Germany’s capital is something of a footballing anomaly. Hertha Berlin have underachieved and attendances leave a lot to be desired. Could a cup semifinal ignite a footballing passion often absent from the city?
London. Paris. Lisbon. Madrid. Rome. Once again, clubs from Europe’s major capital cities have featured heavily in the knockout rounds of the Champions League. Berlin was, as usual, the most notable exception.
The city’s biggest club, Hertha Berlin, are enjoying arguably their best season since the beginning of this century. They still have a genuine chance of qualifying for the Champions League for only the second time in their history and on Wednesday night they faced Borussia Dortmund at their Olympic Stadium home in a battle to face Bayern Munich in the final at the same venue - and potentially begin to change the football world’s perception of their city.
Despite a relatively successful season thus far, Hertha’s average attendance sits around the 47,000 mark - slightly above the league average but less than two thirds of the stadium’s capacity and less than the likes of FC Cologne.
The relative emptiness of the ground in most fixtures, combined with the distance between the fans and pitch created by a running track, often leads to accusations of a sterile atmosphere at Hertha home games and contributes to a general feeling among German football fans that Berlin simpy isn’t a "football city."
But all that was easy to forget on Wednesday night. Two hours before kick off, city trains were packed with fans wearing the home side’s blue and white. Shortly afterwards, large sections of the sell-out crowd of 76, 233 were on the terraces, with well over an hour to wait before kick off, as the home side’s most fanatical fans in the Ostkurve traded songs with the visitors from the west. This was an extremely rare sell out, and pitchside lasers and celebratory flags all added to the sense that this was a big night, particularly for the hosts.
The volume in the stadium reached a crescendo as the match kicked off but on the pitch, Hertha’s players could not raise their game in the same way as the fans. Dortmund controlled the first half, taking a deserved lead through Gonzalo Castro, but with only a goal separating the teams at the break, Berlin were still alive.
After the interval the crowd tried once more to lift Hertha but it was to no avail. As loud as the Ostkurve got, the distance between crowd and players often seemed insurmountable in a stadium not designed for football. Could it be that the stadium and not the people or the club are what makes people question Berlin’s credentials as a "football city?"
Time for change?
Oliver Knaack thinks so. The sports reporter and editor for the "Berliner Zeitung" daily paper told DW that the city’s historical division and diverse, international population don’t help Hertha attract fans but their biggest problem is their home ground.
"The biggest problem for Hertha is the stadium," he said. "It is just too big and not really attractive when it is not sold out. It is the only stadium in the league that still has a running track. Even in the first row, you are at least 35 meters (115 feet) away from the pitch, not to mention the last row in the upper deck.
"A lot of football fans in the city say that they would go there more often, if the atmosphere was better, if the stadium was more crowded. So basically, nobody is going there because nobody is going there…"
As Wednesday’s game wore on, Dortmund scored two more goals to claim a comfortable 3-0 win, and by the time the third had gone in seven minutes from time, fans of both sides had long begun to to trickle out of the stadium to avoid the rush for trains back to the city center.
Those in yellow and black were already looking forward to a return trip to the Olympic Stadium on May 21 when Dortmund will take on Bayern Munich in the cup final. For those in blue and white, it’ll be another year of watching someone else lift a trophy in their own backyard. Perhaps it’ll take a change of scenery for the club to be truly embraced by the capital city.