Hertha Berlin clearly wanted to make a splash by naming Jürgen Klinsmann manager. Still, they probably didn’t intend for it to be this kind of splash. After 76 days in the position, nearly half of which fell during the Bundesliga’s winter break, the former Germany, Bayern Munich and USA boss shockingly stepped down from the post.
At first blush, Klinsmann’s signing at Hertha seemed the perfect fit. He was the big name with big ideas the Berlin side desperately craved to head up their most recent reinvention. Hiring the World Cup winner was a statement: Hertha were no longer content to be Europe’s most provincial capital city club. By appointing Klinsmann, they were poised to take the next step necessary to become the big club they felt they always deserved to be.
German investor Lars Windhorst had bought a 49.9 percent stake in Hertha for €224m just prior to Klinsmann joining the club, and the intoxicating whiff of fresh funds and opportunity hung heavily around the Hertha boardroom. Resources to rival all but the biggest Bundesliga sides and an internationally-known coach to match.
Klinsmann himself spelled out what all this meant: “People always told me Berlin is waiting for something big, Berlin has the potential, Berlin is a sleeping giant that cannot move. And I believe Lars Windhorst has given them a big push,” said the coach when signing on.
Three months later, Klinsmann’s gone and Hertha are scrambling to pick up the pieces. The club can rightfully be upset about how it happened, but they have no one but themselves to blame for buying Klinsmann’s snake oil by the barrel. And though this seems like an appointment gone horribly wrong, Klinsmann’s short saga perfectly encapsulates the identity, and struggles, of a club at a crossroads.
Known as the ‘alte dame’ (old lady), Hertha are the oldest club in the Bundesliga. They’ve got a reputation for being as creaky and grey as their nickname implies, at direct odds with the German capital’s colourful, dizzying dynamism. They stand out as a rare European capital city club with a trophy case dedicating more shelf room to cobwebs than titles. Though this is largely due to Berlin’s unique Cold War history as a divided city and the slow, difficult recovery from this painful period, there’s an inescapable feeling that Hertha should be a bigger deal than they are.
While they’re currently flirting dangerously with relegation, Hertha have essentially doubled as the Bundesliga’s equator lately, finishing 11th and 10th in the last two seasons. Their football has been decent, if frequently inconsistent and often unexciting.
Salomon Kalou and Vedad Ibišević, both of whom have seen greatly reduced playing time this season, are likely the closest Hertha come to having stars. They had a few solid seasons under Pál Dárdai, who guided the ship for four years before being let go last summer. His tenure as head coach was highlighted by qualification for the 2017/18 Europa League.
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Did a deafening buzz engulf Berlin for that European campaign, Hertha’s first since a 2009/10 UEFA Cup appearance? Not quite. Hertha averaged an attendance of 21,000 for their Europa League group stage matches. Their mediocrity on the field is compounded by a relative irrelevance to the city.
Matchdays can come and go without any clear markers around the city that Hertha are on. It doesn’t help that they play in Berlin’s cavernous Olympiastadion. Though they typically muster solid attendance numbers, the 75,000-seat wind tunnel doubling as a football stadium is where good atmosphere goes to die. Hertha are currently pursuing building a 50,000-seat football ground – without a track – to solve their issues.
On-field inconsistency and a drab match experience contribute to the club’s unclear identity. This has become a sticking point in recent years. The potential of Berlin’s explosive growth and reputation as one of the hippest cities in Europe has blinded Hertha’s brass time and time again. Instead of embracing the club’s long history or the fan culture practised by the 40,000 or so supporters who do show up every week, the ‘old lady’ all-too-frequently tries to reinvent itself.
Trying, Failing, Winning?
This has led to the adoption of – seemingly hastily-translated – English marketing slogans like ‘We try. We fail. We win’. Or one from last season, which was at least in German, which might have been a bit too open about the club’s relevance. It translated roughly to, ‘In Berlin you can be anything. Even a Hertha fan.’ Hertha’s marketing department also recently started an unnecessary tiff with supporters by switching out the club’s established pre-match anthem for a rap song – which happens to be 20 years old, indicating just how modern this update was.
But these short-sighted decisions don’t just appear in the club’s promotional material. Hertha’s obsession with becoming a global player repeatedly informs their decisions on the field. Blind optimism and a penchant for falling into get-big-quick schemes have the dire consequence of preventing Hertha from actually reaching their potential.
The club seemed most comfortable, and on the best path, in their seasons under Dárdai. Hertha played to their strengths. Despite grander ambitions lurking under the surface, they emphasised slow growth and excelling within limited means. Sporting director Michael Preetz put faith in Hertha’s solid youth set up and showed a knack for bargain bin transfers. They looked on their way to becoming a stable selling club.
John Anthony Brooks (an academy product), Mitchell Weiser (signed on a free from Bayern), and Valentino Lazaro (brought in two years prior as one of Hertha’s biggest signings) were sold in the last three off-seasons for a combined profit of €40m. Meanwhile, the squad was continuously replenished with academy graduates and shrewd, if unspectacular, signings.
In this period, Dárdai achieved decent results – not a given with the resources at hand. After barely staving off relegation following his mid-season appointment in 2014/15, Dárdai began to get the most out of Hertha’s roster. The Hungarian manager dragged the club back into Europe for the first time since their 2013 return to the top flight, which had followed two short dips in the 2. Bundesliga.
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Still, the relatively lofty heights of sixth and seventh place couldn’t be duplicated, and a tenth-place finish in 2017/18 and further mid-table standards saw Dárdai’s contract cancelled after the 2018/19 season. Continuity in personnel, stability on and off the field and slow, though occasionally inconsistent, growth weren’t enough for the flagship team in football-mad Germany’s capital.
Instead of acknowledging that Dárdai had Hertha punching above their weight by qualifying for the Europa League in the first place, Hertha’s management blamed him for finishing in the middle of the table with a middle of the road squad.
So if the most capped player in the club’s history wasn’t a fit as coach, surely Hertha had the perfect plan for Dárdai’s replacement? Nope, there was no clear Plan B. He was replaced by fellow former player and youth coach Ante Čović last summer.
It was a like-for-like swap demonstrating Dárdai was let go because of a gut decision borne out of a delusional frustration with mediocrity, not because the club had a clear plan for his follower. Luckily, something happened to Hertha last summer that will change the club forever, for better or worse.
Hertha’s management aren’t the only ones who see potential for growth in the club. Shortly before the 2019/20 season kicked off, Lars Windhorst, the CEO of German investment firm Tennor Holding, bought a 37.5 percent share of the club. He’s since upped his outlay to the maximum 49.9 percent allowed given the Bundesliga’s 50+1 rule, which protects a majority stake in ownership for club members, for a total sum of €224m. That’s quite a bit of cash to play with for a team with modest means, though nearly €100 of that’s already been spent on transfers since Windhorst’s arrival.
German football generally has a sceptical-at-best relation to big-money investments, but Preetz and the Hertha board must have thought Windhorst floated down from heaven on a parachute stitched from €200 notes. What could be better news for a pack of blind optimists than a man who throws money at things professionally? And throwing money at things has essentially been Hertha’s strategy since Windhorst’s arrival.
Their first move was to sign Dodi Lukebakio from Watford for €20m at the season’s start, doubling Hertha’s prior transfer record. Lukebakio’s signing set the tone for Hertha’s early transfer policy. He’s a good player who has shown brightly in flashes, but his five goals in 20 league appearances may not justify his hefty price tag.
Following this big initial outlay, Windhorst lobbied hard for Klinsmann to join the board as an advisor and representative for the club, a role that never truly came to fruition because Klinsmann was installed as interim manager in November following the squad’s struggles under Čović.
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For those who have followed his managerial career, Klinsmann’s appointment was a bit of a surprise. He’s largely avoided the game since his dismissal as US coach in 2016. As head coach of Germany, Bayern and the United States, he was better known for lofty, transformational language and new age approaches (plenty of yoga, meditation, inspirational speakers and Buddha statues scattered around the Bayern training facilities) than his tactical acumen.
And managerial success, outside of his Joachim Löw-fuelled stint at Germany, has been evasive. Klinsmann lasted less than a season at Bayern in his only experience coaching at the club level, and many US fans were happy to see him go after he guided the Americans to a dismal start to their 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign.
But Hertha didn’t bring in Klinsmann for his tactical expertise or proven club record. He was brought in because he was a big name with an expansive network of contacts who talks a very, very big game, impeccably personifying Hertha’s transformation from meh to massive at the flick of the switch and drop of cash-filled hat. Klinsmann immediately began speaking about revolutionising the club and modernising its structures, though details remained typically difficult to pin down.
Outside of a coaching staff-shake up, the biggest marker of the brief, beautiful Klinsmann era was a feverish January transfer window, where Hertha immediately burned through a sizeable chunk of Windhorst’s cash. All told they spent nearly €77m, a league record for the winter transfer period, on four players: Santiago Ascacibar, Matheus Cunha, Krzysztof Piątek and Lucas Tousart. This bunch of players, along with Lukebakio, are all solid signings, if pricey given what Hertha laid out for them.
In a clear indication of the yawning, delusion-filled crevasse separating Hertha’s reality and their self-image, their record signing, French midfielder Lucas Tousart, was immediately loaned back to Lyon and won’t head to the German capital until next season. Teams battling to stave off relegation usually don’t spend €25m on a midfielder who won’t join for six months.
Given Hertha’s sense of self, it’s unlikely they even considered having these transfers sign contracts (or release clauses) for the second tier. And you’d have to assume a big-name coach like Klinsmann was part of the sell to get these players to sign in the first place.
Though the first result of the new year was tough to swallow – a 4-0 home loss to Bayern – the goals were attributed to bad luck in the post-match press conference by Klinsmann, and the club seemed to have settled a bit under their new coach in early 2020. Until, at least, a tepid 3-1 loss to fellow relegation candidates Mainz in early February, also at the Olympiastadion.
In a move that surprised all of German football, this would be Klinsmann’s last match in charge. After 76 days at the helm, three losses, three draws and three defeats in the Bundesliga, the man tasked with rebuilding Hertha into a machine of modern football was gone.
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Klinsmann announced he had stepped down via a Facebook post without first telling anyone at the club, citing a “lack of support”. Apparently repeatedly obliterating the club’s previous record transfer sums didn’t count as support. Klinsmann then hosted a Facebook Live Chat to elaborate on his decision to bewildered fans.
He claimed to be frustrated with the German model of running a club where there’s a clear distinction between the sporting director and head coach, and was hoping to have full responsibility in building the team. Klinsmann said he was used to the English model, where managers both coach on the pitch and make transfer decisions. This makes sense, except for the small fact that Klinsmann never coached in England and his only experience managing at the club level was at Bayern. You’d also think he knew Hertha’s structure before signing on.
Windhorst and Preetz were understandably shocked by the news. “We were really caught flat-footed,” said Preetz in a joint press conference shortly after Klinsmann made the announcement. The Hertha sporting director called the situation something he had never seen before in football. Windhorst chided his former golden pick, saying, “You can act like that as a young person but not in business with adults.”
But Windhorst’s faith in his project wasn’t shaken. In the same press conference, Hertha’s new sugar daddy said: “We decided to invest in Hertha BSC because we are convinced that this city deserves a successful, traditional club – and our aims have not changed. There is no reason why Hertha cannot play a leading role in Germany and in Europe. It simply doesn’t exist. It’s not rocket science. It just requires certain ingredients, one of which I am providing.”
Apparently, the Klinsmann mishap was just a small stumbling block on the way to European dominance. Never mind that German football’s future leader are still just six points clear of the relegation playoff spot, even after spending nearly €80m this January. And that’s why Klinsmann’s brief and embarrassing spell at Hertha seems like a grift, but was truly a match made in heaven.
The former striking legend didn’t pull one over on an innocent, unsuspecting club. His empty manager speak and lack of clear ideas aligned splendidly with a club which has sold itself out for the mere chance at greatness. Klinsmann would make a better motivational speaker or PR guru than football manager, but he couldn’t have better embodied Hertha’s current transformation: big promises, bigger sums of cash, and little in the way of the concrete underlying structures required to make anything happen. Klinsmann is the only coach who can quit a post via his personal Facebook account after 67 days and still be a perfect fit for his club.
And if you were worried this moment might have sobered up the blue and white side of Berlin, Windhorst recently said he thought Hertha should consider significantly expanding the seating at the new stadium they’re hoping to build. Why invest heaps of cash in a 50,000-seater when they’ll be drawing 90,000 in the Champions League? Consider Hertha Berlin humbled and the lesson learned.
By Dave Braneck @braneck