In the end, Hertha avoided the unfortunate statistical quirk. Having finally evaded a relegation play-off on the final day of 2014/15, the Champions League final then rolled into Berlin for the first time. It would have been the first time that the European Cup final was played in a city without a top-flight team.
Capital cities do not always dominate football – Manchester United and Liverpool are England’s most successful clubs, while Juventus, Milan and Inter have won the most Scudettos. In France, Paris St Germain may be the nouveau riche but Marseille, St Etienne and Nantes have traditionally been more successful.
Yet Berlin is still a clear outlier. In 2014/15, London’s clubs finished 1st, 3rd and 5th domestically. The Parisian club finished 1st in France, Madrid’s clubs finished 2nd and 3rd in Spain, Lisbon’s clubs finished 1st, 3rd and 6th in Portugal, Rome clubs finished 2nd and 3rd in Italy and Moscow clubs finished 2nd, 4th, 6th and 7th in Russia. Hertha, the German capital’s only top-flight team, finished 15th.
Berlin, a city of close to four million people, has one team in the top tier. It may be the political capital, but German football’s power base is firmly seated in the west of the country. The nearest Bundesliga club to Hertha is Wolfsburg, 140 miles west. Hannover, Hamburg and Bremen come next, all between 170 and 250 miles away.
East German football is still struggling to make the breakthrough. Hansa Rostock and Energie Cottbus have both appeared in the Bundesliga in the last 12 years, but both now operate in the third tier. The only honourable exceptions are Union, Berlin’s cult club, who have never reached the top flight since the Bundesliga’s formation. Red Bull Leipzig are another anomaly, but honour has played no part in their rise.
If Hertha are the oasis in the desert, it has been a pretty dry landscape. The club was a founder member of the Bundesliga in 1963, but were selected at least partly for political reasons. Twelve different clubs have won the Bundesliga, but Hertha are not one.
In fact, they found it tough to even keep their heads above water. During the Cold War, Berlin was split in two. Cut off on the island of West Berlin by the wall, Hertha understandably struggled to attract players, eventually resorting to breaking salary and signing-on fee caps and committing bribery in order to recruit squad members. The scandal caused their relegation to the amateur leagues. Hertha were also engulfed in the Bundesliga match-fixing scandal of 1971, which saw 15 players and a club official punished.
Despite a second-place finish in 1975 and subsequent UEFA Cup run, Hertha spent much of the next two decades outside the top tier. When the wall finally came down in 1989, they threatened to kick on, but even that surge soon abated. The frantic stewardship of Dieter Hoeness, with wild overspending and under-planning, almost took the club under. Hertha have been relegated twice in the last six seasons, and their Champions League participation in 1999/2000 remains the one true high in their recent history. Before hosting the final in 2015, it was Berlin’s only contribution to the competition.
Despite calling Berlin’s iconic Olympiastadion home, Hertha have always been a club with modest means. The signing of Valentin Stocker in 2014 was the first time they had spent more than £3m on a player since 2007, and only the second since 2002. Their record signing is Alex Alves, who joined from Cruzeiro for £5.6m in 1999. Alex sadly passed away in 2012 after a long struggle with leukaemia.
At first glance, Hertha’s average attendances of 49,000 seem high, lower than only three Premier League clubs. Yet this is the sole top-flight representative in a city of four million. There are usually 25,000 empty seats on match day. Despite being the capital city club, there are few celebrity fans or heads of state at their home games. They are a working-class club in a middle-class setting.
Berlin’s modest football history is no accident. It is a city seen as the home of artists and musicians, far away from the industry of Germany’s Ruhr region. In a city where individualism is valued, there is less demand to follow the football tribe.
Crucially, Berlin doesn’t need football for its identity, the huge stadium on the edge of town a white elephant looking in through the window. To put it bluntly, Berlin does not feel like a footballing city.
It’s hard to envision any monumental shift. While PSG were ripe for rich pickings through their location and relative paucity of success, Germany’s 50%+1 ownership rule makes such a scenario in Berlin highly unlikely. For now, progress can only be slow, but at least sustainable.
The city’s population is also unusual, predominantly comprised of those who have moved into the area rather than grown up locally. This regional migration may have created a cosmopolitan and vibrant city, but it does not lend itself to a strong sporting identity. You are more likely to see Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund shirts in Berlin than the blue and white of Hertha.
Yet, finally, there may be signs of progress. A glance at the current Bundesliga table shows Hertha in third position, behind only Bayern and Dortmund. They have lost just once in the league since the end of October, a 2-0 defeat to Pep Guardiola’s side in the Allianz-Arena, and harbour realistic hopes of European qualification.
It does not take an army to make a difference, but just one man. Hertha’s hero is Pal Dardai. Appointed initially on an interim basis in February with Hertha 17th in the table, Dardai led the club to safety before setting to work in the off-season. Before his appointment, the 39-year-old’s only experience was managing the club’s Under-15 side.
With some astute purchases and change in ethos, Hertha are firing again. There has been no magic fix, simply a notable increase in effort, determination and fight. They are an efficient machine, without unnecessary style. How very Germanic; how very un-Berliner.
“I’ll work to the death,” Dardai says. “I have blue Hertha blood and a Hungarian heart.” Having first arrived at the club in 1997, you’re inclined to believe him. Almost half of his life has been spent with The Old Lady.
Berlin’s interest in its biggest football club usually sits at mild indifference. Yet with an iconic stadium and huge potential fanbase, it isn’t difficult to see how success could easily snowball. The infrastructure is in place, now the football can follow suit.
For the first time in a long while, Berlin is finally calling. It may not be sustainable, but Germany finally has its capital club. Hertha are going places again.