Relegated Hertha Berlin has undergone a capital makeover to battle its way back into first division soccer. Anything but promotion is unacceptable, says new coach Markus Babbel.
Hertha Berlin hopes to revive fortunes after relegation
At the end of the 2008-9 season, Hertha Berlin were on a high. They'd finished fourth, and had arguably the league's most promising young coach in Lucien Favre.
But what followed was an abysmal 2009/10 season in which key players like Andrey Voronin, on loan from FC Liverpool, and Croatian national defender Josef Simunic, left the club, leaving Hertha without the stamina to prevent relegation.
This season the drain continued. Key players like German national team defender Arne Friedrich and Czech goalkeeper Jaroslav Drobny left Berlin because their contracts had expired.
However nothing less than an "immediate return to the 1st division" was the ultimate goal for Hertha, said the club's new coach, Markus Babbel.
Babbel dead set on promotion
Babbel is a decorated former defender who won the 1996 European Championship with Germany, as well as several Bundesliga titles with Bayern Munich and the UEFA Cup with FC Liverpool.
Once a combative defender, Babbel hopes to instill a fighting mood
Hertha Berlin had the "potential to achieve this goal", he said because "the management, as well as the training conditions are first class".
"I've been given a one-year contract under the condition that I bring Hertha back into the 1st dívision. This is my mission which I've readily accepted", the 38-year-old coach said.
Although the club's seasonal budget had to be trimmed from 72 million euros (US $ 92.1 million) in 2009 to 33 million euros this year, Hertha Berlin still spends more than any other club in the second division.
"As far as playing skills are concerned, Hertha is going to be strong", said the new team captain, Croatian defender Andre Mijatovic, and added: "But that's not enough to win the 2nd Bundesliga.
Fighting spirit required
Mijatovic came from second division club Arminia Bielfeld this summer, and was made team captain by Babbel "because of his valuable experience, as well as his enormous presence on the pitch."
The central defender is one of 14 new signings made by the club to offset the loss of altogether 16 players who had left after relegation.
The most prominent new players are Canadian striker Rob Friend, who was signed from first division club Borussia Moenchengladbach, and Christian Lell, a former Bayern Munich squad player, who brings the experience of 68 Bundesliga and 10 Champions League matches to Berlin.
A few years ago Lell, 25, won promotion to the first division with his former club FC Cologne and described the second division as "a fighting league".
Christian Lell warned against complacency
"What counts in this league is utmost mental as well as physical fitness", he said, adding the team must "quickly adapt to this style of play".
An indication that some players are not yet up to the challenge ahead of them was the fact that they returned in poor condition from their summer holidays.
A host of players failed a fitness test carried out at the beginning of Hertha's pre-season training, forcing coach Babbel to order additional fitness sessions.
In addition, some key players will be out for the club's first few matches due to injuries. Talented striker Daniel Beichler, who was bought from Sturm Graz, had to undergo groin surgery, while playmaker Raffael hasn't trained for a while because of flu. And midfielder Patrick Ebert may be out until the winter break, having suffered a serious knee injury.
Will Berlin's Olympic Stadium see better days dawning in soccer?
"It's crucial for Hertha to get off to a successful start in the 2nd Bundesliga", said club manager Michael Preetz, "because our fans expect us to dominate the league".
And indeed, unlike fans of clubs like Borussia Dortmund or Schalke 04, who support their teams even in dire times, Berliners are known to quickly lose interest in Hertha if they play poorly.
Pre-season ticket sales for Hertha's first home match against lowly Oberhausen at the huge 70,000-seat Olympic stadium have been strong, club officials said.
But some fear this could change if the club doesn't put together a string of convincing wins, setting off a downward spiral of low turnout and lackluster performances which could keep the club in the wilderness of second-class soccer.
Author: Uwe Hessler (dpa/AFP)
Editor: Matt Hermann