For Berlin’s football club, a history of bankruptcy, bombs and bribery
After a rocky past, Hertha Berlin is finally starting to succeed -- and have their eyes set on rising to the top.Berlin -- Bankruptcy, bombs, bribery and a steamboat have all played their part in Hertha Berlin's history, as the capital city football club now finds itself in the unusual position of Bundesliga leaders.
Hertha are four points clear at the top of the table with ten weeks left and their success is so unexpected midfielder Sofian Chahed has even promised to buy every Hertha fan a beer if they win the title.
"Nobody saw our success coming before the season started," admitted midfielder Patrick Ebert. "We wanted to win as many games as possible and establish ourselves near the top of the table. We have done well so far, but we still have a lot of tough games to come."
Having finished 10th for the last two seasons, Berlin must still run the gauntlet of 10 league games if Swiss coach Lucien Favre is to become only the sixth coach from outside Germany to lift the Bundesliga title.
They confirmed their pedigree as genuine contenders last month with a 2 to 1 win over Bayern Munich on St Valentine's Day, which won the hearts of their fans. Their history is as colourful as their blue and white stripes.
The club was established in 1892 when one of their founders took a boat ride on the steamship 'Hertha,' which bore the club's eventual colours.
Hertha were German champions in 1930 and 1931, but after more than 200 Allied bombs hit their Plumpe Stadium during the Second World War, the club was disbanded until 1949, when a group of players fled East Germany to sign for Hertha.
The club then started playing key games at the Olympic Stadium -- built by Hitler for the 1936 Games -- but when the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, the club found it hard to attract top class players to the isolated city.
The result was the German Football Federation (DFB) eventually found them guilty of bribery and Hertha were banished from the Bundesliga to the regional league in 1965.
They clawed their way back to Germany's top flight, but a match-fixing scandal in 1971 revealed the club had 6 million deutschmarks of debt and only the selling of their old Plumpe Stadium saved them from bankruptcy.
Since then, Berlin had failed to threaten the top of the Bundesliga -- until now.
Germany defender and Hertha captain Arne Friedrich was the club's only household name when the season started, but 17 goals from strikers Marko Pantelic and on-loan Liverpool star Andrey Voronin have raised both Berlin's profile and league position.
After exiting both the UEFA Cup and the German Cup, Hertha now have just the domestic league on which to concentrate. And with 58,753 supporters watching them beat Bayer Leverkusen 1 to 0 last Saturday, their gates are also rising.
Ebert is typical of the hard-working ethic that has seen Favre forge his side into title contenders.
"It is a fantastic feeling to be doing so well," said the 21-year-old. "Team spirit is the crucial factor. Everyone is giving his all for the good of the team. That is what sets us apart."
Ebert says part of the success is down to Favre's training regime since he took over in July 2007.
"Firstly, his training sessions are always varied and interesting," he said. "In addition, he works hard with the young players to show them their weaknesses and help them improve. He always makes time to listen to us and his qualities as a coach are beyond question. He is meticulous with his studying of the opposition and is tactically astute."
But wilting finances are Hertha's main problem. So much so, they may have to let Voronin return to Merseyside at the season's end. The Ukrainian has scored eight goals in his last six games and wants to extend his loan stay.
"This summer we can't spend a single cent to buy new players," warned Favre.
But for Ebert and Hertha, UEFA Cup qualification is the goal.
Said Ebert: “I would love to read the papers at the end of the season saying we had reached the UEFA Cup -- the Bundesliga title would be a bonus.”