Whether it’s their change of coach, better fitness or a new-found camaraderie, something has transformed Hertha Berlin from a team on the brink of relegation seven months ago to one of the leading lights of German soccer.
While success-starved fans celebrate at seeing their team in third place in the Bundesliga, the players themselves are struggling to pinpoint exactly what has changed.
“Soccer’s a strange sport sometimes,” said midfielder Per Skjelbred, who is also Norway’s captain, after the team concluded their best first half of a season in seven years with three wins in a week.
“Last year we had a lot of big problems and this year most things are going well. It’s a great team but we’re mostly the same players as last year. Go figure that out.”
On course for one of Germany’s three spots in the Champions League with 10 wins and 32 points, the capital-city club have won five of their last six matches and have reached the German Cup quarter-finals.
Their success has delighted Pal Dardai, the down-to-earth former player who took over as coach in February and watched the club escape relegation in May only thanks to a better goal difference than their rivals.
“Everyone’s talking about Hertha these days — from the rubbish collectors to the hairdressers and everyone in between,” Dardai said after Hertha beat Mainz 2-0 on Sunday in the final match ahead of the league’s five-week winter break.
“That’s because of the incredible performance in the first half but we shouldn’t be self-satisfied with that,” added the 39-year-old Dardai, who became the club’s sixth coach in six years. “We’ve got to keep working hard. If we were to get satisfied with our situation now, then we’d have a problem.”
Dardai, who until July was also coaching Hungary, has been given the lion’s share of the credit for getting the most out of his available talent but he waves off the accolades, praising instead his players for their hard work and his training staff.
His gruelling pre-season conditioning regime, spearheaded by two fitness trainers, drew complaints from the players at the time but everyone raves about it now.
“Our fitness is superior. It’s the most important thing,” said Dardai, who was a fearless midfielder and hard-working favourite of Hertha’s “Ostkurve” fans. “Being in top shape radiates all the way into your brain.”
Hertha have been especially strong at home, picking up six of their 10 wins in the Olympia Stadium. They last played in the Champions League in the 1999/2000 season and have never won the Bundesliga.
Hertha, who trail only Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, are three points ahead of Borussia Moenchengladbach and five ahead of both Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke 04. VfL Wolfsburg are one point further back in the race for a top-three finish and automatic entry into next season’s Champions League.
Berlin is one of the few capitals of a major nation without a club that plays regularly in, or even challenges for, a spot in Europe’s Champions League.
In part, that is because of a lingering weakness in the economy in Berlin, a once-divided city that was long trapped as an island of democracy behind the Iron Curtain and is now one of Germany’s cheapest big cities.
Hertha’s players say they have gelled as a unit this season, after struggling a year ago.
“We play together as a team, we play a good partnership up front, we play a good partnership in midfield and we play a good partnership in defence,” said Ivory Coast and former Chelsea striker Salomon Kalou, who scored his ninth goal of the season against Mainz.
Kalou, who came to Berlin at the start of last season but scored just six goals in 27 matches then, told Reuters he was feeling more comfortable and confident this term, after spending time away last year helping Ivory Coast to win the African Nations Cup.
“This season I’ve had the time to work more with my team mates, to get to know them better and spend more time with them,” he said. “We have a good connection now.”
Kalou’s partner up front is Vedad Ibisevic, a 31-year-old international with more than 70 caps for Bosnia who started his career as a teenager in Major League Soccer.
Asked for his take on Hertha’s new-found success, Ibisevic, one of the few transfers to come to Berlin at the start of the season, said: “It’s difficult to summarise all the reasons.
“We were all able to go beyond our limits,” he told Reuters. “We noticed in the first half of the season that we went beyond the boundaries. It was an amazing first half but we all know that we need to keep pushing hard.”
A better-organised defence has helped. After conceding 38 goals in 19 games under Dardai last season, Hertha have allowed in only 14 in 16 matches so far this season.
Skjelbred, though, came back to the question of cohesion in his analysis.
“We’ve got a great group of guys,” he said simply. “Everyone on the team can play and socially we all get along as well.”