As the richest club in division two, it's no surprise that Hertha earned promotion to the top flight. But no one expected the sort of fervor this season generated. The question now is: will the love affair continue?
This bunch are going up to the real Bundesliga next season
According to conventional wisdom, a big team that gets relegated must learn a bit of humility before they can thrive in division two. So what did Hertha do when they went down last summer?
They proclaimed themselves “the Bayern Munich of the second division” and installed a backward-running clock on their homepage, ticking down the seconds until the team from the German capital would inevitably rise again.
The clock (upper R.) was ticking on Hertha's promotion bid all year
It was a bit of lunatic bluster, a display of hubris for which the soccer gods usually mete out immediate and deserved retribution. And it worked like a charm.
Hertha's 1-0 win over Duisburg on Monday, in a match about as exciting as a tour of a ball-bearing factory, meant that Berlin could finish no worse than second, with three matches left to play.
To be fair, when Hertha Sporting Director Michael Preetz made his “division-two Bayern” remark, he was talking about opponents' perceptions of his team. And ratcheting up the pressure not only forced a squad previously accused of bloodless paycheck cashing to buckle down and grind out results. It also created a sense of drama in the capital that, together with low ticket prices, lured thousands of new fans to Berlin's Olympic stadium.
Hertha have shattered second-division attendance records this season. Supporters even set up a radio station especially dedicated to following the club's progress toward promotion - with commentary in snotty Berlin dialect. Ironically, though, one of the main architects of the new passion-inspiring Hertha is not a Berliner, but a Bavarian.
Babbel showed a stern hand with his players, but they found him fair - and repaid him with wins
As a member of title-winning teams at Bayern, Liverpool and Stuttgart, not to mention a European Champion with the German national team, coach Markus Babbel is everything Hertha historically hasn't been - measured, professional and, above all, successful.
He's also the antithesis of the Jürgen-Klopp coach-as-fan model that is all the rage in German football at present. The immaculately tailored Babbel rarely leaves his seat during matches. He typically follows the action, even when Hertha win, with the mien of someone witnessing a particularly grisly road accident.
The 38-year-old is still relatively young, and questions still exist about tactical prowess. But his ability to man-manage a squad is beyond all doubt.
Babbel employed a surprising number of players in Hertha's drive to promotion, including a handful of youngsters and unknowns. Last autumn, for instance, he demoted veteran striker Rob Friend in favor of 19-year-old Pierre-Michel Lasogga, and the bullish forward has repaid him with a double-digit goal tally.
Babbel also did not hesitate to begin away matches with playmaker Rafael, regarded by most as the most skilled footballer in the second division, on the bench. Simultaneously, he developed the unheralded Australian midfielder Nikita Rukavytsya - seen as an afterthought free transfer as the season began - into the league's number two provider of assists.
Benching stars is often a sure-fire way of destroying team chemistry. But from top to bottom, the squad got behind Babbel's decisions without much grumbling in the press - an unusual occurrence.
Berlin is a German media center and has a string of local newspapers - meaning Hertha are followed by six to ten beat writers on a daily basis. That's a lot of column inches to fill, and a lot of space for unhappy players to grouse in. Not this season.
Harmony was perhaps the key commodity in a run that saw Hertha lose only once from January to late April 2011. And it will be a necessary element if Hertha are to stay in the top flight.
Past debts, future prospects
Ramos, Mijatovic and Lasogga are three players who were key to the club's campaign - but Hertha will need more like them next year
Heading into 2011-12, Hertha have a better than average chance of re-establishing themselves in the first division. Led by Rafael, Lasogga and Colombian striker Adrian Ramos, the squad is very deep up front, and its preference for counter-attacking football should serve it well when it faces the much stiffer competition of the Bundesliga.
But Preetz and Babbel have to bring in some reinforcements at the back. Goalkeeper Maikel Aerts is one of the lowest-rated in the second division accorded to the grades handed out by the German football magazine kicker, and defenders Levan Kobiashvili and Andre Mijatovic will be 34 and 31 years old respectively when next season kicks off.
Promotion, of course, will dramatically increase Hertha's revenues. The problem is that much of that money has already been spent.
The team must service more than 30 million euros ($42 million) in debt from the first division years 1997-2010. In addition, Hertha will have back rent to pay for the use of the Olympic stadium this season, as well as salary bonuses agreed with top players to convince them to stay with the team in division two.
Indeed, Hertha's entire 2010-11 campaign was a daring, if ultimately successful gamble. Had Hertha failed to achieve promotion, the debt-burdened club would have been forced to hold a fire-sale and might well have drifted down to the nether regions of the second division or even lower.
As it stands, Berlin will only have 4-5 million euros to invest in personnel. A number of good goalkeepers, including perhaps St. Pauli's Thomas Kessler, should become available on free transfers, but Hertha will have to spend its money wisely to build a defense capable of meeting first-division demands.
Berlin's calm, cool and collected duo of Preetz and Babbel proved canny bargain-hunters last year. They'll need to do the same this summer, if they want to keep attracting 40-50,000 fans to the Olympic, and if the team about to be formerly known as the “Bayern of division two” is to have a chance against the genuine article.
Author: Jefferson Chase
Editor: Matt Hermann