A Conversation with the Chairman

Hello everybody, our today’s guest is Rainer Hoppe. The Executive Director for Water polo of the Germany’s biggest club for water sports, SV Bayer Uerdingen 08. With more the 10.000 members Bayer Uerdingen is not only the biggest German club for water sports, but one of the biggest clubs for the water sports in the whole world. As a player, with 1324 goals, Rainer  still holds the record for the most scored goals in the German 1st league (Wasserball-Bundesliga).

He also played 142 games for the German Nationalmanschaft and e.g. was a part of the team that placed third at the Olympics in Los Angeles ’84. He was also the Chairman of the German Swimming Federation (Deutscher Schwimm-Verband). One interesting fact about this interview is that few months ago I signed for the club that Rainer presides at. In one way this is an interview between Rainer and me, but in another way this is a dialog between a chairman and his player. Before I signed for SV Bayer 08, we had a few phone calls and one coffee. From what I have heard about Rainer he is an opinionated individual. And if you know anything about me, then you also know that I have opinions too haha. Lets hope we don’t end up in a fight by the end of this interview haha.

So, los geht’s…

1. Grüß Dich Rainer, welcome and thank you for taking the time to do this interview with me. We will start this interview off with the current situation. As of now Germany is still in a lock-down and, unlike professional sports, amateur athletes are not allowed to participate in organized training. General opinion is that we should all just wait until the storm passes. I personally don’t like that attitude, but there is nothing I can do about it. As a chairman of a certain club, what can you do for your club? Are you even allowed to do anything, or do you too just have to wait until somebody decides to take the responsibility?

Corona is a pandemic that has struck the world and is bringing us closer together. Sport, especially semi-professional sports such as water polo, has a model function in society. Sport should also show how to live as much normality as possible in a crisis without endangering the health of athletes.

We as a club are very aware of this important role.

In consultation with the municipality, the state and the sports organizations, we have developed a concept that will allow us to resume training for the top teams. The important thing is that everyone is aware that they are being watched particularly closely as privileged individuals. Everyone must adhere to the guidelines in a disciplined manner. Naturally, we will be closely monitoring developments in order to adapt the framework conditions flexibly.

We would like to help ensure that the crisis is overcome as soon as possible so that we can soon live the fascination of water polo again. I think that our club will come back stronger after the crisis.

2. A) SV Bayer 08 is a community of more then 10.000 members and water polo presents just one element inside of a much bigger situation.  Could you, to our readers, explain what type of a club SV Bayer Uerdingen 08 really is, and what duties and responsibilities do you take on yourself?  How much time do you  invest in water polo?

With the support of the major corporations Bayer AG and Covestro AG, the association has developed into the largest swimming club in Germany. The entire facility (50 x 25 indoor pool, 25 x 16 m indoor pool, gymnasium, weight room, sauna, bathing lake with water polo field 30 x 20 m etc.) is owned by the club. The club offers a full range of services from cradle to grave for all age groups – including baby swimming, swimming lessons, swimming sports, water polo, rehabilitation sports and relaxation in its own restaurant.

The facility is open 365 days a year, including Christmas and New Year’s Day, and members and athletes can enjoy swimming every day from 6 am. to 10 pm. This is an unbeatable offer at a very reasonable price.

My commitment as a volunteer in water polo is a passion, so you can’t really appreciate the time it takes as much as you do on the job. We see ourselves as a team in the club, from the office to the coaches and the members.

The sport of water polo keeps me busy every day, sometimes more and sometimes less. I feel committed to the club, the members and the sport of water polo with all my heart.

Water polo is not the deterioration of the swimming style, but serves to improve the character.

2.B) We are the biggest club in Germany, and one of the biggest clubs in the world, but in Germany we are seen as amateur athletes. In our sport the difference between a professional and an amateur is a bit blurred. Could you please explain me, and our readers, the difference between a professional and an amateur club, and what possible ramifications could that have during these challenging times?

In this context, the distinction between professional and amateur sport refers primarily to the payment of athletes. Water polo is a privileged sport, because – at least in Germany – from day one you have to be aware that you have to build a second career after the sport in parallel to the sport. The athletes have to study and work parallel to their professional training. Thus, German national players have to prepare their careers after sport with an estimated 200 days work per year, in addition to their obligations in the sports – Bundesliga, Cup, Champion’s League, Euro/World Championships, friendly tournaments, Olympic Games.

The SV Bayer 08 club and the athletes are professionals and often achieve more than the athletes in the so-called professional sports such as football.

These athletes who have gone through this system will become important pillars of society in the future. Even in the crisis, we are looking for all ways to emerge stronger from it.

3. In your rich water polo biography it also says that you were the Chairman of German Waterpol (DSV). How was that experience for you? How do you look at the people who are right now governing our sport in Germany through these challenging times? If you were the president now, what would you have done? Is one part of you maybe happy that you are not a president anymore and you don’t have to deal with this mess directly haha?

I took the job at the end of 2016 during the biggest crisis in German water polo.

During this time we have achieved a lot and reformed some things, so that for example the German men can dream of being able to participate in the Olympics again for the first time since 2008. Unfortunately, on the basis of a new statute of the association, my competences were very much curtailed, so that I could not continue the work.

During the pandemic it became very clear how wrong this path taken by the association was. For me it was always the highest principle to communicate openly and transparently and to take the basis with me. Without people, the DSV is an empty shell.

I am sure that the new presidium will correct these design flaws after the election on 21 November 2020.

I have taken on the responsibility and would have liked to take it on in the current difficult times. The future will show whether I can continue on my way.

As I have already said, as with the athletes, leadership also requires a certain character.

4. A) You have played in the golden era of Water polo. During the 80s and the 90s. In your opinion, how does the German water polo of today compare to the German water polo from “back in your day”? You also played international Water polo for the German National team, how do you compare today’s Nationalmanschaft to the one you played for? Does the decline of the German Water polo have something to do with the decline that water polo as a sport has been experiencing the last 20 years, or is that just an internal problem of the German water polo?

The principles of sport have not really changed since the 1980s. I am sure that the athletes of that time would still be at the top of the world today.

In contrast to today, water polo had a higher weight at club level in Germany. Spandau Berlin was one of the best teams in the world and everyone followed this. In contrast to today, however, there were many teams in the Bundesliga – including Rote Erde Hamm, ASC Duisburg, Duisburg 98, Hohenlimburg, Cannstatt, Hannover and Esslingen – who on good days were able to give Berlin a defeat. A balanced league with substantial youth work is still the key to success today.

Unfortunately we have sacrificed this in favour of insane professionalization. The models with many foreign stars at Waspo Hannover and Spandau Berlin are good for the clubs, but detrimental to fair competition and the national team.

Compared to the past, the sport has become much more expensive, but the performances overall have become rather worse.

4.B) Our readers, and me personally, would like to know your honest opinion about Waspo Hannover and Spandau Berlin. What do you think how have these two clubs represented German water polo on the international club circuit the last few years? Could they have done more, or should we all just be thankful for everything they have done so far?

Waspo Hannover and Spandau Berlin are doing a great job with their investments. They bring the sport into the media and provide themselves with a sporting competition.

Unfortunately the other clubs suffer from this. The two teams benefit from the additional support of the association in addition to the money of their sponsors.

The money is primarily invested in the two bases in Berlin and Hanover, so that DSV coaches and talents from the association are transferred there. This weakens the other clubs, so that the centralization further thins out the base.

A rethink is needed here in order to reactivate the sport in the long term. We need fair competition again and we must think about the voluntary limitation of foreign players, as is practised in all other nations.

What is right for the Champions League does not have to be right for the German league.

4.C) In the past, allowing only 3-4 few foreign, or non-EU players, was a standard practice of all European based club competitions on a national level. In all of the sports. I am not sure, but I think that the England’s Premiership League, one of the best football leagues in the world, was the first league and sport to allow a bigger influx of foreign players. Their thinking behind it was by allowing more foreign players they will attract more TV ratings in the countries that these players come from.

Most of the foreign players that finish their water polo careers in Germany end up working and living in Germany. And most of them have stayed at the same club for longer periods of time. 90% of the foreign players that come to Germany to play Water polo come to Germany not only to play water polo. Even back in your playing days a lot of the worlds best water polo players players, like Tamas Farago, one of the all time greats, would come to Germany once their careers with their National Teams were over.

I understand what you are saying, and to a point I do agree with you, but how to manage and walk on this tight rope without making it about politics or economics, or usually both? In such situations it is always the sport and its supporters that end up with a shorter stick.

I am pretty sure that there is not a definitive answer, nor am I asking you to give me one right now, but I think that you could give me, and our readers, your opinion on the framework and the approach that we all should have when dealing with this question. And when I say “We all” I mean foreign, and non-foreign players. What type of understanding should we all have when addressing this situation?

For me, the balance is crucial. In principle, foreign sportsmen and women could play in German leagues for an unlimited period, which would also comply with EU law. I don’t want to discriminate or exclude anyone.

However, the clubs would have to meet the requirements of fair competition and the association would have to differentiate the training/target groups at the bases.

The basic conditions for the unrestricted use of foreign players would be that the club would have a substantial professional youth work at all levels – with trained coaches with the appropriate quality and quantity of training and competition at the highest level. It must be prevented that the investments at the expense of youth work flow into players not educated in Germany.

Furthermore, the bases serve to promote German players in order to prepare them for international competition in national teams. These funds – training areas, association coaches, etc. – must also benefit this target group exclusively. Unfortunately, this is not practised by the association in Hanover and Berlin. Appropriate training allowances must also be paid for German national players who change.

Tamas was a player who electrified the entire water polo in Germany. However, today’s foreign players do not have his sporting and human class.

5. Last week LEN held their own presidential elections. What are your thoughts, opinions and feelings about LEN? Do you think they are doing a good job? Do you even know what their job is? If you do could you please explain it to my readers and me, because we still don’t understand how does LEN operate and function. As a chairman for the DSV, have you ever had any interaction with them? Is LEN some sorts of a secret society? Tells us something, anything, because we are all left in the dark.

In recent years, LEN has done a great deal to strengthen water polo in the media. Competitions such as the Champions League have been reformed to make water polo more competitive with new Olympic sports. Unfortunately, water polo does not receive the attention of the public and its financiers, so the costs have to be primarily financed by the clubs and the taxpayers.

Water polo is primarily played in Europe, and LEN has defended this position well in the world and the efforts of FINA. However, the efforts of extensification are borderline for Germany, as we are constantly stressing the same resources (donors, clubs and players).

During my time as Chairman I had the opportunity to look behind the scenes and to have many discussions. The representatives of water polo of all nations in LEN are committed to preserving the tradition of water polo in order to keep the oldest Olympic team sport on the Olympic stage.

The problems of nations, whether they are successful or not, are the same everywhere.

In the association of LEN but also of FINA, the nations try to support each other despite the sporting competition.

Of course, organizations like LEN as well as those of FINA and IOC are not always transparent. I personally cannot afford to make any real judgment. However, I have experienced the LEN and their representatives as open and transparent. One has to bear in mind that most representatives, such as delegates and referees, do these jobs part-time.

It would have been important for Germany to have a representative in the management of LEN. Unfortunately, this is an undertaking, as in my opinion an unsuitable representative was nominated by the DSV.

I have been shown time and again how important it is for LEN that Germany returns to the stage of European water polo. We have to come back into this organization with strong personalities to improve the role of LEN.

6. Now lets play a bit of devils advocate. If you were the president of LEN, corona or no corona, what would you do to improve the position of water polo in the world?

In the past, the rule change was an important step to increase the attractiveness of water polo. I believe it would be important to make the sport more widely known in Europe and the world in order to put its promotion on a broader basis. We should also position water polo more realistically and take into account the fact that athletes have to build a second career in parallel.

It would be helpful here if the sport were played in schools and universities.

This would create a combination of education and water polo (as is the case in the USA, for example). Furthermore, the competitions should not be played in long rounds, but rather in crisp tournaments. A European Championship currently lasts 16 days and should be cut in half. The Champions League with 14 preliminary round matches (3 days effort per match) is also far too expensive and time-consuming.

Water polo should again become an event with highlights and not be compared to football. In my opinion, the hockey sport in Germany has already implemented this in an exemplary manner.

Often less is more!

7. And for our last question let us talk a bit about SV Bayer 08. In an ideal world, without corona, what would you as a SV Bayer 08 chairman be doing right now? What would you be mostly focused on and what would take most of your time? (not saying that a world without corona is ideal, but at this point it almost seems like it haha)

In the club it was and is our philosophy to offer young people the opportunity to do sports. In doing so, it is not the ultimate goal to “produce” Olympic champions.

We will continue to pursue this path as a task for society as a whole and support athletes on this path at all levels.

The benefit will be great people who become valuable members of society.

This is more important than ever as a learning effect from the crisis!

Rainer, danke very much for your honest words and for taking out the time out of your busy schedule to do this interview with me. It was a pleasure.

And there you have it our respectable readers. You just read a conversation between a player and his chairman. I think that the substance of our conversation is equally important as the whole situation in which a chairman and his player were having an open and transparent dialog on a platform like this. I hope this interview was as interesting and compelling for you as it was for me. Thank you for reading and stay safe.