Interview with Raphael Honigstein

Raphael Honigstein is a German journalist and author who works as an English football correspondent for German media as well as his more prominent role as a German football correspondent for English media (you may remember him from his work at the Guardian, Sky or Setanta).

He’s also written a book on English football (titled ‘Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger’ – makes you wonder, doesn’t it?) which is due for publication in English by Random House in 2009 (link).

Recently he’s also been contributing to Footbo (we featured their Roundtable season preview of the 08/09 Spanish Primera here).

We caught up with Raphael Honigstein to ask him a few questions about football club ownership in Germany, prevalent footballing tactics, the future of the Premier League and more.

SoccerLens: In the Bundesliga, 51 cent of clubs must be owned by members. When do you expect the ownership regulation to be canceled?

Raphael Honigstein: It will be canceled when Hoffenheim establish themselves as a major club, maybe in five years or even less. Other clubs will want to compete and will force through the rule change to attract investors.

SL: Are you for it?

RH: I’m a little torn on this particular issue. There’s much to be said for the democratic club structure. It safe-guards accountability and transparency and it also makes sure that money doesn’t leave the club in the form of dividends to share-holders even if the clubs are officially plcs like Bayern or Dortmund. Ideally I’d like the Bundesliga to grow organically and from within, the way Bayern, Schalke, Bremen and Hamburg have been able to do.

SL: What do you think the possible consequences will be?

RH: Professional football is ultimately about attracting money in order to attract players and if, say, Adidas were to up their stake in Bayern from 10% to 60%, with a cash investment of 1 billion Euros, I don’t think too many Bayern fans would mind. The “fit & proper” test will have to be quite stringent, though.

SL: The Magath-experiment – the adoption of new club models in Bundesliga is the necessary way of development or is it just Wolfsburg-extravagance?

RH: I’m not sure it’s either necessary or extravagant. Wolfsburg didn’t have good enough technical directors and manager’s in the past to fulfill the owners’ ambitions. Entrusting the whole operative business to one singular man smacks a little bit of desperation, and also impatience. It’s a calculated risk, though, because Magath has already shown at Stuttgart that he knows how to handle these responsibilities. I don’t think it’s the way forward, however, because it’s still, on balance, advantageous to separate powers. The Bundesliga/continental system of coach plus technical director basically works quite well. Crucially, it avoids “conflict of interest”-type George Graham situations that we regularly see in England. There might be in-fighting or politics but ultimately, the club is still quite stable because not everything hinges on man. And don’t forget that it’s hugely expensive to start again from zero, with new players and staff, once your Magath-type dictator is getting fired.

SL: Today’s most fashionable way of playing is considered to be 4-2-3-1. Regarding the evolution of playing systems, what is your assumption for the near future? If we accept that most thing is cyclical in history, can we ever watch 3-4 forwards again?

RH: The one-striker system turns football’s first ever tactics — everybody forward apart from one defender – on it’s head. Up until a year or two ago, there was nothing cyclical about the history of football tactics, teams basically became more defensive, at least in formation, with every generation. I’d be surprised if we were to move away from four at the back: it’s simply the most efficient, balanced way to compress space. But beyond that things will become more fluid. If you look at Man United for example, you could argue that they played with four strikers but no centre-forward last season. A 4-2-4-0 if you will. I think we’ll see more attacking midfielders like Cristiano Ronaldo who can move up into forward positions but the fox in the box-type player is probably on his way out.

SL: It might just be me, but the last person I heard talking about doping in football was Toni Schumacher… On what level do you think it is present in international football these days?

RH: I think it does happen, mostly in a grey area, just on the legal side of things. Think Juve’s painkillers and anti-depressants or Chelsea’s blood-spinning. I’m also sure it was pretty rampant in the 70s, 80s and early 90s as well.

SL: If one says ‘sustainable growth’ and ‘Premier League’ – how does a football expert react?

RH: The amazing thing is that most marketing experts will tell you that football rights — and Premier League clubs in particular — are still undervalued today. Football as a product blows nearly everything out of the water and that’s why revenue will only go up further. Especially when and if clubs will be able to deliver live matches via the internet to millions of Asian fans for, say, 1 dollar per game.

SL: You know PL and Bundesliga inside-out. Gabor Kiraly used to be in Berlin for 7 years and after a 1-1 draw in San Siro, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said live on TV that Kiraly is better between the posts than Oliver Kahn.
Later on Kiraly joined Crystal Palace and came second behind Petr Cech among the goalies in the first year. He is at Burnley now and in the preseason edition of FFT one of the fans named him to be the player the club should get rid of. Why couldn’t he make it in England?

RH: I think Kiraly is basically an excellent shot-stopper but in England, especially in lower divisions, it’s all about coming for crosses and controlling the area. I don’t think he was neither strong nor athletic enough for this role. And the fact that his long trousers looked like dragging him down in the rain didn’t help either.

SL: There are more and more Hungarian players in England. Is anybody in the scope of your interest? (e.g.: Zoltan Gera – Fulham, Peter Halmosi — Hull City, Akos Buzsaky — QPR, Krisztian Nemeth – Liverpool) Maybe Tamás Hajnal (BVB), or Szabolcs Huszti (Hannover)?

RH: Gera is seen as one of the best buys this season and I’m certainly looking forward to seeing more of him. Apart from him, Hajnal is the most exciting Hungarian player for me right now.

SL: Who looks best equipped to break the big four’s domination of the Premier League? Can ambitious rivals make it through?

RH: Yes, I think so. City will be a force; Spurs are not far away either.

SL: What motivates you in blogging/writing?

RH: I think you want to share your thoughts and opinions with people. It’s really a great privilege to be able to do so with the help of big media companies.

SL: If you were to write a motto for football, what would that be? What do you think the essence of the game is?

RH: That’s a tough one. Maybe “Winning with Integrity”.

SL: I have recently read that Ben Welsch attended the preseason trainings of Swindon Town and could even play a couple of minutes against Steaua. Should you have a similar chance, which team would you play for and who would you try to nutmeg?

RH: I stopped playing in 2002 after my third cruciate ligament and often dream about playing again. I’d like to nutmeg David Beckham, no matter what shirt I’d be wearing.

Raphael, thank you very much.

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