8 May ~ Tomorrow afternoon, Hertha Berlin's match with Bayern Munich on the final day of the Bundesliga offers a huge contrast in fortunes. The visiting club will be crowned champions, while the home supporters will try their best to enjoy the final top-flight match at the giant Olympiastadion for at least a year. Hertha's 1-0 win over Hannover on the opening day way back in August stands as their solitary home victory all season and their 13-year stay amongst Germany's elite was brought to an end with last weekend's draw at Leverkusen. That left them four points off Bochum and Nuremberg at the bottom of the league and unable to reach the relegation play-offs.
It is a remarkable dip after the team's strong title challenge last season. That tilt was ironically built upon their imperious home form, which included ten straight wins in the spring before they eventually fell short. So what happened? Well, firstly, the team lost its source of goals which drove them so close to success. Without the free-scoring partnership of Andriy Voronin, who rejoined Liverpool after his loan spell, and popular Serb Marko Pantelic, who fell out with then-manager Lucien Favre and joined Ajax on a free transfer (and has since scored 23 goals in his first season in Amsterdam), Hertha have plundered a meagre nine goals at home this season. Secondly, the club was unable to replace them. An ominous season ahead loomed when Favre warned he wouldn't be able "to spend a single cent to buy new players".
The long-serving Croatian defender Josip Simunic was sold in the summer to aid the club's crippling debt and the team picked up just six points before the winter break. Captain Arne Friedrich pledged his strong-willed commitment to the cause, but others were less willing. A bid to resign Voronin in January failed because, as his agent put it: "Hertha are almost in Bundesliga II, Andriy does not want to be part of a relegation dogfight." Worryingly, his reluctance to dig in was shared by one of their existing players. Czech goalkeeper Jaroslav Drobny told reporters that "in the case we get relegated, I will only be interested in playing for a top-flight team". Hardly the determined, "in it together" attitude Hertha's supporters would have appreciated. They cracked after a stoppage-time defeat to Nuremberg in March, storming the pitch, destroying the dugouts and earning the club an unwelcome €50,000 (£43,000) fine.
Perhaps it is easiest to put Hertha's collapse simply down to the often unpredictable nature of the Bundesliga. This is illustrated by Hoffenheim's success after promotion last season and, more relevantly, when Bayer Leverkusen were so nearly relegated 12 months after reaching the Champions League final and finishing a point behind title-winners Bayern in 2002. As such, Hertha's second half of the season included 3-0 victories at Hannover and Freiburg and an inexplicable 5-1 rout at defending champions Wolfsburg, in which on-loan Theofanis Gekas scored a hat-trick. The Greek forward, joint-top goalscorer in World Cup qualifying, has netted six of the 20 goals that Hertha have notched since Christmas, but this hasn't been enough to save them. The future of the eighth Hertha coach is as many years, Friedhelm Funkel, who replaced Favre early in the season, remains unclear .
The Bundesliga will stand apart from the other major European leagues next season as the only one without a representative from its capital. Instead the Alte Dame will play second-level derbies against FC Union Berlin, who were the inaugural champions of Germany's third professional tier in 2009. Their supervisory chairman Antonio Hurtado recently dispelled any notion of rivalry between the clubs and, on behalf of the fans, eagerly anticipates two memorable fixtures in next year's calendar. Hertha's supporters are unlikely to share this positive outlook. Christopher Towers