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Owner seeking to unload Berlin soccer team roiled by Israeli spy firm allegations

Lars Windhorst accuses new Hertha president of failing to cooperate with him as team seeks probe into his contract with a shadowy intel company hired to push out former boss

Berlin fans cheer prior to the German Bundesliga soccer match between Hertha BSC Berlin and VfL Wolfsburg in Berlin, Germany, Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021. (AP/Michael Sohn)
Berlin fans cheer prior to the German Bundesliga soccer match between Hertha BSC Berlin and VfL Wolfsburg in Berlin, Germany, Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021. (AP/Michael Sohn)

BERLIN (AP) — Hertha Berlin investor Lars Windhorst wants his 374 million euros back.

The relationship between the Bundesliga club and its financial backer has ruptured to the point where Windhorst no longer wants anything to do with Hertha. It comes after the publication last week of a report alleging he hired an Israeli detective agency to try and force the former club president out.

Hertha reacted to the Financial Times report, based on court records acquired in conjunction with The Times of Israel, by calling on Windhorst to respond with a written explanation, and it asked lawyers to investigate the newspaper’s story.

Windhorst responded with a statement on Wednesday, though not quite how the club demanded.

“After careful consideration and evaluation of the last three months, we unfortunately find that there is no basis and no perspective for a successful economic cooperation between the Tennor Group and Hertha BSC,”  Windhorst wrote on Facebook on Wednesday.

“All the talks with the new president, Kay Bernstein, have shown us, that there is a huge difference between the words and subsequent actions of the president,” added Windhorst, who purchased a controlling stake in the team via his Tennor Holding firm.

Lars Windhorst (Youtube screenshot)

Windhorst went on to blast Bernstein — a former club ultra who has been in charge for just over three months — for a failure to cooperate with his holding company, which owns 64.7% of Hertha’s company shares.

Though Windhorst owns a majority share, his voting rights are restricted to 49% under the Bundesliga’s strict 50+1 rule to limit the influence of outside investors. The rule means club members must retain a majority of voting rights.

Related – ToI investigates: Shadowy Israeli firm claims it ran negative campaign that ousted Berlin soccer boss

Windhorst’s investments have totaled 374 million euros (now $367 million due to the drop in the euro’s value vs. the dollar since then), having first invested 125 million euros in the club in June 2019.

“Our willingness to provide further financial support for Hertha BSC’s development was rejected,” Windhorst said in his Facebook statement. “President Kay Bernstein is clearly not interested in a trustworthy and serious cooperation. This is also shown by the current debate about the supposed commissioning of the Israeli agency by Tennor. Instead of working with us on the investigation, President Bernstein decided to join the convictions without examining the evidence.”

Windhorst said Bernstein had suggested a “break” with Windhorst and his Tennor company,

“Under these conditions, further cooperation for Hertha BSC’s benefit is ruled out. Our economic goals, also our sporting goals, cannot be achieved in this way, and this destroys the essential basis of our commitment to Hertha BSC. That’s why we’re ending our commitment to Hertha BSC and officially offering the club the purchase back of our majority stake of 64.7% at the price it was at the time,” Windhorst wrote.

Hertha’s response was prompt, even though it said the previous Friday it would not make any public statements until its lawyers had investigated the allegations that Windhorst had used agents from Tel Aviv based Shibumi Strategy to force its former president out. Werner Gegenbauer, who had been Hertha president for 14 years and was due to remain in the position till 2024, resigned on May 24.

Anti-Gegenbauer merchandise that Shibumi claims to have distributed at Hertha matches (Source: Net Hamishpat)

The allegations became public when Shibumi sued Windhorst in Tel Aviv court last month, alleging that he had balked at paying 5 million euros owed the company for running a negative campaign to force Gegenbauer out. The suit was withdrawn hours after the initial Financial Times report.

On Sunday, Hertha fans showcased their displeasure with the saga and with ownership in general, unveiling a banner saying “Windhorst and Gegenbauer out!” just before kickoff against Hoffenheim.

The club said Windhorst on Monday asked for a personal meeting with the club’s leadership and that they met on Wednesday, when they agreed to meet again.

“Lars Windhorst’s Facebook post from this afternoon does not correspond to what was discussed and agreed. The other allegations made therein are incorrect,” Hertha said in a statement.

The club said neither it, nor Bernstein or any other representative of the club had ever made any statements against Lars Windhorst or Tennor “in a prejudiced manner” and it concluded by saying that “Hertha BSC is offering to assist Tennor in finding a buyer in an orderly investor process in the best interests of Hertha BSC and Tennor’s investors and creditors.”

Windhorst will likely find it difficult to find a buyer to reimburse him for the shares. Hertha has been battling relegation in each of the three seasons since the investor became involved and the club has lurched from one crisis, scandal or low point to another in that time.

Hertha general manager Fredi Bobic, appointed last year, said earlier this year that Windhorst’s money is “gone.” Bobic struggled to find reinforcements in the offseason, with Hertha seeing more departures than arrivals as the squad was trimmed.

Meanwhile, local Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel reported Thursday that Windhorst had been offering his shares in the club on international markets for the previous six months.

“Apparently he hasn’t found anyone yet,” the newspaper noted.

Hertha is under no obligation to find a buyer for Windhorst’s shares. The club would also have to give the go-ahead to any sale were the investor to find a third party willing to buy his share. The 50+1 rule means he can’t force a sale against the club’s will.

Times of Israel staff and AFP contributed to this report.

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