Last season ended in the nightmare of relegation for Hertha Berlin. But a new coach, a young squad, and a few steps toward financial stability have meant the 'Old Lady' has a new outlook - and a promising future.
Raffael, Ronny and the rest of the Hertha team are holding onto first place
Half of Hertha Berlin's four wins so far in 2011 have come after falling a goal behind, including a spectacular 6-2 demolition of Kalrsruhe away last Sunday. Impressive, to be sure, but then this is a club that has come to specialize in comebacks.
Hertha finished last season adrift at the bottom of the Bundesliga and started this one with a new coach and a hastily-assembled team comprised of journeyman veterans and untried youngsters. Not many had anticipated such stability and tenacity from a club that has made a habit of underachievement, but evidence is beginning to pile up that Hertha is finally getting its act together.
Financial issues have dogged the club over the last decade, but these problems are being tackled more seriously than ever. The club's turbulent coaching situation may be approaching calmer waters too, as Markus Babbel increasingly looks like a long-term solution. And Hertha may finally have shaken off what has become its worst habit of all - selling off its best young players before they are ripe, only to see them again later as a delicious ingredient in some other club's supper. Both on and off the pitch, things are finally beginning to look up for Berlin's famous old club.
A palpable sigh of relief emanated from the Olympiastadion this January when the club got a cash injection of eight million euros (nearly $11 million). That the massive sum came from an investor who wished to remain anonymous didn't seem to bother anybody - a clear indication of what this club's problem has been for years: it needs money, and fast.
In fact it was only with that big financial boost that the club's books will be sufficiently balanced to assure them a license to play next year under the rigorous debt-vetting rules of the German Football League (DFL).
Hoeness (l.) always did have a weakness for expensive Brazilians
But Hertha's financial difficulties are long-standing, and are mostly a hangover from the first few years of the new century - a time when, ironically, the club experienced its greatest glories on the pitch. After making the jump into the first division in 1997 Hertha thrived, qualifying for the Champions League in 1999-2000 and attracting star players like Sebastian Deisler, Marcelinho, and Alex Alves.
But players of that caliber are expensive, and Hertha's former sporting director Dieter Hoeness overspent time and again. The club took on money from investors like the sports marketing firm UFA (known today as SportFive) in hopes of hoping to get back into the Champions League, knowing that the TV money from that competition would give them the money to pay it back. That never happened, and soon the club was deep in debt.
The recent anonymous investment in Hertha may sound like more of the same, but there is a big difference. This time, instead of going out and spending the money like it was burning a hole in its pocket, Hertha is devoting the whole sum to debt reduction.
Not all of Hertha's cash at the turn of the millennium was spent on costly underachievers. Plans were also launched to safeguard the club's future in the form of significant investment in youth development. Ten years on, current youth team coach Rene Tretschok is reaping the benefits.
"Looking back over recent years, one can certainly say that Hertha are one of Germany's leading clubs with regard to youth development," he said.
Both Jerome and Kevin-Prince Boateng were born in Berlin and rose up through the ranks at Hertha. Kevin-Prince was sold for a tidy seven million euros to Tottenham Hotspur in 2008, after 53 appearances for Hertha. His brother Jerome, however, left for Hamburg for just one million that same summer. They now ply their trade with Milan and Manchester City respectively, and both featured prominently in last summer's World Cup in South Africa.
In his Hertha days, the elder Boateng was best known for his tattoos
The Boateng brothers were not the only rising stars to slip through Hertha's fingers as coaches froze out young starlets in favor of playing veterans in an effort to "win now."
Ashkan Dejagah departed in 2008 and won the title with Wolfsburg the following year. Christopher Samba, Blackburn Rovers' stalwart central defender and Hoffenheim's Sejad Salihovic both spend the early part of their careers in the Hertha youth system, and strikers Ivica Olic of Bayern Munich and Srdjan Lakic of Kaiserslautern got their Bundesliga starts in Berlin before moving on in search of first-team opportunities.
But according to Pal Dardai, who has made more appearances for Hertha than any other player, the reason why those youngsters left before making an impact in Berlin is very simple. “It's all down to money”, he said. The club's overspending meant that Hertha's best kids were being sold to service the debt as soon as a decent offer came in.
Turnover at the top
The club's coaching situation was similarly chaotic over the last decade. Hertha changed coaches nine times since those heady Champions League days.
Although recent Borussia Mönchengladbach hire Lucien Favre led the club to within a whisker of the Bundesliga title in 2009, he wasn't the strong leader Hertha needed, said Dardai.
"He was an extremely good coach…[but] his German wasn't good enough.”
His successor Friedhelm Funkel, in charge when the team was relegated, was "extremely unlucky," said Dardai.
Fielding young players is part of Babbel's plan to get Hertha back up
Since Markus Babbel took over as coach in summer 2009, he has been stamping his authority on the squad.
"They simply weren't good enough last season and they deserved to get relegated", Babbel said of last year's team.
There will be no appeasing big egos with Babbel in charge, as had previously been the case with star attackers like Marcelinho and Marko Pantelic. Even Dardai, the cornerstone of Hertha's midfield for fourteen years, wasn't safe from the Babbel revolution - he no longer trains with the first team as he focuses on completing his coaching qualifications.
Babbel has made it clear he is willing to give youth a chance. "It's up to them," the coach said of his young players in an interview with SPOX.com last year. "If they convince me, they'll play".
He has been true to his word. Nineteen-year-old striker Pierre-Michel Lasogga has made perhaps the biggest impact with his six goals thus far, but other teenagers such as Marco Djuricin, Fanol Perdedaj, Sebastian Neumann and highly-rated wide player Nico Schulz have also featured. Twenty-three-year-old Nikita Rukavytsya too has been a revelation on the wing, chipping in with eight assists so far.
Dardai, a Hertha legend, now works as a youth team coach
To Dardai, the next steps for Hertha BSC are clear. "We need to stabilize, and then we can keep our young talents." This stability, however, is dependent upon a quick return to the Bundesliga.
There Hertha could draw higher attendances, charge more for tickets, and exact higher fees from sponsors - exactly the recipe the club needs to follow to continue reducing its debt.
But the pressure is on due to the club's wage bill. A string of key players like Patrick Ebert, Adrian Ramos, and the Brazilian brothers Raffael and Ronny would probably be too expensive to keep on for another year in division two.
But if those established stars - and the group of talented young players surrounding them - continue to perform, there's no reason they should have to. More and more, it appears the same Hertha that crashed and burned last season has finally got itself on the right track.
Author: Stephen Glennon
Editor: Matt Hermann