Bayern 2 Berlin 0

May 17, 2010

SOCCER-GERMANY/As much as Berlin enjoys hosting the German Cup final every year for the badly needed economic stimulus the 75,000 fans bring to the city, watching Bayern Munich celebrate titles on successive Saturdays in Olympiastadion while at the same time knowing their only Bundesliga side, Hertha Berlin, have been banished to the second division might have been just a bit too painful.

Berlin will be the only European capital without even a single club in the top domestic league. It must be hard to imagine Berlin being such a soccer wilderness for those  in places like London, where Chelsea just won a domestic double, or other capitals with stacks of top teams to follow.

Bayern’s 4-0 victory over Werder Bremen on Saturday night was the last time the German capital will see top-flight Bundesliga soccer for another year -– until the 2011 Cup final next May. Sadly for Berlin soccer fans, Hertha’s relegation to the Zweite Liga means there will be no Bundesliga football within about 300 km of the capital. Hamburg and Hanover will the nearest Bundesliga towns next season. In fact, there will be no top-flight soccer anywhere in formerly communist East Germany with Energie Cottbus and Hansa Rostock having gone down in previous years.

This sorry state of affairs is compounded by the fact that Bayern Munich -– from the German city probably most loathed in Berlin, an affluent place that is further removed from the ‘poor but sexy’ capital than anywhere else in the country –- have now celebrated two successive titles on their turf in the last week. That is more silverware than Hertha have managed to collect in the last 80 years. Hertha’s last championship season was in back in 1930/31.

SOCCER-GERMANY/Bayern first danced in triumph in Olympic Stadium when they clinched the Bundesliga title on May 8 by beating Hertha 3-1 (picture on left) and then again seven days later on May 15 they won the German Cup with their easy win over Werder Bremen (top picture). Next Saturday Bayern could make it a treble if they beat Inter Milan in the Champions League final -– which, mercifully, will not be held in Berlin.

“It’s too bad we can’t play the Champions League final here in Berlin too,” said Bayern’s young striker Thomas Mueller. “It’s a great city for celebrating.” Mueller was smiling when he said that and it was probably well-intentioned. But to Berliners it sounded a bit like Schadenfreude. The German capital would rather celebrate a title of their own, for a change, rather than providing the catering for Bayern. 

Hertha, which incredibly enough led the Bundesliga for long spells in 2008/09, were still atop the table after 25 rounds last year. But they slumped late in the season and finished fourth with 63 points, just missing out on the third and final Champions League spot to VfB Stuttgart (64 points) and trailing VfL Wolfsburg (69) and Bayern (67). It’s still hard to fathom how they fell so far, so fast this season.

Yet Hertha’s woes are in many ways a microcosm of Berlin’s post-war struggles as well. Wealth, power and influence all fled Berlin after World War Two and during the Cold War. Very little of that trickled back even after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the city reunited in 1990 and the government moved back to town in 1999. The banks fled too and industrial conglomerates like Siemens went to places like Munich – for good. Berlin, Germany’s largest city with 3.4 million, is also one of its poorest – the unemployment rate is far higher than in other big German cities. And even the Germany international side only rarely play matches in Berlin – unlike most other countries where many of the matches are held in the capitals — although Germany will play Turkey in a Euro 2012 Qualifier in Berlin in October.

It can only be hoped that Hertha’s exile to the second division won’t be long and, like Kaiserslautern showed in 1997/98, winning the Bundesliga in their first year back up is indeed possible. And if not, at least there will be one top-flight match with Bundesliga sides next May when the German Cup comes back to town.

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Thanks for your perspectives both on match day and above. Your piece made me think of the contrast between Hertha’s new reality versus what Red Bull is trying to do in Leipzig. It’s difficult now to see Hertha’s 08-09 success as anything but aberration. But, how much better might a “RB Berlin” have done this season? Perhaps more importantly: would Hertha’s fans have gladly celebrated a spot in European play on the back of energy drink cash or do they go to the 2. Liga disheartened, but with souls proudly intact?

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