Hertha face local rivals Union for the first time in the Bundesliga as the German capital takes center stage. With new financial backing and Berlin booming, it’s the perfect time for the 'Old Lady' to make a fresh start.
For much of this season, it's been newly-promoted Union Berlin who have been making headlines in the German capital. But take a stroll through Charlottenburg, Moabit, Gesundbrunnen or Wedding and one cannot fail to spot the lampposts and street signs plastered in blue and white ultras' stickers. This is Hertha territory.
While Union are enjoying their first ever Bundesliga campaign, Hertha were founder members in 1963 and the "Old Lady" of German football has seen it all. But nine games into this season, Hertha are in familiar mid-table territory.
A promising opening-day draw away at Bayern Munich has since been followed by four league defeats, while Hertha needed penalties to get past second-division Dynamo Dresden in the cup on Wednesday.
Not ideal preparation for a first ever Bundesliga trip to Köpenick to face local rivals Union, whose arrival in the Bundesliga has once again shone the spotlight on Hertha's battle to find their place in Germany's sprawling, booming capital.
"I do think there is a bit of an identity crisis at Hertha,” says Dan, a Hertha Berlin season ticket holder sipping a beer in the sunshine ahead of the recent home win against Paderborn. "Berlin has changed a lot in the last 15 years and I think the club is still trying to work out what their identity is and what their position is within Berlin."
It's not for want of trying. Indeed, in recent years, Hertha have tended to attract attention more for a series of marketing campaigns rather than for their football.
"A Berlin Start-Up since 1892,” read one tag-line, referring to Berlin's modern entrepreneurial spirit. "We try, we fail, we win,” read another, expressing the club's courage to try out new ideas, such as the creation of an e-sports team.
However, the slogan "In Berlin, you can be whatever you want – even a Hertha fan” sounded like an acknowledgement that the club still has some work to do, and attempts at internationalization and digitalization haven't always gone down well with the hardcore support.
"The world is changing and we want to actively help shape it,” explains Marcus Jung, Hertha's head of communications. "It's only human to have reservations about change at first, so it's important to make sure we take everybody who feels connected to Hertha with us. Perhaps we've not always managed that perfectly in the past, but it remains our aim.”
Founded in July 1892 as one of Germany's first football-only clubs, Hertha Berliner Sport-Club certainly don't lack tradition or history. Named after a steam boat on which one of the club's founders, Fritz Lindner, once traveled, Hertha BSC were a major pre-war power, winning back-to-back German titles in 1930 and 1931 and finishing runners-up four times in the 1920s.
After the Second World War, Hertha found themselves in West Berlin but, despite competing in the Bundesliga, their location in a city which was divided for 40 years has proved problematic. Even today, as Germany prepares to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, none of the country's top 30 companies are based in the capital and Germany is the only country in Western Europe where the capital city does not drive economic growth. It's been a problem for Berlin — and for Hertha.
Until now. This summer, German businessman Lars Windhorst and his investment firm Tennor Holdings purchased 37.5% of the club's professional football division for €125m ($140m). A further tranche of €100m is expected to follow before the end of the season as Windhorst aims to establish Hertha as a Champions League club.
Suddenly, Hertha were "swimming in cash,” as the Süddeutsche Zeitung broadsheet put it, and striker Dodi Lukebakio was promptly recruited from Watford for a club record €20m. "The future belongs to Berlin!” is the club's latest official slogan, and this one seemed to have potential.
But the news even seemed to take Hertha by surprise. Only a couple of months earlier, the club had parted ways with head coach of four years Pal Dardai and replaced him reserve team coach Ante Covic. Officially, the promotion from within was in keeping with the club's DNA, the 44-year-old Berlin-born Croat having been at Hertha in various roles, including as a player, since 1991.
Elsewhere, however, the suspicion was that no-one else was interested in Hertha, the old, romantic but unspectacular Bundesliga side which had finished somewhere between 6th and 15th in each of the previous five seasons.
"Ante Covic is a nice guy but he's a petty officer,” says journalist Uwe Bremer, who covers Hertha for the Berliner Morgenpost newspaper. "And you don't put a petty officer in charge of huge ship.”
The Olympic Stadium has also become a problem. The club have played their home games in Westend since 1963 but want to move out. "The Olympiastadion is too big for Hertha,” admitted general manager Michael Preetz this year in an interview with Tagesspiegel, and he's right. Hertha's average crowds of around 40,000 are by no means small but, in the Bundesliga, only Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund could reliably fill a 75,000-capacity arena on a weekly basis.
What's more, the running track separating the pitch from the stands detracts significantly from the atmosphere. "A proper football stadium would be worth extra six points per season,” calculated Ante Covic after last week's 1-1 draw at Werder Bremen's Weserstadion. "I wish we had a similar stadium in Berlin.”
But with the Olympiastadion under protected status as a German heritage site, the running track cannot be removed, so where can Hertha go?
Ideally, the club want to construct their own 55,000-capacity stadium in the Olympic Park, but that would mean knocking down 24 rented apartments and, in accordance with German law, providing equivalent alternative housing for residents, something Hertha have not been able to guarantee.
And so the club considered moving beyond the city limits and into the surrounding state of Brandenburg, a suggestion which was strongly rejected by members who insisted on Hertha remaining in Berlin. A third option would be to move onto the site currently occupied by Tegel Airport, but only once the new Berlin-Brandenburg airport opens.
Yet with that project now eight years overdue, billions of euros over budget and considered a running joke across Germany, no-one is holding their breath.
"With our fans in our own proper football stadium without a running track, there would be a fantastic atmosphere,” insists season ticket holder Dan. "But every time I open the newspaper, the new stadium's going to be in a new location.”
'Union are a blessing for Hertha'
Perhaps Preetz, Covic and Dan would prefer a home like the Stadion an der Alten Försterei, home to local rivals Union and the location for this weekend's first ever Bundesliga derby between the two. Indeed, the arrival of Union in the top-flight, with their atmospheric ground, supporter-friendly reputation and alternative, underdog identity has thrown some of Hertha's issues into sharp relief.
When Hertha suggested requesting special dispensation from the German Football League (DFL) to schedule the first derby for the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Union president Dirk Zingler controversially rebuked the idea, emphasizing the difference between the two clubs: "It's a derby; it stands for rivalry and demarcation,” he told the Berliner Zeitung. "It's a football class war in the city.”
The comment wasn't universally well received. "In terms of their history, Hertha are just as much a working class club as Union,” says the Morgenpost's Uwe Bremer. "If you've ever been to the Olympic Stadium, you'll know that Hertha are hardly a club where fans wave their credit cards around. Hertha are just as raw.”
Hertha distinguish themselves in other ways. "In contrast to Union, we see ourselves as a club for the whole of Berlin,” says Marcus Jung, and the words are backed up by actions. At every home game, a particular "Bezirk” (district) of Berlin is featured in the matchday program and there have been six public first team training sessions, each in a different "Kiez” (neighborhood).
Hertha are certainly present, and Bremer believes that Union's promotion could actually provide a welcome boost. "It's a blessing for Hertha,” he tells DW. "It means that football in general has become more important in Berlin."
"The sensible fans probably realize that it's a good thing for Hertha,” agrees Dan. "It directs the spotlight onto the city. We're in the capital city of one of the biggest footballing nations in the world. There is a lot of untapped potential in Hertha.”
Whether Hertha can successfully tap into that potential will not be decided on Saturday – although try telling that to the 2,000 fans who will pack the away end, with the eyes of the world watching.
"Berlin is unique and the city is currently experiencing an incredible boom,” says Marcus Jung. "Berlin is riding a wave of success and has a golden future ahead of it. And the same applies to Hertha.”