Lars Windhorst hired corporate spies that targeted football club boss, lawsuit says

German financier Lars Windhorst hired an Israeli private intelligence company that orchestrated a clandestine campaign aimed at ousting the then-president of Hertha Berlin, the Bundesliga football club, 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 ran a year-long covert operation to push him out of the club, where Windhorst is the majority owner.

Gegenbauer ultimately stepped down in May after 14 years at the helm, which Shibumi claimed was evidence that “the project was successfully accomplished”. The corporate intelligence firm is now suing Windhorst in an Israeli court, alleging that a unit of the financier’s company Tennor has breached a contract under which it owes Shibumi €1mn for eight months’ work, as well as a €4mn success fee allegedly 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 the court filings.

Asked to comment on the case, Ori Gur-Ari, chief executive of Shibumi Strategy, said: “We do not know anything about this alleged case and you must have made a mistake.” Gegenbauer could not be reached. Windhorst described it as “nonsense” and did not accept the reliability of the filed documents. He said he had not talked to Gur-Ari “for a long time”.

The Financial Times obtained the court papers, filed three weeks ago at a district court in Tel Aviv, with the assistance of the Times of Israel.

In a June 2022 report summarising the campaign, codenamed “Euro 2020”, Shibumi explained how its 20-strong team of operatives approached Gegenbauer’s supporters, opponents and family members online and in person, often going “undercover” to obtain information or promote their influence campaign against the German football executive, the court filings show.

Shibumi then set up online profiles of purported fans criticising Gegenbauer and paid a caricaturist to create unflattering images of the 72-year-old for use in social media posts. These cartoons included images that depicted Gegenbauer as the grim reaper and the devil.

It also created a website to lobby for the Hertha president’s removal called “Gegenbauer Raus” — “Gegenbauer Out” — and a channel on messaging service Telegram to “raise awareness” of the campaign, according to documents disclosed in the lawsuit.

Shibumi established a blog called “Sportfreax” where it published negative articles to “influence Hertha members about Hertha’s internal chaos”, while “identifying journalists that could be approached undercover” to promote the campaign.

Werner Gegenbauer stepped down in May after 14 years at the helm, which Shibumi claimed was evidence that ‘the project was successfully accomplished’ © dpa picture alliance/Alamy

The Israeli company planned to hold a “large-scale event” campaigning for the dismissal of Gegenbauer, at which its operatives would hand out customised “Gegenbauer Raus” merchandise to fans. The event did not go ahead, however, as Hertha’s general assembly in November 2021 was cancelled.

Windhorst and his company are yet to file a defence in the civil lawsuit, which Shibumi has brought against Windhorst and a Switzerland-based unit of the financier’s investment firm Tennor Holding. But according to email and text conversations disclosed in the case, Windhorst complained about having paid “huge amounts” of money to Shibumi for years with little to show for it.

“The problem here is that there has been and still is a huge discrepancy between your perception on what value your bring [sic] or brought in the past and the reality of how things turned out,” Windhorst — who also publicly called for Gegenbauer’s resignation — wrote in a May 2022 email to Gur-Ari.

In the same email, Windhorst acknowledged that Shibumi had successfully uncovered the person behind a Twitter account called “Wundersplat”, which posted derogatory messages about the 45-year-old financier, riffing on the “Wunderkind” nickname he earned as a teenage entrepreneur in the 1990s.

In messages back to the financier, Gur-Ari claimed that during a June 2021 meeting aboard a yacht, Windhorst said Shibumi stood to make “millions of euros” if the campaign was successful, but in the end the Israeli company “worked days and nights for eight months without getting paid”.

Windhorst’s investment in Hertha has proved controversial. The financier, who is famous in his native Germany for enduring a bruising downfall in the 2000s that culminated in personal bankruptcy and a criminal conviction, first bought a minority stake in the struggling club in 2019.

While Windhorst promised to improve Hertha Berlin’s fortunes and transform it into a “big city club”, the team’s continued poor performance on the pitch led some fans to chant “Windhorst Raus” at the club’s general meeting this year. 

While the financier has a majority stake after pouring €374mn into the club, under Bundesliga rules aimed at protecting fans’ interests his voting rights are capped at 49.9 per cent. This restricted Windhorst’s ability to remove Gegenbauer directly, despite escalating tensions between the club’s owner and its president that spilled into public view.

Windhorst is separately facing numerous lawsuits from aggrieved creditors over alleged unpaid debts. Last month, he pledged that he would repay €550mn in “weeks” to his largest creditor H2O Asset Management, a European investment company that is under regulatory investigation for heavily investing in bonds linked to Windhorst. 

Additional reporting by Quique Kierszenbaum

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