BERLIN, Germany — It would be wrong to say that Berlin’s main soccer team, Hertha BSC, has been a total failure this season — it still has a foothold in Germany’s top league, if just barely after a disastrous start.
But, the team has been displaying a head-scratching lack of will, refusing to fight for opportunities and not seizing the ones that it’s been handed. There’s no doubt that the team’s myriad problems are magnified considerably by the optimism with which its fans begin every soccer season, and the wary respect with which the rest of the country had been eyeing the team before this season in particular. With a fourth place finish last year, Hertha was not long ago encouraging the very same high hopes that it now seems so intent on dashing.
And in that way, Hertha has much in common with its host city, Berlin. Ever since the Wall crumbled and Berlin was reunified 20 years ago, and especially since the German parliament agreed to return the seat of government from the sleepy West German town of Bonn to the country’s pre-World War II capital, Germany had developed enticing visions of what Berlin could and should become.
Talk was rampant of Germany again having a “world city,” a metropolis that could consolidate the diverse strengths of the country’s regional hubs. Capitalizing on its history and geography as a bridge to eastern Europe, Berlin would soon return to its pre-war heyday and soon enough compete with Paris, London and New York for cultural, economic and political influence.
Today’s reality is far from that vision. In this 20th anniversary year, Berlin finds itself a city in bankruptcy, with persistent unemployment far higher than the national average and hundreds of thousands living on government assistance. Neither side of the formerly divided city took kindly to capitalism’s shock treatment: Both West and East Berlin had been recipients of massive subsidies from their respective countries that were abruptly cut off after Germany set other post-unification priorities, under the assumption that Berlin would be able to take care of itself.
Instead, the native industries either went bankrupt or moved away after the subsidies did, while the other jobs stayed put wherever they were — finance jobs in Frankfurt, media in Hamburg, high tech in Munich. Berlin was left with evidence of its own hubris in reams of empty housing that had been built for the waves of anticipated newcomers who never showed up. In recent months, the city has even shown a disheartening talent for fumbling one of its own strongest assets, namely, transportation infrastructure. First, the city government had the historic inner-city Tempelhof airport shut down before having a credible idea about what to do with the evacuated facilities.
For many, the last straw was when the intra-city public transportation S-Bahn rail ground to a halt after it was discovered the trains had faulty brakes. With thousands of residents of the city unable to commute to work or fulfill their daily routines, Berliners began to wonder whether the chaos they were experiencing was somehow more than incidental — whether the city, fundamentally, didn’t yet have its act together.
That clarifying catastrophe on the S-Bahn rails had a simultaneous analogue on the Hertha soccer field, an incident when Hertha’s momentously inferior play finally compelled Germans to ask whether the soccer team’s weaknesses weren’t merely a small part of a larger failure.
The play in question occurred during the second half of a recent home game when Hertha’s goalkeeper Sascha Burchert, with a look of determination on his face, stormed out of the penalty area — where he is allowed to use his hands — to ward off a long ball. It was a high-risk decision, a fact attested to by the look of repressed uncertainty on Burchert’s face.
Burchert quickly paid for his hopefulness: The ball went from his head directly to the foot of an opposing Hamburg player, who lobbed it over Burchert into the empty goal he had left behind. All in all, it was a play that combined bad luck and ineptitude in a way that conveniently fit the tragic story that last-place Hertha has been writing for itself this season — until, that is, the exact same thing happened 80 seconds later. Burchert left the penalty area, headed the ball, and watched as it lobbed over him into the goal, repeating as farce what had just been tragedy. At that point, something else seemed definitely to be at work, something that escaped the bounds of standard sports metaphors.
As it stands, it looks like Hertha will be relegated out of the country’s main league at the conclusion of this season, made to host small regional clubs instead of the country’s proud franchises, such as Bayern Munich and FC Koeln. Fans may have thought they were above such uncertainties, given the club’s external trappings: It is based in the country’s capital, playing in one of the country’s largest, most iconic stadiums, Olympic Stadium. Now, the tabloids are speculating that the team’s unsightly showing on the field is indeed related to the city’s benighted history: Olympic Stadium, after all, was built at the behest of Adolf Hitler.
Ultimately, the soccer club, like the city at large, is suffering from a crisis of identity. Hertha has tried to cobble together its personality from disparate sources — starting the season with a graceful, multilingual coach from Switzerland, a few flashy players bought from abroad, and some rough-necked local talent — but the result is less than the sum of its parts. Berlin’s city government has likewise been unable to settle on a coherent strategy for economic success. Sometimes, the city seems to want to embrace the arts and culture; other times, it wants to attract entrepreneurs, or top academic talent. Sometimes it encourages modern architects to come in to build; then, it commits to spend billions of euros it doesn’t have to restore an old Prussian palace in the center of the city. Given the lack of a clear path out of the economic doldrums, many Berliners seem content to embrace Mayor Klaus Wowereit’s assessment that the city is destined to be “poor, but sexy.”
What makes Berlin’s plight all the more painful is the fact that, like its major soccer team, the city has clear examples of how things might be different. Cities like Vienna and Warsaw have benefited greatly from the fall of the Iron Curtain; meanwhile, other cities in eastern Germany have fallen into disrepair. Hertha, appropriately enough, also has a couple of close-to-home counter-examples for its disastrous season: The upstart Berlin Union, a small club from the former East Berlin, is atop the country’s second league, and seems poised to enter the top league, swapping places with Hertha. Then there’s Berlin Dynamo, the former East Berlin team that had been supported by the Stasi security services, and now plays in the bottom-scraping fourth league, with a fan base comprised significantly of neo-Nazis.
Hertha, much like the rest of Berlin 20 years after the fall of the Wall, finds itself taking stock. It would prefer to match Union’s spirit, but it fears descending into Dynamo’s unruliness and terminal decline.