German tax trial starts against Bayern football boss

MUNICH, Germany - German football legend and boss of powerhouse club Bayern Munich Uli Hoeness went on trial Monday for evading millions of euros in taxes in a case that has captivated the sports-mad nation.

Hoeness, 62, would face a possible jail term if found guilty by the court in the southern city of Munich, which has scheduled a four-day trial with a verdict expected Thursday.

He arrived in court through a back entrance and gave photographers a pained smile at the start of the trial in a courtroom packed with media and other audience members.

He is charged with evading 3.5 million euros (S$6.2 million) in taxes by hiding them in a Swiss bank account, on a total amount of over 33 million euros from 2003 to 2009.

The veteran footballer, who also runs a successful sausage company, has admitted to having hidden money from the German taxman, but says he came clean with authorities by filing a declaration in January last year.

Prosecutors argue that the self-reporting of a Zurich account contained irregularities and is invalid because authorities already had Hoeness in their crosshairs at the time.

Despite widespread criticism of Hoeness - including from Chancellor Angela Merkel who voiced "disappointment" - his initial offer to resign from Bayern Munich last May was rejected by the club's supervisory board.

Hoeness has spent more than four decades with the Bavarian sporting giants - first as player, helping win then West Germany the 1974 World Cup, then as team manager and, since 2009, as club president.

Hoeness traded 'extreme amounts'

Since the scandal broke, Hoeness - long a TV chat show regular outspoken about his conservative political views - has admitted to having been a compulsive stock market "gambler" for years.

He said he received a 20 million deutschmark (10.2 million euro) loan for trading in his Swiss bank account in 2001 from the late Robert Louis-Dreyfus, then chief of club supplier and shareholder Adidas.

"At times I was trading day and night with sums that are hard for me to comprehend today, sometimes the amounts were extreme," Hoeness has told German media about his online trading years.

At issue in the trial at Munich's higher regional court will be whether his tax declaration of January 17 last year was valid and guarantees him immunity from prosecution.

The prosecution brief lists "seven separate counts of making inaccurate or incomplete statements to tax authorities and thereby reducing tax payments".

He was further charged with wrongly declaring losses worth 5.5 million euros to reduce his tax liability.

Hoeness has stayed on so far as president of the European champions club, amid expressions of loyalty from fans and players, and support from corporate sponsors such as Adidas, Audi, VW and Deutsche Telekom.

"I can only hope that it turns out well for him and the court shows its human side," said honorary club president Franz Beckenbauer on Sky TV on Sunday.

A conviction would likely spell the end of his illustrious football career and possibly a stint in jail, the usual punishment in Germany for tax evasion above one million euros.

The maximum punishment for major tax fraud is 10 years jail, but shorter terms which can be suspended are far more common.

Public interest in the case has been intense - the 49 allocated media spots to cover the trial were filled within 27 seconds, the court said.