Berliners have never had it so good as Bundesliga kicks-off

CHANCELLOR MERKEL lives there, it is the centre of the techno music industry and it’s a trendy city that attracts creatives and media folk alike. Berlin is a great, vibrant and dynamic city, but it has rarely been a centre of football. As unified Germany’s capital, it comes in well behind Munich, Dortmund and other cities as a hub for the beautiful game.

But in 2019-20, Berlin has more Bundesliga clubs than any other German city. Hertha, the under-achieving club from the Olympiastadion, have been joined by Union from Köpenick in the old east.

The last time two teams from Berlin featured in the Bundesliga was in 1976-77, Hertha and Tennis Borussia from the west end of the city having a brief flirtation among the top clubs. Ten years later, Sp Vgg Blau-Weiß made it to the top flight, but by 1992, they were bankrupt.

Hertha have occasionally threatened to do things since they became regular members of the Bundesliga once more, but the top honours continue to elude the capital city’s footballing fraternity. The Olympiastadion has a 74,000 capacity and Hertha struggle to fill it, although they can command close to 50,000 for their home games. This represents a stadium utilisation rate of 64% versus the Bundesliga average of 92%.

The club, which is the last remaining Bundesliga member without its own football ground, is looking to move from a stadium that was built for the 1936 Olympic Games to a privately-funded arena by 2025.

Hertha President, Werner Gegenbauer said the imposing Werner March-designed building is no longer sustainable. “We do not want to carry the drawbacks of an ageing stadium that is too big,” he said.

The proposal for a new stadium has been driven by financial factors as much as the desire to own their own property. Ingo Schiller of the club’s management said at the time of unveiling: “We are forced on economic grounds to look at new building opportunities. Higher capacity ulilisation, higher spectator numbers, greater profitability and more attractive marketing possibilities. Only then we will be able to stay competitive economically and on the pitch.

VfB Eichstaett – Hertha BSC Berlin in the DFB Cup.

Where the new stadium will be located is still open to discussion. The initial plan to build it next to their existing ground has been abandoned after the company that owned the land decided not to sell to the club.

On the field, Hertha have a new coach this season in Ante Covic, who has stepped-up from the reserve team. Covic has Liverpool loanee, Marko Grujic, in midfield, a player who made an impact last season despite being injured for a spell, back for a second spell, while Hertha have also been busy in the market after losing the very useful Valentino Lazaro to Inter.

Hertha have some some promising young players, notably Watford’s Dodi Lukebakio, who scored seven goals in 20 appearances in the Bundesliga for Fortuna Düsseldorf last season, and Germany under-21 international utility player Eduard Löwen from Nuremberg.

Die Alte Dame (the old lady) has a daunting opening fixture, an away game at champions Bayern Munich (Friday August 16), but their Berlin neighbours have an intriguing first Bundesliga match against the controversial RB Leipzig.

Union Berlin became the 56thclub to play in the Bundesliga when they won promotion last season from 2.Bundesliga via a play-off.

Their fans are quite unique and are sure to make their mark in the coming months. They are somewhat anti-establishment and also firmly believe Union is truly “their club”, so much so that they have gone as far as giving their own blood to raise money. When the club needed to make some renovations to maintain its license, the fans donated around 100,000 hours of their time and rolled their sleeves up. There’s no shortage of humour, either. In the 2014 World Cup, they invited fans to bring their sofas to the Stadion an der alten Föresterei to watch the game from the pitch. Over 800 sofas turned up (with their owners) to create a surreal atmosphere.

Coach Urs Fischer, who took Union up in his first season, is a down-to-earth character who doesn’t court publicity or claim to be a showman. His side was extremely hard to beat in 2018-19 and conceded just 33 goals.

Union are moving into a new world, though, one which test their resilience. That’s why they have signed players with Bundesliga track records in order to survive their debut season. Centre back Neven Subotic (Saint-Éttiene), midfielder Christian Gentner (Stuttgart) and striker Anthony Ujah (Mainz) have, between them, almost 700 Bundesliga appearances and experience of fighting relegation.

Union have made two loan players, Hannover’s Manuel Schmiedebach and Marvin Friedrich of Augsburg, permanent and taken Keven Schlotterbeck, a 22 year-old defender from Freiburg on a one-year loan after impressing in a nine-game stint in 2018-19.

The signs are relatively positive for Union as 18 of the last 25 promoted teams have survived their first season. Their stadium will be packed for every game – they averaged over 21,000 last season and that’s virtually a full house. However, the club is aware that many people expect them to go down at the first hurdle. “We can only cause a surprise,” said CEO Oliver Ruhnert. “We need tempo and stability. If we have that combination, we’re convinced we can finish around 15thposition.”

The last Berlin side to be crowned German champions (excluding the old DDR) was Hertha in 1931. Overall, the city of 3.5 million has won the title just five times. It’s unlikely to happen in 2019-20, but it should be a fascinating season for Berlin’s football fans. The two clubs meet on the first weekend in November and late March.

Photos: PA

The Grey Neutral: Who can truly blame Sarri?

CHELSEA may be in the process of being treated in the same way they have dealt with their long stream of managers in the Abramovich era. In other words, Maurizio Sarri has told the club he wants to leave – just one year into his contract. Sarri, of course, ended the season with Champions League qualification and a trophy – his first (and probably only) year at the club has been a success. The fact that he’s decided to return to Italy and join Juventus is a message akin to “up yours” to Chelsea. Can you blame him? There were rumours for months that Chelsea wanted this manager, desired that manager, and that one of their favourite sons, Frank Lampard, was heading back to Stamford Bridge. Sarri didn’t fit the bill, even though his record was just as good as any prior incumbent of the Chelsea ejector seat. For a start, his mere appearance isn’t in keeping with the club’s desired dynamic profile, a half-shaven, balding chain smoker with communication issues. But there was also something mildly lovable about this unassuming character – his reaction to winning a medal was very endearing – who is much smarter and intelligent than most of the people around him. He’s a former banker, coming from an industry that’s every bit as cut-throat as football, although the Italian banking sector is somewhat haphazard. Again, who can deny him the chance of managing Italy’s top club? Chelsea will regret it, I think (and I say this as a 50-year Blues fan) and the romantic illusion of Lampard prematurely getting the job may be as self-destructive as dear old John Hollins being installed in the mid-1980s. The way the fans have reacted to Sarri tells you one thing – that some of the people in the stands now have the same mind-set as those behind the scenes  – in other words, no attention span for building something medium-term. Careful what you wish for!

WHAT is going on with Neymar? Firstly, he has a contretemps with a fan at the Coupe de France final in Paris, admittedly a mouthy supporter handing-out stick to the PSG players, and then he reacts to a nutmeg in training with the Brazilian squad ahead of the Copa America by flooring young Weverton. Anyone who sees audacity and cheek as part of the Brazilian football ethos must have been disappointed – Neymar wasn’t exactly encouraging of his team-mate. Furthermore, and probably more worrying, is the fact Neymar has been accused of rape. Suddenly, he seems a little like a troubled player, could it be that the next stage is a transfer out of Paris? There is plenty of tabloid speculation about Neymar with talk that he wants to leave, denials that he wants to leave and rumours that he doesn’t get on with certain players. The most likely scenario? A pay rise.

BERLIN will have a Bundesliga derby next season after Union Berlin won promotion for the first time. Union will bring something very special to Germany’s top division. Their fans are passionate, the club is a little bit of a cult and it is about time the capital was better represented. A few years ago, I attempted to visit Union and made the trip out to Köpenick to their stadium. But I could not find it! I went into a branch of Deutsche Bank (my employer at the time) and asked for directions, but went in the wrong direction and although I found the social club as I circled back towards the railway station, I couldn’t locate the actual ground. The ground-spotters guide, floodlights, never appeared on my horizon. A couple of years earlier, when I was at a conference and staying at the most chichi hotel in Berlin, the famous Adlon, I arranged to meet a couple of Union fans and they filled me in about the club, their hatred of Dynamo from the old DDR days, and their burning desire to get to the Bundesliga. The club was once in financial difficulty and the fans launched a campaign called “bleeding for Union” in which they sold blood donations to raise money. The Bundesliga will be a richer place for their presence.

Photo: PA