For two years now, Salihamidžić was able to take on more and more responsibility and make mistakes that were sometimes more serious, sometimes less so, but ultimately helped him to get ahead. With his promotion to vice president for sport and a place on Bayern’s board, he now has the formal responsibility to match his supposed progress.

This responsibility will be accompanied by the expectation that he can now step out of the shadow of his betters and sharpen his own profile. Hoeneß formally takes a step back and Salihamidžić moves more into the foreground. That would be a textbook career. However, his promotion is certainly associated with the expectation that he will considerably reduce the rate of his mistakes, especially with respect to his statements in public.

The recognition that the Bosnian receives through his promotion is not – as has been written many times – a final wish in Uli Hoeneß’ last will and testament as outgoing president. It is the result of an overall satisfaction with his work. And yet the discrepancy between his internal assessment and the public perception remains enormous.

Where is the transparency?

This is mainly due to the fact that the club does not show enough transparency here. There is talk of good work in various areas, but it is too seldom clearly stated what Salihamidžić has actually accomplished. The transfers are an obvious achievement. But one could argue here that two of his big transfers had an exit clause (Pavard, Hernández) and two big names, Leroy Sané and Kai Havertz, are on the to-do list but have not yet been signed. With Alexander Nübel, on the other hand, almost everything seems to be clear. Yet many things that can be said in Salihamidžić’s favor are still hanging in the balance. A clear evaluation of his work seems not to be possible until next summer.

The more or less spontaneous makeshift signings of Perišić and Coutinho were good, but how big was the involvement of Salihamidžić in them? Especially the expensive transfers in Munich are always a work of many and never that of one person alone. Moreover, according to numerous media reports, the sports director rarely played the most important role. He was increasingly left out of the Sané negotiations towards the end. Add to that the constant public updates on Bayern’s muddled transfer efforts, for which Salihamidžić is largely to blame, damaged the club.

The situation is similar in other areas. What has Salihamidžić done in Bayern’s youth football department, for example? Bayern has some coaches in their employ who do not correspond to the philosophy that the club and recently also Oliver Kahn have presented.

Additional outside expertise? 

The even more obvious shortcoming is that although many youth players got a professional contract under Salihamidžić, they have hardly got any minutes in the first team. Of course, this issue has to be considered more broadly. After all, the question of the depth of talent among the youth players and the first team’s coach’s ideas come into play here as well. As the person responsible for both first team and youth football, however, Salihamidžić must face up to this criticism as well.

Perhaps Salihamidžić also has to shoulder too much responsibility in too many areas himself. With his ascent to the board, there would now be the possibility to recruit someone from the outside to his side to support him. Matthias Sammer, for example, benefited from the appointment of Michael Reschke as squad planner. Currently, Salihamidžić carries out the broad range of tasks belonging to his position all by himself. With an assistant by his side, he could specialize more.

No doubt Oliver Kahn will bring a certain external perspective to the club because of his long time away and the professional experience he has got in other areas since he left in 2008. This notwithstanding, the idea of having two people with joint responsibility in charge of the club’s sporting matters could be an attractive proposition. Salihamidžić stated that he would not work under another sporting executive superior to him. However, he did not rule out the possibility that a sporting director might work under him.

Salihamidžić’s promotion as a big chance for all

Without the necessary transparency, Bayern will hardly be able to complain about the fact that the work of Salihamidžić is wrongly evaluated in public as far as they are concerned. It may be that he has initiated and accomplished much more at the club than many people are aware of. But too little of it is clearly visible.

My contention that Salihamidžić is unable to strategically steer the club into the future, however, disregards the progress that he has undoubtedly made. It also ignores the natural development process of an inexperienced sporting director. And that of every human being. After all, I am writing this comment not least because I think I too made a mistake from which I think I have learned. So the question about Salihamidžić should focus not so much on the mistakes he has made so far, but on his potential for development in the future.

So let us have a look at his career at Bayern: He learned his ropes in the shadow, and under the tutelage, of the two bosses Uli Hoeneß and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. He was then successively given increasing responsibility as regards squad planning and public relations work, and accordingly had a greater influence on the decisions made in these areas. Nevertheless, he always remained limited by the power of the two bosses. He could put his ideas to them, discuss with them, mediate between them – but the last word always remained with Hoeneß and Rummenigge. Mostly, it was Hoeneß who had the last word, even if Salihamidžić and Rummenigge agreed. But now the soon to be board member Salihamidžić is about to take the next step forward while Uli Hoeneß will take at least one step back.

No matter how small or large this step may ultimately turn out to be, the time has come for Salihamidžić to prove himself. For the time being, many doubts about him remain. But with his increasing responsibility, he has the chance to dispel these doubts and leave his own mark as vice president for sport. This promotion poses no risk at all for the club. Rather it is the big chance that Salihamidžić can finally present his plan for which he is always praised internally to the public. Perhaps it simply required for one of the two alpha males above him to take their leave for him to step out of their shadow and begin to shine himself. In any case, he will now be able to show whether his learning ability is sufficient to meet the demands of his new position.

At this point I recant my initial claim and reformulate it: I am not sure whether Salihamidžić is the one who can strategically steer the club into the future. But I believe that he can form a very good team with Rummenigge, Kahn and perhaps one more person from the outside for additional support. And I believe that this team will be able to present a better picture with respect to the decision-making processes than with Uli Hoeneß as the most powerful man.

»Eier, wir brauchen Eier!«

— Oliver Kahn

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