German financier Lars Windhorst hired an Israeli private intelligence firm that orchestrated a clandestine campaign to oust the then-president of Bundesliga soccer club Hertha Berlin, according to a lawsuit.
The plot against Werner Gegenbauer is detailed in Israeli court documents filed this month, which reveal that Tel Aviv-based Shibumi Strategy Limited carried out a year-long covert operation to push him out of the club, of which Windhorst is the majority owner.
Gegenbauer finally resigned in May after 14 years at the helm, which Shibumi said was proof that “the project has been successfully accomplished”. The business intelligence firm is currently suing Windhorst in Israeli court, alleging that a unit of financier Tennor’s company breached a contract under which it owes Shibumi 1 million euros for eight months’ work, as well as a success indemnity of 4 million euros which would have been agreed orally. .
Windhorst had hired Shibumi to “plan and develop a strategy” that would “enhance” his reputation, according to a service agreement between the parties included in court documents.
Asked to comment on the case, Ori Gur-Ari, Managing Director of Shibumi Strategy, said, “We don’t know anything about this alleged case and you must have made a mistake.” Gegenbauer could not be reached. Windhorst called it “nonsense” and did not accept the reliability of the filed documents. He said he hadn’t spoken to Gur-Ari “for a long time”.
The Financial Times obtained the court documents, filed three weeks ago in a Tel Aviv district court, with the help of The Times of Israel.
In a June 2022 report summarizing the campaign, dubbed “Euro 2020,” Shibumi explained how his team of 20 agents approached Gegenbauer supporters, opponents and family members online and in person, often going “under coverage” to obtain information or promote their influence. campaign against the German football executive, according to court documents.
Shibumi then created online profiles of alleged fans criticizing Gegenbauer and paid a cartoonist to create unflattering images of the 72-year-old to use in social media posts. These cartoons included images that depicted Gegenbauer as the Grim Reaper and the Devil.
He also created a website to push for the Hertha chairman’s impeachment called ‘Gegenbauer Raus’ – ‘Gegenbauer Out’ – and a channel on the Telegram messaging service to ‘raise awareness’ of the campaign, according to leaked documents in the trial.
Shibumi set up a blog called “Sportfreax” where he posted negative articles to “influence Hertha members about the internal chaos at Hertha”, while “identifying reporters who might be approached undercover” to promote the campaign.
The Israeli company planned to hold a “large-scale event” campaigning for Gegenbauer’s dismissal, during which its agents would hand out personalized “Gegenbauer Raus” merchandise to fans. The event did not take place, however, as Hertha’s November 2021 general meeting was cancelled.
Windhorst and his company have yet to file a defense in the civil lawsuit Shibumi has filed against Windhorst and a Swiss-based unit of the financier Tennor Holding’s investment firm. But according to leaked email and text message conversations in the case, Windhorst complained of paying “huge sums” of money to Shibumi for years with little results.
“The problem here is that there has been and still is a huge gap between your perception of the value you bring [sic] or brought into the past and the reality of how things happened,” Windhorst — who also publicly called for Gegenbauer to step down — wrote in a May 2022 email to Gur-Ari.
In the same email, Windhorst acknowledged that Shibumi managed to uncover the person behind a Twitter account called “Wundersplat”, which posted derogatory messages about the 45-year-old financier, riffing on the nickname “Wunderkind” that he won as a teenage entrepreneur in the 1990s.
In messages to the financier, Gur-Ari claimed that during a meeting in June 2021 aboard a yacht, Windhorst said Shibumi would earn “millions of euros” if the campaign was successful, but that in In the end, the Israeli company “worked day and night”. for eight months without being paid.
Windhorst’s investment in Hertha proved controversial. The financier, famous in his native Germany for suffering a fatal fall in the 2000s that resulted in personal bankruptcy and a criminal conviction, first bought a minority stake in the struggling club in 2019.
While Windhorst promised to improve the fortunes of Hertha Berlin and turn it into a “great club in the city”, the team’s continued poor performance on the pitch led some fans to chant “Windhorst Raus” during the general meeting of the club this year.
While the financier has a majority stake after paying €374m into the club, under Bundesliga rules aimed at protecting the interests of fans, his voting rights are capped at 49.9%. This limited Windhorst’s ability to remove Gegenbauer directly, despite escalating tensions between the club’s owner and its chairman spilling into public view.
Windhorst is separately facing numerous lawsuits from aggrieved creditors over alleged unpaid debts. Last month it pledged to repay 550 million euros in “weeks” to its main creditor H2O Asset Management, a European investment firm which is under regulatory investigation for investing heavily in obligations related to Windhorst.
Additional reporting by Quique Kierszenbaum