Hubert Bihler, volunteer extraordinaire
We speak with one of Russia 2018's most experienced volunteers
Hubert Bihler has almost 50 events to his name
The 72-year-old has taken part at five men's and women's FIFA World Cups
If ever a prize were to be awarded for the best volunteer in sport, Hubert Bihler would undoubtedly be a firm contender. Over the last 14 years, the 72-year-old has volunteered at almost 50 major sporting events, from the Olympic Games to FIFA World Cups™ and World Championships in athletics, gymnastics and ice hockey. His duties have spanned a variety of media branches, including shepherding pitch-side photographers, taking care of throngs of journalists or ensuring everything runs smoothly behind the scenes, usually doing so in a position of responsibility as team leader, lead volunteer or coordinator.
Bihler's extraordinary journey began a few months before the FIFA Confederations Cup Germany 2005 when he came across an advertisement looking for volunteers for the tournament. The retired PE and maths teacher applied for the role and was based in Nuremberg for the duration of the competition.
Volunteer Hubert Bihler
Argentina vs Nigeria, Brazil 2014
In Porto Alegre during Brazil 2014
"I'd just retired and, as I'd been involved in sport my entire life, I decided I could work as a volunteer," the charming Swabian told FIFA.com. "But I could never have imagined what it would all become."
Highlights from his volunteer work:
Five FIFA World Cups (men's and women's)
Five IOC Olympic Games and Paralympic Games
Two UEFA Champions League finals
Two IAAF World Athletics Championships and two EAF European Athletics Championships
One World Gymnastics Championship
Coordinator of media volunteers at the 2011 Eurovision Song Contest in Dusseldorf
Bihler was forced to give up playing football at a young age due to injury, but he remained closely involved in the game throughout his life – and still is to this day. Regardless of whether he was a coach, referee, club chairman or photographer, he never got bored and he has also been a volunteer seminar leader for his local football club for the last 12 years.
"The 2006 World Cup in Germany triggered something inside me and I just had to continue," he said. "I've met so many people and made friends that I still have today. Guatemala, Russia, USA, Brazil: I've made friends all over the world and they've enriched my life in incredible ways. It's been one highlight after another."
Two of which have stuck in his mind in particular: "At the Olympic Games in Sochi, I worked in a team with a Russian volunteer who was an English professor. We went to the Olympic flame together and shook hands because we wanted to demonstrate that we could work well together, irrespective of any politics. It was simply wonderful. The Russian Local Organising Committee (LOC) also invited me to a training event for media presenters in the build-up to the Confed Cup 2017. That was a huge honour and meant a lot to me."
Bihler also considers himself an ambassador for Germany through sport.
Above all, however, he believes that it is the people he has met that have made the last decade and a half so special - not so much meeting stars such as Usain Bolt, Philipp Lahm, Oliver Kahn, Maria Riesch, Thomas Muller and Miroslav Klose, but his fellow volunteers. "You see familiar faces everywhere you go," he said. "Whether it's officials or, for example, an Argentinian photographer I met during the Confed Cup 2005. We saw each other again in Cape Town in 2010 during Germany's 4-0 win over Argentina and again four years after that in Brazil. Seeing your friends again is just fantastic."
Bihler's wife of 46 years, with whom he has two children and two grandchildren, is supportive of his work: "I still have enough time for my family. My wife has always given me her backing. She was a bit sceptical before I went to South Africa, but in two weeks we're heading over there to visit the woman who put me up in her house during the 2010 World Cup. It was only through meeting me that she realised what volunteers actually do. That's also one of the legacies of a World Cup. 'I invite you to come back again with your wife,' she said to me when I left South Africa in 2010."
In future Bihler wants to take a step back from volunteering at major tournaments like World Cups and European Championships, but will "still do smaller events like international matches". He could make an exception for UEFA EURO 2020 in Munich, however, as the city will only host four games.
"I would say to anyone who enjoys sport and who wants to contribute to the success of an event that I can only recommend volunteering. It's wonderful."