Berlin loves football but cannot boast a truly big club. Terry Duffelen explains why and asks if Hertha BSC will ever join the top table of European football.
Germany’s capital is teeming with football. The Berlin Liga is a vibrant and diverse league of clubs dotted around the City that play week in week out in football grounds from Neukölln to Templehoff featuring clubs like SD Croatia and Turkyemspor. If you can find any old copies then check out the much loved but sadly defunct No Dice magazine which dedicated itself to football in the city. Berlin is also the home of great names from the past such as Tennis Borussia, Tasmania Berlin and of course, BFC Dynamo: the club that dominated the GDR leagues thanks to the patronage of the East German Stasi.
The biggest clubs in Berlin are Union and Hertha. The former is from the old east side that positioned itself as a club, antagonistic to the old GDR and retains strong left wing, politics and identity to this day. Hertha hail from the west side and were a founder member of the Bundesliga in 1963, at the behest, it should be said, of the DFB who wanted a club from West Berlin in the new national league.
Unlike many European cities, Berlin did not benefit from the economic boom that swept across the western liberal democracies in the decades that followed the Second World War. The city was divided between the capitalist West Germany and the communist east. West Berlin was an enclave surrounded by a foreign country that considered them and enemy within. Understandably this was not an ideal location for young professional footballers to to ply their trade and Hertha struggled to recruit good players.
As the football clubs in Munich, Madrid, Turin, London, Manchester, Liverpool, Lisbon and Barcelona to name a few benefited from the swelling wage packets of a prosperous workforce, Hertha cut an isolated figure. On the other side of the wall, BFC were a successful team but history had other plans for them and they faded after the Berlin Wall was torn down.
Even after Germany was reunified, Hertha were always playing catch-up with the other clubs in the great cities of Germany. The post reunification era started well enough with stints in the UEFA Cup and Champions League in the 90s. However, financial problems and mismanagement have held this club back and they have rarely, if ever, looked likely to ever recreate the halcyon days of the early 1930s when Hertha won back-to-back national championships.
Their ambitions are further hindered by the stadium. The Olympiastadion is a mighty structure but its spectator capacity is too high. Hertha has a big supporter base but not enough to fill the 80,000 spaces available. The club are working towards regenerating the old stadium and lowering its capacity or building a brand new propose built soccer stadium which will accommodate 50,000 fans. It’s a slow going process which is causing no small amount of frustration and you can understand why, given the general direction of travel taken by the football team.
Under Pal Dardai Hertha may not play the most attractive football but it does work. The Hungarian coach has done a great job reinvigorating experienced players like Salomon Kalou and Vedad Ibišević as well as setting player’s careers back on track such as Mitchell Weiser and Davie Selke. Dardai has even provided a platform for the Australian international Mathew Leckie who was in danger of becoming a journeyman. The youth set up seems to be producing results with Arne Maier, Florian Baak, Palko Dardai and Muhammed Kiprit each receiving good notices. The latter has reportedly received interest from Premier league clubs. The club’s strong finishes for the last two seasons has matched the off field narrative of a club that has put its financial problems behind them and kept them there.
Managing Director Ingo Schiller recently forecast that the club were in for a “record year” in terms of profits. Hertha have tapped into the perceived vibrant start-up culture of the city and branded themselves accordingly. Their slogan We try, we fail, we win would not be out of place in a presentation to investors for a company trying to come out of Series C. Assuming the long overdue international airport built to serve the city is ever finished, the city stands to benefit from new commerce. Much of the character of Berlin will be lost as a consequence and much will be gained. Potential winners from the continued regeneration of Germany’s capital could be Hertha BSC. They just need to get all their plates spinning at the same time.
This season has seen Hertha participating in the Europa League group stage. The Berliners are hardly European football novices but they are far from regulars. They currently sit bottom of their group but may yet make it through to the knock-out stages. They travel to Bilbao this Thursday needing a win. Domestically the Old Lady have mustered only one win in their last six. Dardai’s team are 14th in the league and their most recent game was a defeat at home to Borussia Mönchengladbach in which they fought back from 3-0 down to salvage some pride at 3-2 but ultimately, lost 4-2. Proof, if any were needed that there is still a lot more work in front of them.
With the new stadium in development hell and extra pressures on the pitch there is a lot that can go wrong with Hertha BSC. However, as the city grows, the opportunity is there for this club to grow with it and take its place on the top table of German football. Consider also the prospect of the eventual demise of the 50+1 ownership rule that states that clubs must be at least 51% supporter owned. As unwelcome as it would be for many fans, there are bound to be big businesses eager to invest in Bundesliga clubs that would welcome to chance to invest in the biggest club in Germany’s Capital.