Forever being seen as unfashionable and underachieving despite being the only club in Germany’s capital, Hertha Berlin is now riding high in the Bundesliga
In mid-August, ten days before the start of the new season, posters began to appear all over the German capital. “In Berlin, you can be everything“, they read. The catchphrase echoed the sentiment that the city may be the hippest, most creative and vibrant place in the world at the moment.
It attracts untold numbers of artists, start-ups or young people simply looking for a good time because Berlin is still far more affordable than comparable metropolises. However, the line didn’t end there. What the posters said in full was: “In Berlin, you can be everything. Even a Hertha fan.“
It’s the sort of self-deprecating joke you would rather expect from the club’s local rivals Union, who are not as good as Hertha (Union seem to be forever stuck in the second division) yet possess a couple of things which Hertha want but can’t seem to get. Such as a reputation for being humorous. Or a football-only ground with a brilliant atmosphere. And above all: a home and an identity.
Foreigners usually wonder why Hertha aren’t much bigger. After all, they are the premier club in a city that is larger than Madrid, Rome or Paris, not to mention that it’s unheard-of for a major footballing country’s capital not to have a truly competitive team. Of course Berlin’s unique history goes a long way towards explaining this anomaly.
For instance, when the Bundesliga was formed in 1963, only very few talented footballers fancied playing for a team that was based in a city surrounded by a wall and right smack in the middle of what was essentially enemy territory. Hertha tried to work around this drawback by offering players illegal under-the-table payments and were punished by demotion. Ever since, finances have been a problem for Hertha, partly because of a long tradition of mismanagement, and partly because Berlin is many things – but not wealthy. As former mayor Klaus Wowereit once quipped: “Berlin is poor but sexy.”
And there is another thing. During Hertha’s golden age, the 1920s and early 1930s, the team played in a stadium in a part of town known as Gesundbrunnen, less than three miles north of Alexanderplatz, the famous public square. But this ground was not fit for Bundesliga football, so Hertha moved eight miles to the west – into the cold, vast Olympic Stadium, situated in an area most Berliners consider rather posh and remote. Once the club had to turn their backs on their spiritual home in Gesundbrunnen, a sense of a lack of direction began to engulf Hertha, as if cutting their roots had condemned them to float aimlessly about.
— Hertha Berlin (@HerthaBSC_EN) September 24, 2018
Two-years-ago, Hertha tried to address this dilemma. First the club announced that it would be leaving the Olympic Stadium in 2025, when the current rental contract with the city runs out, and move into a football-only stadium Hertha will build themselves. If no suitable site can be found in Berlin, Hertha added, the club would consider leaving the city and playing in Ludwigsfelde, a town south of the capital.
Then Hertha turned towards Jung von Matt, one of the biggest advertising agencies in the country, to upgrade their image. Jung von Matt decided if Berlin is poor but sexy and hip, that’s how Hertha should be sold to an increasingly international audience. The agency launched a campaign focussed around an English-language slogan (the mysterious “We try. We fail. We win“) and referred to the club as a “start-up since 1892”.
It all backfired badly. The vast majority of supporters abhorred the idea of a ground in Ludwigsfelde. Jung von Matt’s tech-speak campaign didn’t exactly help, as it further alienated Hertha’s old fan base without making any inroads into the hipster community. Not least because there was an obvious discrepancy between Hertha’s new avant-garde image and the actual football on display, which was rather traditional – read: defensive and a tad boring. Although Hertha finished in a respectable tenth place last season, the team lost almost 5,000 fans per home game, drawing only 43,000 people on average. Not even the match against Bayern was sold out.
Reaction from the players after yesterday's win:
— Hertha Berlin (@HerthaBSC_EN) September 23, 2018
If this was the end of the story, it would be a typical Hertha tale: well meant, but not well done. However, only a few weeks after morale appeared to be at an all-time low, the club are suddenly the toast of the town – and the league! And those posters do play a role. Hertha (and Jung von Matt) came to the conclusion that you have to win over your own community before you can target an international audience.
Hence the posters which tongue-in-cheek urge Berliners to support their team. In May, Hertha presented plans for the new ground – not in Ludwigsfelde, but right next to the Olympic Stadium. The club also announced to literally tour the city this season, holding official training sessions at various small clubs. The first trip of this kind was a huge success: in early September, Hertha visited seventh-division TSV Mariendorf, based in the city’s south, and 2,500 curious onlookers, many of them kids, filled the club’s tiny ground.
The most important thing, however, is the football. Without anyone expecting it, Hertha got off to their best start in Bundesliga history – three wins and one draw. And they have done this in great style. As if somebody has turned a switch, Hertha’s coach Pal Dardai, once known for his safety-first approach, is having his side play attacking football. And reaping the rewards. On Monday, Kicker magazine referred to the team as “entertainers” and concluded: “It seems as if Berlin is falling in love with Hertha again.“ Which means that if the team come away with a decent result from Bremen on Tuesday, the next home game will definitely be sold out. It’s against Bayern.