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BFW Commentary: Making it at Bayern Munich is not for everyone

“The strongest steel is forged in the fires of hell.”

Pre-Season Friendly”Tottenham Hotspur FC v Bayern Munich”

Nicklas Süle’s decision to leave Bayern Munich for Borussia Dortmund has left many scratching their heads and wondering why he made that choice.

The media is reporting that the big defender decided to run for the Ruhr because he felt “underappreciated” by the management of the Rekordmeister. But just what does that really mean and was Süle underappreciated by the leaders of the Bayern machine?

Former Bayern President and club legend Karl-Heinz Rummenigge suggests that the only “appreciation” in the equation is hard cold euros. Now, there are certainly players who make maximizing their income their top priority, but if the reporting is accurate that was not the case for Sule. While it is difficult to say anything with certainty the reporting suggests he will be making about the same as Bayern’s first offer after he transfers to Dortmund. While there will likely be some sort of signing bonus, I think we can safely say this transfer was not about chasing the biggest pay check.

So what happened? Why will Süle be donning the Schwartz and Gelb come next season?

The truth is that Bayern is a very tough place to play football. Both the media and the club culture create an environment where only a few rare individuals can really thrive.

The press scrutiny on Bayern is tightly focused and often hyper-critical. No other football club in Germany gets scrutinized in this fashion, even around issues that having nothing to do with sport. A clear example is that the coverage of Oli Khan’s 2011 tax issue of not declaring some suits he bought overseas was significantly larger than the coverage given to the recent conviction of a former Dortmund/Mannschaft player for possession of child pornography. Whether this is fair or not is beside the point, it is the reality these players have to deal with.

Süle seems particularly irked by the coverage of his struggles with weight and fitness. The German sports press reserves a particular savagery for weight issues. When cyclist Jan Ulreich was about 4-5 kilos over his regular riding weight they dubbed him “The Michelin Man.” Even perhaps the greatest women’s tennis player of all time, Steffi Graf, was often criticized for being overweight. This is a toxic combination for a man like Süle who has shown issues with weight and fitness and does not seem to be able to ignore the bad press. While he apparently is unhappy with the club for not doing enough to protect him from this kind of coverage, there is really little the club can do to curb the hyper-critical media.

The club culture is very demanding and exacting. The Bayern philosophy is premised on an unrelenting striving for excellence, with no time or place for resting on your laurels. Alphonso Davies and others have articulate their view that Bayern practices are harder than many games, referring to them as “savage” and “warlike.” Bayern’s sporting excellence program is a blast furnace designed to shape each player into the most effective football player they can be. Only the best and a continuous striving for excellence is acceptable to Bayern management. This attitude is exemplified by players like Robert Lewandowski, Joshua Kimmich, Thomas Müller and Manuel Neuer (along with others) who continuously strive to improve their game.

This does not seem to be a good fit for Süle’s personality based on his recent comments and reporting around his fitness and attitude towards it.

German outlet kicker, (via iMiaSanMia) has reported that Süle returned from the Christmas break 4 kg over the maximum weight the club had set for him. While this is an issue, it is reaction to that problem that really tells the story. Here is the quote in its entirety:

Süle made it clear to his inner circle that he will not change his lifestyle and that his methods have made him an international player. Even if he decided to stop playing football now, he already made enough money.

If true, this complacency and contentment is simply not compatible with the hunger and ambition a player needs to succeed at the cutting edge of football excellence. Can you imagine Lewandowski or Neuer coming back from vacation out of shape and saying effectively, “I am good enough as I am and am not willing to change to get better?” Süle’s attitude does not express the unrelenting desire to improve it takes to stay at the very top of the game.

The Athletic has reported that Süle is upset that Bayern waited until this season to offer him an extension rather than making him an offer two years ago while he was still rehabbing from his ACL injury. This would be emotion overriding logic. If they had made him an offer while his medical outcome was still uncertain it would have been quite low. A player with self-belief and ambition would have been driven to get back to the pitch and prove his value to the team and then collect his just due. Instead, expecting a good offer to be delivered while he was still in the rehab room speaks of an entitlement mindset. That is not a good cultural fit for Bayern.

I don’t want this article to be read as an argument that Süle “can’t hack it.” He is a good player and will make Dortmund’s defense better, but he just might not be the right psycho-emotional fit for the demanding Bayern environment, and him moving to a different club culture might be the best thing for him. Süle seems like he might respond better to a hug than a kick in the ass, and the hug train doesn’t stop at Säbener Straße.

With a broader view I have seem this in other industries, even my own. I was a partner at a law firm that was at the cutting edge of aggressive litigation. At a firm we were often fighting with, if a young lawyer settled a file close to trial for an amount that was not exceptional, the partners would hang a rubber chicken on their office door, effectively calling them cowards. Some of those young lawyers rose to become great trial lawyers and others left that firm to succeed elsewhere. Some of those “drop-outs” are still good friends of mine, with thriving careers and great lives. That blast furnace was just not right for them the same way Bayern just doesn’t seem right for Süle.

Instructors make sure the DOR bell is always close at hand during Hell Week. Strapped to the back of Photo by Richard Schoenberg/Corbis via Getty Images

In military terms Bayern is a lot like the elite U.S. Navy SEALs. During the qualification period, known as Hell Week, the mental and physical demands made on the potential recruits are ridiculous. Minimal sleep, extended periods in very cold water, never ending physical and mental challenges combine to ween out all but the very best. During that training instructors exhort the trainees to ring a symbolic bell which signals dropping out of the course. Once they ring the bell the recruit gets to stand with the instructors and enjoy a coffee and donuts while their former classmates continue to toil in cold and wet conditions. They return to their original unit and provide valuable and honourable service to the U.S. Navy.

But they won’t be SEALs.

In my view Süle has just rung the bell. I wish him all the best. But he will never be a SEAL.